Opinion

Matthew d’Ancona: The president-elect’s speech

Monday 9 November 2020

Welcome words of healing and unity, but Biden faces an uphill struggle


As Lyndon Johnson’s acclaimed biographer, Robert Caro, has observed: “Power reveals – it doesn’t always reveal you for the better, but it reveals.”

By the time Joe Biden took to the stage in Wilmington, Delaware, on Saturday night, he was already exhibiting the transformative impact of power: he was already different.

Where had this surge of energy and presence come from? Officially and in the first instance, from the electorate, of course, who had awarded him the largest popular vote ever achieved in a presidential election; this, remember, in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

But the true gatekeepers to Biden’s presidency were the networks, specifically at the moment on Thursday night when ABC, CBS and NBC cut off President Trump’s deranged rant about alleged voter fraud.

He who lives by media, dies by media. The reality television host who made it to the White House by treating politics as a branch of the entertainment industry was, in the end, deposed because he had committed the cardinal sin of the entertainment world: he had become a bore, an embarrassment, old news. And like so many failed autocrats, Trump took refuge in a bunker; in his case, the bunker on one of his golf courses.

As Lyndon Johnson’s acclaimed biographer, Robert Caro, has observed: “Power reveals – it doesn’t always reveal you for the better, but it reveals.”

By the time Joe Biden took to the stage in Wilmington, Delaware, on Saturday night, he was already exhibiting the transformative impact of power: he was already different.

Where had this surge of energy and presence come from? Officially and in the first instance, from the electorate, of course, who had awarded him the largest popular vote ever achieved in a presidential election; this, remember, in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

But the true gatekeepers to Biden’s presidency were the networks, specifically at the moment on Thursday night when ABC, CBS and NBC cut off President Trump’s deranged rant about alleged voter fraud.

He who lives by media, dies by media. The reality television host who made it to the White House by treating politics as a branch of the entertainment industry was, in the end, deposed because he had committed the cardinal sin of the entertainment world: he had become a bore, an embarrassment, old news. And like so many failed autocrats, Trump took refuge in a bunker; in his case, the bunker on one of his golf courses.

On the stage in Wilmington, precisely the opposite was happening to Biden – a few days shy of his 78th birthday, 32 years after his first presidential campaign (for perspective, the New York congresswoman and rising star of the Left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, hadn’t been born in 1988). The president-elect, so often dismissed during the campaign as doddery, past-it, even suffering from early onset dementia, was a force of nature, suddenly and visibly invigorated by the daunting task ahead of him and the vice president-elect, Kamala Harris.

The oratory was not lyrical or even especially original. The speech began with the down-home intimacy of a family cook-out (“I see my buddy Tom, Senator Tom Carper, down there … is that Ruth Ann? And that’s former Governor Ruth Ann Minner”).

And then Biden proceeded to raid the rhetorical larder without compunction. From Martin Luther King (who was himself borrowing from the 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Parker), he took the phrase “arc of the moral universe”, observing that it was, once again, bending “toward justice”.

“It’s time for our better angels to prevail,” he said – an explicit homage to Lincoln. And he recycled, in only slightly modified form, a trope made famous by Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “I pledge to be a president,” Biden said, “who seeks not to divide but unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States.”

It was plagiarism – of the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, for God’s sake – that did for his 1988 presidential bid. But this was not plagiarism. It was overt citation, designed to reassure his audience in America and around the world that the presidency was once again to be moored in the traditions of the republic, rather than the demented caprice of a pathological narcissist.

More striking still was the sheer intensity with which Biden delivered his victory speech – a fierce reproach to those who have said during the campaign that he is simply too depleted for what lies ahead, a placeholder president at best.

In our age of instant gratification and goldfish attention span, the virtues of stamina and patience are rarely praised. But Biden’s speech, in form and content, was a hymn to both. As he occasionally faltered over this or that syllable or consonant, one was reminded that the formative experience of his youth was a crippling stammer.

