A few weeks ago, a popular video clip on social media showed President Joe Biden closing out a Sept. 11 press conference in Hanoi by saying “I’m going to bed” and then mangling another sentence before a staffer abruptly ended the event.
If that was all you saw, it appeared that Biden’s detractors are right in saying that he is no longer capable of serving as president. With no context, the “I’m going to bed” remark seems to have come out of nowhere, and Biden looked exhausted and even a bit dazed as he wrapped up.
On Fox News, Jesse Watters pounced, saying, “That moment symbolizes the late stages of the Biden presidency. And I do mean late stages. We are now in a stage where the president can no longer handle ceremonial duties.”
The only thing worse Joe Biden could have said than, "I'm going to bed" was "I'm ‘The Big Guy.’" Biden confirmed the country's doubts. He's not up for the job. It was clear the moment he took the stage in Vietnam that his handlers pulled the plug on him https://t.co/7FeoYJReGZ— SassySue (@FreemanSus12220) September 21, 2023
But a visit to Whitehouse.gov provides context that the viral clips miss. The appearance was part of a five-day international trip that the president repeatedly referenced, and he’d begun the press conference joking about whether it was morning or evening. It’s perhaps not the best line for an 80-year-old president whose competency is in question, but it’s a joke that that anyone who travels internationally would get.
Also gleaned from a reading of the transcript is that Biden had announced he was only taking five questions. The “I’m going to bed” remark was both a nod to the physical toll of the trip and an attempt, however clumsy, to end the news conference on his own. When it didn’t work, his press secretary stepped in.
But context can soften the criticism and not obliterate it completely. In its coverage of the trip, The New York Times noted that that “at one point, he invoked John Wayne in a long soliloquy about the evolving global view on climate change.” Again, you can read this aside in cringey detail on the White House website, and even if you take into account Biden’s speech impediment, the remarks are strange.
So are his next two sentences, which don’t inspire confidence in Biden’s leadership: “I’m just following my orders here. Staff, is there anybody I haven’t spoken to?”
As the 2024 presidential campaign unfolds, transcripts are a voter’s best friend, but reading them can be painful.
This is not just true of Biden’s remarks, but also his predecessor. Donald Trump may be more forceful in his presentation and seemingly more energetic, capable of speeches that run on for more than two hours, but read the transcript of his recent appearance on “Meet the Press,” and you would be hard pressed to call his patterns of speech eloquent.
This, for example, was Trump’s response to Kristen Welker asking him to respond to people who say he’s too focused on the past:
“I have no focus on the past except that you have to learn from history. You have to learn from the past. We had an election that was very, very terrible. It was a terrible thing for our country. And you have to learn from that. You can’t forget that and just go — now, with all of the things that we said, I had the best economy maybe in history.”
Much has been said of the shrinking American attention span, which can no longer tolerate the lengthy and complex discourse of presidential speech in centuries past; the Lincoln-Douglas debates, for one example. But the quality of presidential speeches has been in marked decline in recent years — Biden’s, for example, seem doomed to be remembered more for the optics than for the words, as in the infamous red-lit speech in Philadelphia that conservatives dubbed the “Dark Brandon” speech.
And there’s no one on the horizon promising to do much better, at least not if you read the transcript from the last GOP debate.
It can be argued that it’s petty to ask for both substance and style from an orator, but presentation matters, as Angie Kim writes about her new novel “Happiness Falls,” which involves an autistic teen who is unable to communicate with speech.
Kim, who couldn’t speak English well when she moved to the U.S. at age 11, writes, “Our society — not just the U.S., but human society in general — equates verbal skills, especially oral fluency, with intelligence.”
That’s unfair and often wrong; we all know glib people who aren’t wise, and socially awkward people with off-the-charts intelligence. And before we share seemingly embarrassing gaffes by a speaker, it’s best to consult a transcript for context; they are readily available these days.
But with the other questions swirling about Biden and Trump, their inability to speak elegantly like, say, Lincoln or Ronald Reagan, is just one more thing for voters to wring their hands about.
Those of us who long for a great orator, for now, will just have to watch reruns of “The West Wing.”