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Jonathan Bernstein commentary: Stop smearing Biden’s mental capacity

Summary: But the smears? Consider this a bit of media literacy education: Presidents have to be in public constantly, and their every move and word and facial expression is recorded, and that means that there’s more than enough fodder to “prove” almost any narrative to sympathetic audiences predisposed to believe the worst. With Biden, it’s cognitive impairment; with George W. Bush, it was stupidity; with Bill Clinton, it was deviousness. Don’t fall for it.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Canyon Moon Ranch festival grounds on Jan. 15, 2022, in Florence, Arizona.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Canyon Moon Ranch festival grounds on Jan. 15, 2022, in Florence, Arizona.
Mario Tama/Getty Images/TNS
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Former President Donald Trump managed to mangle the name of a candidate he endorsed during a rally over the weekend. In the Ohio Senate Republican primary race, Trump endorsed the author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance over (among others) former state Treasurer Josh Mandel and proclaimed, “We’ve endorsed J.P., right? J.D. Mandell.”

So what does that tell us about Trump? Easy answer: Absolutely nothing.

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It does, however, remind us of something important about presidential candidates (including former presidents doing candidate-like things) and presidents: Anyone who has cameras on them every time they are in public is going to be caught in flubs and awkward moments.

I bring this up mainly because of one of the many ugly things that’s happened during Joe Biden’s presidency: The smear that he’s lost it — that he’s cognitively impaired. It’s a frequent explicit refrain within Republican-aligned media, and quite a few Republican politicians, Trump included, have repeated it. I don’t know quite how common the belief in it is among Republican voters, but judging from my reader mail, many of them treat it as simply a well-known fact that the U.S. president is barely able to function.

As bad as smearing the mental capacity of political opponents is — and I do think this is the worst I’ve ever seen it — it’s not new, and it’s not a case where only Republicans are guilty. Many Democrats thought Trump, another aging politician, had serious cognitive deficits, just as they had believed Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan were stupid. Republicans believed that President Barack Obama was so stupid that he was incapable of functioning without a teleprompter (despite the obvious fact that Obama was constantly seen in public giving perfectly cogent statements without one).

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Vice presidents get the same treatment, including the current No. 2 Kamala Harris and former Vice President Dan Quayle, neither of whom had a reputation for being morons before they ran for high office. Because they were not morons. The “evidence” in each of these cases was made up in large part of video clips similar to Trump’s mangled Ohio Senate endorsement line. It’s true that some politicians collect more of those than others, but anyone at the presidential-candidate level generates enough to make a bogus case that they’re incapable of functioning, especially given that political rivals have a habit of collecting and reusing the clips.

This doesn’t mean that presidents shouldn’t be held to account for substantive mistakes. Reagan had an unfortunate habit of telling invented stories as if they were true, and was hard to correct once he added one of those tall tales to his repertoire. Trump … oh, where to begin? After seven years of being president and running for president, Trump still butchers basic facts and concepts about virtually every public policy domain while rarely giving evidence that he knows better. Biden? He’s always had a problem with shooting off his mouth — blurting out what’s on his mind whether it’s well-considered or not. He’s probably better now than he was in the 1980s, but it still happens.

None of that has anything to do with reaching clumsily for a word, or getting a date or name wrong, or looking briefly confused. Those are all unremarkable things that all humans do. But most of us aren’t on camera constantly, and even when we are, few of us have anyone scouring the tapes looking to “prove” there’s something wrong with us.

Biden is 79, and looks it. His stutter has worsened. (Some Republicans have claimed the stutter is some sort of latter-day fiction, but it’s been written about throughout Biden’s career, including in Richard Ben Cramer’s brilliant book, “What It Takes,” about Biden and five other 1988 presidential candidates. The slurs on this topic are particularly cruel, not just to Biden but to all who suffer from difficulty speaking).

But Biden is also constantly in meetings with members of Congress (including Republicans), military leaders and independent civil servants, interest group and party leaders, governors and mayors, and foreign leaders of friendly and unfriendly nations. To believe that he is impaired requires a belief in a massive conspiracy, in many cases against interest, by thousands of people.

In fact, we know what would happen. We’ve seen people talking to reporters about their suspicions that California Senator Dianne Feinstein is no longer capable of serving. Nor is that the first time we’ve seen similar concerns about other politicians in trouble, with examples from behind closed doors, show up in print. And all we have to do to find embarrassing stories of presidential behavior leaking out from foreign summits, meetings with congressional leaders and even White House staff is to go back to Trump’s presidency, where rarely a week went by without some such reporting. If there was a real problem, we might not be certain about it — but we would have real evidence.

This doesn’t mean that Biden should be above criticism. For example, his statement about Ukraine on Friday was pretty listless, although he perked up once he started answering questions from the press. It’s also fair to discuss whether voters should hold age against Biden (and Trump, and Hillary Clinton when she ran in 2016). The presidency is a brutal burden, and while older politicians are rightly eligible, there’s nothing wrong with preferring younger candidates who might hold up better over four or eight years.

But the smears? Consider this a bit of media literacy education: Presidents have to be in public constantly, and their every move and word and facial expression is recorded, and that means that there’s more than enough fodder to “prove” almost any narrative to sympathetic audiences predisposed to believe the worst. With Biden, it’s cognitive impairment; with George W. Bush, it was stupidity; with Bill Clinton, it was deviousness. Don’t fall for it.

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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Recent commentary columns published in the West Central Tribune.

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