It was August 9, 2010 when a plane carrying U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and eight other souls crashed into a mountainside in the wilderness of Western Alaska. The closest settlement was Aleknagik, population 200. The weather closed in and rescue crews struggled to reach the steep final resting place of the amphibious floatplane, which was enroute between two fishing lodges.
Five died on the mountainside that day, including Stevens, who by then had been retired from the U.S. Senate for 19 months after losing to Democrat Mark Begich in the General Election of 2008.
Stevens and Sen. Joe Biden had been friends and colleagues in Washington for many years. They served in the Senate together, although on opposite sides of the aisle. They had both lost their first wives to horrific accidents. In 1972, Biden’s wife Neilia and their 13-month-old daughter were killed in a car accident after a tractor-trailer t-boned the family’s car just before Christmas.
Ann Stevens died in a Lear Jet’s crash landing at the Anchorage airport just before Christmas in 1978.
Stevens lost his race for reelection in 2008, while Biden won his race with Barack Obama, and headed for the White House. But there was a bond between the men, and so when the former senator died on that fateful summer day, Vice President Joe Biden didn’t hesitate; he flew on Air Force II into Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson outside of Anchorage, and was brought by Secret Service to East Anchorage to deliver the eulogy on Aug. 18.
Introduced that day by Dr. Jerry Prevo, pastor of Anchorage Baptist Temple, the vice president rose before the large congregation of Alaskans and dignitaries who had gathered. Biden spoke warmly, easily, and gracefully about his friend Ted. At times he was solemn and comforting to the family, and then he would share a vignette, with a twinkle in his eyes, which generously crinkled, expressing love for the Alaskan known to his constituents as “Uncle Ted.”
There were smiles, laughter, some gentle ribbing about how the money that should have gone to Delaware and Maryland was all in Alaska because of Ted Stevens.
Biden was an audience charmer. He was good. He glanced at his notes, but relied on them little, for he was in his prime as a public speaker, and he knew his subject well. He soared on that occasion to move his audience and bring the honor and grandeur of the office of the vice presidency to the grieving Stevens family, sitting in the front row of the church that day, wiping tears and smiling through the pain. He was there to bring closure, and he did it well.
Today’s Joe Biden can barely read a script without stumbling. Even a brief pitch for campaign funds on social media had a couple of odd words thrown in that should have signaled to his campaign that they needed a do-over. Or maybe it was the best take they could get.
His speech is stilted, his face frozen with Botox, and his eyes no longer twinkle, but at times appear slightly vacant.
Biden’s campaign staff has the candidate all but sequestered, not exposing him to interviews even with the friendlies in the activist media. There is no allowing him to be “Biden in the wild” during this campaign season, because Biden can no longer be trusted to string together two sentences that make any sense to the world.
And this world, with an unforgiving political climate, will record and repurpose his every stumble.
Since he became the Democratic nominee, Biden has been a concept for Democrats: He’s not Trump. He’s also not Socialist-Bernie. The Biden team is just trying to figure out who Americans want Biden to be, and to market him thus.
But the decade has taken its toll on the old Washington warrior. At some point, he will have to come out of his basement and expose himself to the softball questions of what will be a fawning media.
They — the reporters — have already tried to frame Biden’s diminished capacity as a simple stutter, one that he has dealt with since his boyhood. That makes it easier to explain; it’s a disability, and we know that we cannot criticize someone for a disability.
None of that explains why he would say, to Charlamagne tha God, “Well I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”
A stutter does not explain why he would say, “Now we have over 120 million dead from COVID.”
Stuttering doesn’t lead someone to call a student a “lying dog-faced pony soldier,” or to refer to the Wuhan Province as the “Luhan Province.” His unscripted word-salad answers to TV questions are going to be his undoing.
A Zogby poll in June revealed that a majority of likely voters believe Biden is in the early stages of dementia. 55 percent think so, while 45 percent do not. Most Republicans think he is losing it, but 56 percent of independents also do, and one-third of Democrats have a concern. Women want to believe he is OK, yet only 50 percent of them believe he is all there.
In just over a month, Biden will not be able to avoid the live microphone and the live audience. He will walk across the stage in Milwaukee to accept the nomination at the Democratic National Convention. He’ll articulate a vision for the United States that must reassure his worried base.
But it will be 10 years, nearly to the day, since he spoke at Ted Stevens’ celebration of life, and it’s clear he is no longer the orator he once was.
By now, he is rehearsing his speech every day. The speechwriters are honing the message, and he is getting coached on how to land every phrase to instill confidence.
That will be just the beginning of the bruising campaign days ahead, when the the Republicans roll out all the damaging tape they’ve been compiling on Biden — the gaffes, the hair-sniffing, the mixing up of his wife and his sister, the hairy legs story about his experiences with black kids. The Trump campaign has much, much more to roll out. As they say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
The former Vice President has had his moment in the sun, living one heartbeat away from the presidency for eight years. He had the capacity to shine brightly, communicate well, and give people the confidence that he could lead, should the need arise.
Now, he has episodes of confusion or vacancy, not unlike what some in the West Wing saw in President Ronald Reagan during his last two years in office, when he would lapse into a far-away place before snapping back to the present. By 1994, Reagan announced he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and he spent the remainder of his years out of the public’s eye. He had managed to last his entire eight years in office, thankfully, but it was starting to become obvious to almost everyone that he was no longer firing on all cylinders.
The heydays are in the rearview mirror for Biden. People age differently and while he may not have Alzheimer’s, he most certainly has “something” that is sapping his intellect, and the majority of voters sense it. That “something” is not going to go away for the 77-year-old candidate who hopes to become the leader of the free world.
For Democrats, this has to be a huge worry. They cannot afford to go into the fall without a contingency plan.