Here at Washington’s ever-congested intersection of politics, policy and the news media, we have finally gotten some experienced help.
Two guys named Joe and Dick have shown up at just the right time. We are glancing in our rearview mirrors at the first two years of the Biden presidency — before checking the best route to the campaign trail. We’ll be looking to see if the high road is finally open.
And we sure do need help. After all, Joe Biden’s presidency was being defined and tested even before it began. On Inauguration Day 2021, America was reeling due to the violent Jan. 6 attempted overthrow of our democracy, the pandemic and the resulting economic yin and yang of global inflation and recession.
Meet Joe and Dick.
During my years of talking with Joe about the presidents I was covering — during his evening train commute home to Wilmington or lunching in a Senate dining room — Joe was always quick to pick up on one trait that seemed common to presidents. When presidents are beset by problems or scandals, they somehow become self-destructive and defensive. And they complain about being victimized by the press.
So just imagine what my old political pal Joe might be saying if he’d watched TV on Jan. 19 and saw how President Biden handled (see also “mishandled”) the whole controversy over classified documents that were found in a former office he used as a private citizen and in his home garage. It was not until Jan. 10 that Biden’s White House confirmed classified documents were found at that private office way back on Nov. 2. And when that was confirmed, no one mentioned that other documents were found Dec. 20. And no one explained why all that simple confirmation was sooooo delayed. And President Biden had been refusing to explain any of that.
Until, absurdly, Jan. 19 — in the middle of a tour of California’s storm damage. Neither you nor my old pal Joe or any Biden adviser will be surprised to know that reporters felt they must ask about the one topic Biden had stonewalled them about. But when asked about why he didn’t reveal the existence of the classified documents at his private office or home garage, President Biden performed like a pro wrestler, pounding the mat in feigned pain:
“You know, what quite frankly bugs me is that we have a serious problem here we’re talking about. We’re talking about what’s going on. And the American people don’t quite understand why you don’t ask me questions about that.”
Then Biden gave his prepared response: “Look … we found a handful of documents that were filed in the wrong place. We immediately turned them over to the Archives and the Justice Department. We’re fully cooperating. … I have no regrets. I’m following what the lawyers have told me they want me to do. … There is no there there.”
But I wonder what my old political pal Joe would have recommended. I’m guessing old Joe would have urged Biden’s White House to anticipate the obvious — and avoid it by meeting with the reporters the day before and giving the same prepared response: Taking the high road; inviting a full FBI search. A powerful contrast with Donald Trump’s pathetic efforts to retain classified documents. Full transparency.
Instead, the Biden White House didn’t even achieve translucency.
Now meet Dick. (And unlike Joe’s helpfulness, understanding Dick’s contribution requires no decades-spanning, mind-bending gymnastics). Last Sept. 7, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois blasted Donald Trump’s efforts to keep classified documents in Mar-a-Lago, saying: “For the president (Trump) to take this important information down to his home is an outrage.”
Sunday, Durbin told CNN’s Dana Bash: “At its heart, the issue is the same. Those documents should not have been in the personal possession of either Joe Biden or Donald Trump.”
Indeed, when Bash asked if Durbin thought Biden had “lost the high ground on classified information being where it shouldn’t be,” the senator, in what may be a moment of high road history-making in today’s political landscape, did not perform the usual Washington wiggle ‘n’ weasel.
“Let’s be honest about it,” Durbin said. “When that information was found, it diminishes the stature of any person who is in possession of it. It’s not supposed to happen. Whether it was the fault of a staffer or an attorney makes no difference. An elected official bears ultimate responsibility.”
Old Joe might well tell President Biden that his reelection prospects may well start with him embracing that notion — and apologizing to his fellow citizens. What a concept.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at [email protected]