Are politicians real people or are they just imaginary creatures akin to the ones we meet in works of fiction? We think we know some of them because they keep popping up on television screens where they grin at us, insult their rivals and do their best to win our allegiance, but for all but the handful of individuals who come into physical contact with them, they might as well be characters in one of those endless series that are currently in fashion. And even if they are more than just holograms that periodically float into view, they are all in large measure products of specialists who tell them what to wear, what to say and how to say it in order to get the votes they need to keep the show on the road. They may be real in the usual sense of the word, but they are certainly not authentic.
Alberto Fernández, a man only a satirist could invent, is in trouble with the men and women who surround him because he insists on saying whatever comes into his head. A few days ago, he told us that European who came to Argentina as immigrants gave birth to a generation of “afroamericanos.” Before a new wave of Covid swept in taking over 90,000 lives, he annoyed the representatives of at least a dozen countries by comparing their response to the coronavirus pandemic with the allegedly successful one he thought he had patented.
Alberto is a minor figure in the great scheme of things. Joe Biden, who also upsets his aides when he discards the teleprompter and wanders off on his own, plays a far more significant role. Unlike Alberto, who can sound impressively fluent when spouting nonsense, the North American president is liable to mumble incoherently, mix up the names of the countries he is going on about and unless his wife Dr Jill puts him right, forget where he happens to be. This is a serious matter. For many, the temptation to make the most of the possibility that the “leader of the free world” has lost his marbles is proving irresistible.
To keep informed, everybody has to rely on what can be gleaned from personal contacts, books, films and the media, but deciding which sources of information are trustworthy and which are either excessively biased or deliberately mendacious has never been easy; of late, revisionists have taken it upon themselves to defend the Roman emperor Nero by arguing that he was unjustly maligned by the historians Tacitus and Suetonius who gave him a very bad press. Barring catastrophes of the kind doomsters love to warn us are fast approaching, future chroniclers of the rise, fall or resurgence of the North American superpower during Biden’s spell in the White House will have plenty of material to work with, but for now at any rate the way people interpret the available evidence depends more on their political stance than on an ability, or even a desire, to distinguish between mean-minded or wildly optimistic partisan propaganda on the one and an honest attempt to get at the facts on the other.
Before the middle of last year, when he became the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Biden was widely seen as an elderly man on the verge of retirement who had turned into a gaffe machine. Many progressives treated him as a joke. He had once been regarded as a fairly talented but by no means exceptional politician, whose previous attempts to reach the top had floundered when he was caught doing things like plagiarising a speech by the British Labour politician Neil Kinnock as though he himself had come from a long line of Welsh coal-miners. It was assumed that he would soon call it a day. He was doing badly in the Democratic primaries – Kamala Harris, whose performance was even worse, treated him as a racist – until he was rescued by black politicians from North Carolina who campaigned forcefully for him and against the leftist Bernie Sanders.
After that, the image enhancers switched into high gear. With the vigorous help of influential newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as television outfits who, like the print media, made no secret of their loathing for Donald Trump, Biden morphed into a world-striding statesman.
In their view, he still is. All his utterances they see fit to record are praised. “Poetry,” said one enthusiast after reading what he said while in Cornwall. They proudly told the world he had trounced Vladimir Putin when negotiating with him in Geneva and had persuaded the Europeans to join him in putting pressure on China. As for his role in dodgy business dealings involving his son Hunter Biden, whose behaviour tends to be somewhat unorthodox, they agreed that he never did anything inappropriate.
If this were the only Joe Biden, we would have nothing to worry about, but there is another one. Accompanying the stalwart defender of Western democracy like a malignant doppelganger is the doddering old geezer portrayed by the pro-Trump Fox News Channel and other of a similar disposition. He is barely articulate and ought to be in a nursing home. The more charitable think he is a victim of senile dementia who has been taken prisoner by an unscrupulous “woke mob,” who make him do things a younger version would never have dreamt of. Day after day, they broadcast clips showing him blathering away incoherently and take it for granted that before too long he will be led away by solicitous gentlemen in white coats because, they say, his “cognitive decline” is already alarmingly evident.
They also enjoy speculating about how their ideological foes would have reacted had Trump stumbled like Biden when speaking off the cuff or if one of his family members had been found cutting deals with China, getting paid handsomely for “advising” the Ukrainians on energy matters about which he knew next to nothing or consorting with prostitutes, all of which figures in Hunter’s lengthy charge sheet.
So, which one is the real Biden? Is he the wise but tough leader who will put an end to the nasty conflicts besetting the United States, so all its inhabitants can pull together in the same direction, or is he the bumbling old fool who is simply keeping the seat warm for Kamala, a lady who, in the minds of many, would make an even worse president? As both detractors and his critics have nailed their respective colours to the mast and have no intention of taking them down, the polemics over Joe’s mental state and his son’s rambunctious public career will continue unabated until something definitive happens. Just what that could be is hard to say, but it is unlikely to be very pleasant.