Hunted Biden: The First Presidential Debate Disaster

Screenshot from NBC News Livestream

It was cruel.  Sinister cruel.  While Donald Trump was always going to relish the chance to be not only economical with the truth but simply inventive about it, Joe Biden, current Commander in Chief of the United States, leader of the self-described Free World, seemed a vanishing shadow, longing for soft slippers and the fireplace with cocoa, a case of comfort rather than the battling rage of politics.

It need never have happened, and certainly not so early.  But the earliest-ever US Presidential election debate, held even before both candidates had been formally confirmed at their party conventions, did much to puncture Biden and hold Trump afloat in odd boosts of credibility.  The media were at hand to glory in the matter and taste the morsels of slaughter.  NBC News was aghast at the president, who “seemingly struggled even to talk, mostly summing a weak, raspy voice.  In the opening minutes, he repeatedly tripped over his words, misspoke and lost his train of thought.”

There was much in the way of stumbling, incoherence, and immaturity – just the sort of thing we need for a White House occupant.  Biden mumbled nonsensically at several points, trawling his shattered memory for some reference to Covid before claiming that, “We finally beat Medicare.”  It soon became routine to expect mangled figures and fantasy mathematics.  (The claim that the Biden administration had created 15,000 jobs, for instance; or the number of trillionaires in the United States.)  At some point, it became clear that the fetishised fact checkers were out of a job, if for no reason that both candidates were proving loose with their figures.

At stages, this left Trump, his predatory instinct aroused by a limping animal, able to land a stinging jab or two.  “I don’t know if he knows what he said either.”  At intervals, as Trump spoke, Biden seemed to vanish into a canyon of stricken vacancy, possibly struggling to recall the talking points his aides had stocked him with over the last few days along with the necessary medications to fuel him.  This was elder abuse as a gladiatorial sport, your grandfather abused on live television.

The only time when some balance was restored was the issue of the respective golf handicaps of the debaters. Biden’s claim that he had a handicap of 6 in golf received the predictable sneer from his opponent: “I’ve seen your swing.”  Here, the world’s most prominent superpower could be reduced to two elderly men talking about a sport described as being a good walk spoilt.  Priorities were confirmed.

An army of the delusional and deluded have come out with the “truthful” defence on Biden’s part.  Forget the competence of the leader, focus on the inner gold of a supposedly good character.  Regrettably for those who believe veracity is important in politics, except when it isn’t, this is unlikely to go far.  Debates are shows of tedious pomp, displays, projecting a false sense of hot air authority.  Biden failed on all counts; Trump could at least muster a semblance of it, his lies embroidered by a passable confidence.

This is not to say that the physically and mentally feeble have evaded White House occupancy.  Presidential history is marked by cerebral infirmity and physical enervation.  What matters is election, the great electoral con.  John F. Kennedy, despite being murderously cut down at the age of 46, was ruined in body.  These are the less than flattering words from Christopher Hitchens in a scathing review of Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life in the Times Literary Supplement (Aug 22, 2003): “In addition to being a moral defective and a political disaster, John Kennedy was a physical and probably mental also-ran for most of his presidency.”  He was a walking pharmacopeia in office, mortality always more than a threatening suggestion.

Another disaster is also proof than the infirm can still find their way through campaign, ballot box and office.  Ronald Reagan may have been celebrated as the master communicator during his presidency, saddled with the grave responsibility of bringing the Cold War to its eventual end.  He also tolerated the superstitious interventions of his wafer thin wife on policy, curated through the medium of the astrologer Joan Quigley even as his own mind was taking a lengthy, eventually permanent sabbatical in the realm of dementia.  Biden, to put it simply, may still have some room to survive.  The question is: can he?

Democratic strategists, at least those reeling from the tingling shock of a cold bath, understood the implications.  Others preferred an elaborate ostrich act crowned by sycophantic reassurance.  Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina was admirably spineless in telling Biden to “Stay the course.”  That said, the sages had already given ample warnings before the debate.

The enchantingly shrill James Carville (mad, bad and dangerous to ignore) had warned about the risk posed by Biden’s age to electoral hopes.  Julian Epstein, former Chief Counsel to the US House Judiciary Committee and Staff Director to the House Oversight Committee Democrats, excoriated his party for revealing “their own kind of cowardice in refusing to say that President Biden shouldn’t run for re-election.”  The party faithful and apparatchiks were defiant: such criticism was ageist.  They had their man.

The choice, as things stand, is for a person weak of mind insisting that he is safer for the US and the world while “knowing how to tell the truth” over a man who remains estranged from the truth, guilty of 34 felony counts for falsifying business accounts, and trumpets the winding back of US global commitments.  It left such admirers as Alastair Campbell, former communications chief for British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, mournful: Russia’s Vladimir Putin; China’s Xi Jinping, and the Islamic Republic of Iran would be stifling sobs of joy.

It’s a striking nightmare, throwing the Republic’s politics into sharp relief, taking the shine off a system Americans regard as sacred, exportable and relevant to the globe.  A more sober reading is that political reality has bitten, leaving Hunted Biden to barely escape the slaughter, permitting an alternative to be selected before it’s too late.  The question for the Democrats will involve allowing Biden to gracefully withdraw or take himself and his entire entourage to the electoral grave.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: