Joe Biden Marches Through History, Checking His Watch

The most solemn and painful duty any president faces is standing silently, head bowed, watching the men and women he sent to war come home in caskets. He sees the terrible cost of war firsthand in those flag-draped coffins and the tears of loved ones there to meet them.

 Last week, Joe Biden tried to fulfill that duty—and stumbled badly. When he should have waited with patient dignity for the caskets to be transferred from the plane, he furtively glanced at his watch. When he spoke to the families, the president brought up the loss of his own son to cancer. Those families wanted to hear only about the bravery and sacrifice of their sons and daughters, husbands and wives, of their heroic service to our nation.

 Surely these were inadvertent blunders. He undoubtedly mentioned his son thinking it would convey to these families that he understood their loss. They heard it differently. They said later it seemed self-referential, tone-deaf, even narcissistic. Likewise, when he glanced at his watch, he probably acted out of habit. When George H. W. Bush did that during a 1992 presidential debate, he was roundly mocked. “Hey, George, do you have someplace more important to be?” His aides wisely removed the watch before the next debate. Biden’s handlers will do the same before the next solemn occasion. 

 When Biden glanced at his watch, his inadvertent message was “I’m busy. How long will this casket ceremony take?” That’s a painfully rude message, however unintentional. The injury to these bereaved families was compounded because their loved ones died during a hurried, botched evacuation ordered by this commander-in-chief, whose bad judgment is becoming the leitmotif of his presidency.

 Grave as the occasion was, cluelessness like Biden’s is a perennial theme of comedy. If the president were a Republican, he would be a rich target, a constant object of ridicule. 

Gerald Ford certainly was during the first year of “Saturday Night Live.” Chevy Chase relentlessly mocked him by tripping over everything in the Oval Office and constantly talking to a stuffed dog. Ford, it should be noted, was probably the most accomplished athlete ever to occupy that office. The mockery came after he stumbled exiting Air Force One. Biden has already tripped entering the plane, a much less complicated task. Few comedians took notice. When George W. Bush stumbled over his words, as he often did, every late-night comic repeatedly mocked him as a moron. He wasn’t. He simply had a word-retrieval problem, a well-known cognitive difficulty that is independent of IQ or education.

 Still, the humor worked. It was actually funny. So is Joe Biden glancing at his watch, at least if it is transposed to other settings. What’s funny is not the event at Dover. What’s funny is the idea that Joe could do the same thing at other times and places, marching through the major events of American history with the same kind of cluelessness he showed at Dover Air Force Base. Perhaps Joe’s real model is not Franklin Roosevelt or Bobby Kennedy but Zelig or Forrest Gump.

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About Charles Lipson

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images