Maureen Dowd: Democrats should grab their smelling salts for a long case of the vapors

Stealth about health is no longer possible, and the sooner President Joe Biden’s team stops being in denial about that, the better off Democrats will be

Once, when my father was in West Virginia on police business, a man approached him and demanded to know about “rumours” that president Franklin Roosevelt was “crippled”. The man threatened to beat up my father or anyone who said FDR was in a wheelchair.

My dad, a D.C. police detective, served on FDR’s protective detail. (I have a picture of my father, in a fedora, guarding Roosevelt at a Senators baseball game, with the president standing up with the help of his braces to throw the first pitch.)

Like others around Roosevelt, my dad kept a tight lip about the paralysis of the president, who did not want to seem weak. Dad assured the West Virginia ruffian that Roosevelt was “a fine, athletic man”.

In the days before TV and social media, the White House could suppress the fact that Roosevelt, who contracted polio when he was 39, could barely walk. With the help of a complicit press corps, a censoring secret service and a variety of ruses, FDR was even able to campaign giving the impression that he was mobile.


But stealth about health is no longer possible, and the sooner president Joe Biden’s team stops being in denial about that, the better off Democrats will be.

Jill Biden and his other advisers come up with ways to obscure signs of senescence – from shorter news conferences to almost zero print interviews to TV interviews mainly with fawning MSNBC anchors.

But many Americans are quite concerned about the 81-year-old president’s crepuscular mien. It’s the elephant in the room – except that elephants never forget.

Biden is running against a bad man, but that’s not enough. He has to acknowledge to himself that his moments of faltering – which will increase over the next five years – are a big weakness. He and his aides have to figure out how to handle that. Donald Trump, 77, makes his own verbal slips and shows signs of ageing, but he conveys more energy.

When the president rushed out Thursday night to show he was compos mentis, rebutting what special counsel Robert Hur said, he was peevish with the media and blamed his staff for mishandling classified documents. Petulance is never a good look. Biden should have taken a breath.

When CNN White House correspondent MJ Lee asked about age concerns, Biden snapped: “That is your judgment. That is your judgment.” But 71 per cent of battleground state voters in one of our polls said Biden is “too old to be an effective president”.

Pushing back at the image of a crotchety grandpa, he came across like a crotchety grandpa.

“I’m well-meaning and I’m an elderly man, and I know what the hell I’m doing,” he barked.

It reminded me of the days when president Bill Clinton kept insisting that he was still relevant. Declaiming that you know what you’re doing doesn’t instil confidence.

Asked why he insists that he is the only Democrat who can defeat Trump, Biden shot back: “Because I am the most qualified person in this country to be president of the United States and finish the job I started.”

That sounded disturbingly like Trump claiming, “I alone can fix it.”

Just when Biden was getting some breaks – the economy was better, Trump was still horrible, and the republicans in Congress were steeped in dreckitude – Hur took a whack out of the blue, leaving the impression that Biden shouldn’t have his finger on the button. He said he wouldn’t bring charges because a jury would forgive Biden as a nice, forgetful, old man.

It was a mistake for Merrick Garland to make a Trump appointee the special counsel for Biden. Like James Comey, Garland is a man so in love with his own virtue that he bends over backward to show it off. I am so fair that I am going to be unfair. Democrats often fall into this way of thinking, to their own detriment. That’s how Biden blew the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, trying to be so fair to the win-at-all-costs republicans on the committee that he threw the game to Thomas, who is now staining the supreme court.

Still, the report was a fire alarm blaring in the capital because, fair or not, it crystallised the White House’s problem. Biden refused to take the one-term win, bow out and make room for new blood. So now he has to go to war with Trump and stop him from getting back into the Oval for his grotesque revenge rampage.

But, in a world on fire, with republicans in Congress spiralling into farce, the Biden crew clearly has no plan for how to deal with the president’s age except to shield him and hide him and browbeat reporters who point out that his mental state – like the delusional Trump’s – is a genuine issue.

Biden is not just in a bubble; he’s in bubble wrap. Cosseting and closeting Uncle Joe all the way to the end – eschewing town halls and the Super Bowl interview – are just not going to work. Going on defence, when Trump is on offence, is not going to work. Counting on Trump’s vileness to secure the win, as Hillary Clinton did, is not going to work.

Democrats should grab their smelling salts for a long case of the vapours. It’s going to be a most virulent, violent year.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.