Let us be honest – analogies between modern and historical figures can be overdrawn, underdrawn, or just a memory jog, making some point. This one is overdrawn, underdrawn, memory jog, to make a point. Joe Biden looks fragile. He seems a pale reflection of his former self, readable to adversaries, the way Phillipe Petain once was. He must project strength.
Since becoming president, Joe Biden has been caught on a live mic confused, disoriented, asking what he is signing, losing his place, train, words. He is the first president in half a century to get so far into an administration taking no questions. He was cut off by staff trying last week. He cancels trips inexplicably, summoned “Neanderthal thinking” to accost opponents, repeats himself, seems to be slipping. He was gaff prone before the onset. It is embarrassing. See, e.g., https://www.fox44news.com/news/biden-white-house-keeping-control-of-the-daily-message/; https://nypost.com/2021/02/18/president-biden-takes-another-snow-day-get-your-milk-cartons-ready/; https://www.newsnationnow.com/health/coronavirus/neanderthal-thinking-biden-says-of-ending-state-mask-mandates-in-texas-mississippi/.
In an unusually public rebuke, staff and Democrat members of Congress have encouraged taking away Biden’s control over nuclear weapons (which might be a good idea, but sets a bad precedent), and Democrats – Democrats! – have begun a move, after the Syria strikes pitched by SECDEF, to take Biden’s ability to launch such attacks. Again, the specter is embarrassing – and dangerous. See, e.g., https://nypost.com/2021/02/25/bidens-senility-isnt-only-reason-to-limit-presidents-power-to-launch-nukes/; https://www.foxnews.com/politics/democrats-biden-rescind-sole-nuclear-capabilities; https://www.independentsentinel.com/bipartisan-bill-introduced-to-take-away-bidens-war-powers/.
Why does it remind of Phillipe Petain? Who was he? Interestingly, he was a French General in World War I. In his prime, he was a patriot, defensive tactician, Marshall of France. Petain’s military career was one of service, and some controversy. Then came his later years.
Three elements of Petain’s later life remind one of Biden. First, in later years, Petain got whipsawed by radicals, whom he let decimate the French army. Second, he believed in things destined to fail, like the “Maginot line,” which was swiftly overrun by Hitler in WWII.
Third, and this is the big one, old Petain was recruited as Premier of France in 1940, only to lead capitulation, eventually heading Vichy France, subject to complete manipulation – by Germany. Age 84, he became a puppet, hemorrhaged his dignity, shadow of a younger self. After the war, he was vilified, a curious national figure, vigor lost to old age.
What happened to Petain is that he gave in, allowed himself to be used, forgot what he stood for, faded into the background – much like Biden has forgotten what he once stood for, law enforcement’s best friend, counter-narcotics, supporter of police training in Iraq and elsewhere.
Some 15 years ago, I served as Colin Powell’s Assistant Secretary of State charged with setting up training for the Iraqi and Afghan police. Biden, then a Senator, used to call and talk my ear off – asking questions, pushing ideas, thanking us for listening, apologizing he had to run to vote, reaffirming his conviction that law enforcement mattered. Today, he will not utter those words.
Old leaders can be vigorous or washed out, energized and convinced age is just a number, or gradually more listless, fragile, unfocused, repetitive, and unaware of how unaware they are, how the world reads them – like Germany read Petain. The point is age does matter, and Biden is showing his. He is a pale reflection of his prior vigor, unsettlingly readable, as Petain was.
What does this reality suggest? Perhaps opportunity, along with danger. Before we talk of the 25th Amendment and a Harris Presidency, congressional conservatives should sit with leading national security figures, Biden’s SECDEF, SECSTATE, CIA, NSC and privately talk through contingencies, challenges, emerging threats and coming tests, how America can be protected.
Biden is more a figurehead each day, hardly a paragon of energy. China sees it. So does Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkey, Saudi, NATO allies, nervous Taiwan, Japan, India, Philippines, and Australia, uneasy Baltic and Balkan States, Ukraine, Georgia, Pacific Rim to Southern Europe, in this hemisphere Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil.
American leadership is on the line. Biden will never be a Reagan, TR, FDR, or Kennedy, but the prayer is he will not go weak. He will never be Ike, or anything like. But we need strength. The analogy is probably overdrawn, underdrawn, just a memory jog. But we do not need Petain. We need a president willing to dig deep, find old convictions – and project some strength.
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