Biden’s mental decline was like a dark family secret for many elite supporters

Biden’s mental decline was like a dark family secret for many elite supporters

Olivia Nuzzi reports:

President Joe Biden walked before a row of flags and took his place at a lectern stamped with the presidential seal. A few feet in front of him, thin panes of teleprompter glass, programmed with prewritten remarks, were positioned to meet his stare as he spoke into a microphone that would carry his voice through a soundsystem. His White House press secretary looked on. So did several senior White House officials. Anxiety clung to the humid summer air. What the president was about to say might determine the future of his presidency and perhaps the Republic itself.

Yet this was not to be some grand pronouncement about war or peace or a shift in domestic policy. He was not delivering an official address or even a rally speech. He was not onstage in a stadium or auditorium or perched on a platform in a gilded government or hotel ballroom. He was not speaking to a crowd of thousands or even hundreds. There would be no video of his statement carried live to the world. There would be no photos. And there would be no published audio.

In a tent on the backyard patio of a private home in suburban New Jersey, the president was eye to eye with a small group of powerful Democrats and rich campaign donors, trying to reassure them that he was not about to drop dead or drop out of the presidential race.

The content of his speech would matter less than his perceived capacity to speak coherently at all, though much of what he would say would not be entirely decipherable. His words as always had a habit of sliding into a rhetorical pileup, an affliction that had worsened in the four years since he began running for president for the third time in 2020. He might begin a sentence loud and clear and then, midway through, sound as if he was trying to recite two or three lines all at once, his individual words and syllables dissolving into an incoherent gurgle.

Still, he was fine, he told the donors. Old, sure. But fine. He was here, wasn’t he? Things were actually going well by the numbers. The polls looked good. The money looked good. They were looking right at him. He looked pretty good for 81, no? Really, folks! And what choice did they have? As he liked to say, “As my father liked to say: Joey, don’t compare me to the almighty; compare me to the alternative.” In total, his remarks would last for exactly ten minutes — long enough to inspire confidence in his abilities, advisers hoped, but not so long that he was at increased risk of calling those abilities further into question.

As always with this president, the production surrounding any public appearance — even if it was semi-private — came down to timing and control. He could not spend too much time out in the wild, and the circumstances in which he could exist in such an environment with so many wobbly variables would need to be managed aggressively. According to rules set by the White House, the traveling protective pool — the rotating group of reporters, run by the White House Correspondents’ Association, that trails a sitting president to provide constant coverage of his movements for the press corps — would be permitted limited access to observe his remarks before being whisked away from the reception, or “wrangled,” in communications parlance, and held elsewhere on the property (in a guest house, where somebody tuned an old television set to Real Time With Bill Maher).

Obsessive efforts to control Biden were not a new phenomenon. But whereas in the last campaign, the incredible stagecraft surrounding even the smallest Biden event — speaking to a few people at a union hall in rural Iowa, say, or in a barn in New Hampshire — seemed to be about avoiding the so-called gaffes that had become for him inevitable, the stagecraft of the 2024 campaign seems now to be about something else. The worry is not that Biden will say something overly candid, or say something he didn’t mean to say, but that he will communicate through his appearance that he is not really there. [Continue reading…]

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