Consider this recollection of Biden’s childhood from Richard Ben Cramer’s classic account of the 1988 presidential race, What It Takes:

“And in class, he read about Demosthenes, who made himself the greatest orator of his day by putting pebbles in his mouth and declaiming to the sea, above the roar of the waves. So Joey Biden, of Wilson Road, would stand outside at the wall of his house… and with stones in his mouth, he’d try to read aloud, until he could read that page without a miss, and then he’d go to the next page, and the next… until it was the book in one hand and a flashlight in the other.”

Historians continue to bicker over the speech impediment that helped to form Churchill’s unique cadences (lisp or stutter?) – a problem he shared with George VI, glancingly referred to in the Oscar-winning movie The King’s Speech. Ed Balls, the former Shadow Chancellor, has written movingly of the therapy he sought for his stammer in his forties. Biden’s speech disorder has long enabled him to help others with the same condition.

In this case, however – at this particular moment – it has a much sharper significance, giving depth to his humanity as a prospective leader. The president-elect’s cruel experience of personal tragedy, most recently the loss of his beloved son Beau (to whom he referred in Saturday’s speech) has undoubtedly helped him empathise with those who have been bereaved by Covid-19. He has spoken often of “the empty chairs at dining room tables all across the country, which just months ago were filled by loved ones”; communicating an emotional intelligence that would not be so conspicuous had it not been so lacking in Trump’s response to the death of 238,000 Americans.

Indeed, the president’s own experience of coronavirus compounded his Darwinian approach to the illness. “Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it,” he said on 5 October after his return to the White House from hospital – as though, in his dilapidated imagination, those Americans who had succumbed to coronavirus did so because they were weak and fearful.

Rarely has a nation so needed a leader unafraid of his own vulnerabilities, whose life story is a parable in coping with adversity, seeking solace from others, and committing to the long haul. After four years of bombast, bragging and solipsism, it really is time for a change.

I think Trump intuited much more quickly than Biden’s own party that he was the Democrat who could bring him down: remember, he risked all by linking military aid to Ukraine to a request that President Volodymyr Zelensky initiate investigations into the Democrat contender and his son, Hunter. As a consequence, Trump was impeached – acquitted, yes, but at considerable political cost.

Today, and for a while to come, Biden will look indestructible. He is already convening a coronavirus task force and – though disgracefully impeded by Trump’s own team, which is not cooperating with the transition – beginning the work of key appointments to his administration. He and Harris bestride the planet.

Compare and contrast the grotesque spectacle of Rudy Giuliani – pathetically reduced from the formidable mayor who guided New York City through the aftermath of 9/11 – standing in a shabby lot at Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia, sweatily abusing the press and issuing wild claims about electoral fraud.

Even as he denounced the “hateful biases” of the reporters and declared the city to be one “in which voter fraud is professional”, you could feel power draining from the Trump regime. A five-year adventure in delusional populism that started with the Great Orange Hope descending the golden escalator at Trump Tower fizzled out on Saturday in a car park, between a sex shop and a crematorium.

You would need a heart of stone not to laugh. But – as you do – remember that, even as Trump’s presidency dies, a grand betrayal myth is being forged for the 71 million Americans who voted for his re-election: a narrative of electoral impropriety, Democratic corruption, media bias, coastal elites, and “Deep State” collusion that is designed to make sense of what has happened and what lies ahead.

The president’s non-compliance with the usual rules of orderly transition is outrageous. But it is also entirely consistent with the populist play-book. It is essential to Trump and to the inheritors of Trumpism that those 71 million believe with ever greater conviction that they were robbed, and that the 2020 election was invalid. Giuliani’s ravings are only the start of something much sleeker and more menacing to come.

A warning of those gathering clouds – subconscious or otherwise – was etched into the president-elect’s speech. In one of its most powerful passages, Biden declared that “we have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies. They are Americans.”

This was a clear homage to Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address in March 1861: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” What is often forgotten about those words, taken out of context, is that they were spoken on the eve of conflict, not in its wake.

They were a plea, not a celebration. And Lincoln’s hopes did not prevail: on 12 April, Confederates stormed Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay, triggering civil war.

It is not enough to hope for healing and unity: they are invariably hard-won. The president-elect’s speech on Saturday was, indeed, quite something. But the hard part starts today.