Personnel fights defined and detracted from the 45th presidency. Who are the men and women who make or break the 46th?
You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the drive.
But you won’t make it, of course.
The opening two sentences of All the King’s Men, first absurdly, impressively long and then short and suddenly powerful, mirror Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr.’s career. They also mirror the shared national sense of where this presidency is headed: the ravine. Of course, the stakes of a failed presidency, as former Trump speechwriter Michael Anton once summed it up, no longer seem contained to the Eisenhower Office Building or Wall Street, but to whomever happens to be in a blast radius. Or as The American Conservative founding editor Scott McConnell summarized over the weekend, “Biden is just walking us into war.”
How did we get here?
The chameleonic President Biden, who once self-described proudly as a “Northeastern liberal” (when that was a dirty word) while eulogizing a Southern senator, is no Willie Stark, the Dixieland antihero of All the King’s Men, a figure clearly based on the Louisianan tormenter of Franklin Roosevelt Huey Long. No, Joe Biden is no Willie Stark.
This time forever ago, last spring, Biden and All Biden’s Men mused we might have “a new FDR” on our hands. We certainly don’t have that. In our midst instead is a politician at the top who appears closer to an American Yuri Andropov, without the eyebrows and mercifully, hopefully, without the whole dying in office thing. To Andropov’s credit, the late Party Man (and that’s what Biden is) never drove Russia and the United States so close to actual, literal war: The Big Shebang is on offer now in real life. But there is one notable similarity between Biden and Stark and all men in the old-fashioned sense: We are the company we keep.
Who is the company President Biden keeps?
Two new, rock-solid treatments get at the question. Jacob Heilbrunn, who seems to have gotten a fresh wind as a both Bidenworld whisperer and chronicler of conservatives in the out years, writes in Politico that “the Blob is regrouping” after Biden’s early turn in office, when he appeared to be getting America out of the pointless war business. Enough of all that! Now, there are the “regular hour-long phone meetings on Ukraine and Russia that the Biden administration has been conducting since February with… the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Atlantic Council, the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), and the German Marshall Fund.”
Funerals have a weird way of bringing people together, and the power elite is no exception. At the center of this all was a recent establishment sob-fest. Heilbrunn dishes that “the memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral last week for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright” functioned as a stage for a sort of establishment cri de coeur.
“As U.N. ambassador during President Bill Clinton’s first term, Albright was a thorn in the side of then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher and then-national security adviser Tony Lake, both of whom blanched at the thought of American military intervention in the Balkans to stop Slobodan Milošević’s war… In his impassioned eulogy, Biden drew an implicit parallel with the 1990s, when the democracy crusade flourished in the Balkans against Milošević.”
As Biden announced this week a fresh $150 million for Zelensky’s squad in Kiev—what’s $150 million? America is already great—I am reminded of a career highlight, watching the John McCain funeral over Labor Day 2018 with Patrick J. Buchanan. I would have preferred that group viewing happened some forty-odd months later. Even John McCain, a late friend of President Biden, never got us this close to nuclear war.
The second dispatch or note on Biden’s inner sanctum comes James Carden in Asia Times. He goes more granular.
Carden makes the case that Biden aspires to his own version of “Zombie Reaganism,” cribbing from the 40th president a tight caste of insiders that shields the commander-in-chief from the rest of the administration that the president either fears or doesn’t understand. Senility…is not…implied here. “The Biden White House works in a way that is eerily similar to the way the Ronald Reagan administration worked during its first term,” Carden relays.
“Back then, a chief executive of questionable sentience relied on a small cast of political operatives to run the day-to-day operations of the White House. During Reagan’s first term, that job fell to what was called ‘the Troika,’ which consisted of chief of staff James Baker, counselor to the president Ed Meese and deputy chief of staff Mike Deaver.” Biden, by contrast, is ”an ardent Catholic” and “might be said to be dominated by three Cardinals: White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, counselor to the president Steve Ricchetti and deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed.”
If you’ve never heard of any of these players besides Klain, Carden makes the implicit case that is the way Biden likes it. Putative high-rollers such a National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are relatively weaker inside the halls of power, where ex-officio occupants of those offices, former National Security Advisor (now Domestic Policy Council chair) Susan Rice and former Foggy Bottom chief (now Climate Czar) John Kerry, still have West Wing real estate.
As America ambles toward a casual Armageddon, further exhumation of what’s exactly going on at 1600 Penn. is probably called for. It would be a sad irony if all the media attention dedicated to the Reality Television President meant an all binged-out fourth estate when it came time for documenting the grim reality president.