Trump is too old and incited a coup. Biden is too old and mixes up names. America, how to choose? – The Guardian
The special counsel has put the president’s memory in the spotlight, but if we’re talking about amnesia: 6 January, anyone?
To the US, where one likely candidate for the presidency delivers hour-long rambling speeches in which he explains that he’s going to be a dictator, but all the chat is about whether the other candidate has lost his marbles. And yes, let me pre-emptively apologise, because I can already tell that we will only be on about the third paragraph of this column before I have exhausted the Guardian’s approved list of euphemisms for being a couple of world leaders’ names short of a full set.
Anyway, our business today is with the president, Joe Biden, who called an impromptu press conference on Thursday night in which he hotly insisted that his memory was just fine. The occasion was the publication of a justice department report that cleared Biden of criminal charges over his handling of highly classified materials. This year-long investigation was carried out by special counsel Robert Hur, who happens to be a registered Republican, and whose report specifically mentions the president’s “significantly limited” memory. Mr Hur says that part of the reason he didn’t bring charges was that “at trial, Mr Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” Oh dear. A real muffin-basket of an attack-line gifted to Donald Trump there, and confirmation of my long-held conviction that fake sympathy is far deadlier a tone than open attack.
Biden had almost left the stage last night when he returned to the podium to take a question on the Israel-Gaza conflict, in which he unfortunately referred to the Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as “the Mexican president”. On the one hand, this was always going to happen just at the moment he was insisting his memory was great, just as it is a truth universally acknowledged that people correcting someone else’s grammar or spelling will normally involuntarily commit some howler of their own in the process. Call it the pedants’ curse – or indeed, the pedant’s curse.
On the other hand … oh dear. According to polling, Biden’s age and cognitive glitches are his biggest vulnerability with voters. As for his likely opponent, for my armchair diagnosis, the most terrifying thing about Donald Trump is that he is completely sane (unless you count advanced narcissism, which I suppose we have to these days). But Trump is a mere three years younger than Biden, often walks with a wobble, and himself recently confused Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi in a rant. So is it fair that the one should face infinitely more scrutiny on the lost-plot front than the other?
Alas, fairness isn’t one of the base notes of political life. I’m afraid we could be dealing with Ye Olde Vibes Theory of Politics (est 2022), which holds that the feels-based way in which a politician presents is more important than such trivialities as the facts or their record. Listen – I don’t make the rules. But during the first 2022 Conservative leadership contest in the UK, remainer Liz Truss presented as more Brexity to the party grassroots than leaver Rishi Sunak. Why? Vibes. Just … vibes.
The vibes on Biden’s seniority are not great. Yes, he has led his country’s exceptional and internationally envied economic recovery from the pandemic, so the large rational part of me judges that unfair. But another part of me, perhaps the irrational, can no longer watch any Biden speech or address without picturing his aides also watching backstage, mainlining cortisol, every fibre of their brace-positioned beings willing him to get over the line without making any unforced errors – and to then exit the stage without trying to use a flag as a door.
I’m sure this is complete fantasy and the only cortisol levels going through the roof are my own. Nevertheless: vibes. Can’t fight ’em. I remember my heart feeling similarly in my mouth during the aforementioned Tory leadership contest when runaway favourite Truss walked the wrong way off stage after her campaign launch. Did I think Liz Truss literally wasn’t even up to finding her way off a stage? Of course not. Rationally, I knew it was just a silly mistake, of the sort that all of us make every day. At the same time, the irrational half of me felt the satisfying click of the right key turning in the lock. I knew that Liz Truss metaphorically wasn’t even up to finding her way off a stage. There was some kind of ineffable psychological truth to it all that was far more powerful than the facts.
As someone who believes the likely Republican candidate is hideously, overwhelmingly worse, I fear that Joe Biden is gearing up for a gruelling election at precisely this vibes-based disadvantage. Both he and Trump are at the stage of life when sensible ordinary people find the strength to turn to their families and ask: be honest, should I still be driving? Yet Trump’s great power is defying rationality, like some dark lord of the vibes. He is possessed of a mesmerising ability to make every single thing feel like it is playing into his hands, which is why we now all watch news reports of various criminal charges being brought against him and go, “Oh this’ll play well for him”. Will it? And if so, why should it? Who really knows, but the vibes say so.
After the last time I touched on the gerontocracy in these pages, the Guardian printed three letters from older male readers under the headline, What’s age got to do with it, Marina Hyde? Ageism was mentioned, with one of the correspondents advancing details of how he spent his days, as an argument against what we might kindly have termed my own argument about when big hitters should leave the professional stage. Now, no one more than me welcomes a good bollocking on the letters page, and all the three men were very nice about the rest of my output. Thank you!
However. At the risk of drawing further correspondence, I feel I still have to hold to the position that being president of the United States is not the same as “writing, teaching, and volunteering in a residential home”, and is a job for a younger man than either Biden and Trump. Not a younger woman, of course – that would be genuinely insane in the strictest clinical sense of the term. But younger than 86 at conclusion of office. So I end this column with a challenge: if any readers of this newspaper are able to get to the end of the lengthy forthcoming US election campaign and think it showcased a vibrant, healthy and sprightly democracy, then I urge them to write in on 6 November, and suggest mandatory retirement for me.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist