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Opinion | Joe Biden, in the Goodest Bunker Ever


When I saw the Michael Shear story in The Times on July 4, recounting how President Biden had stumbled talking to Black radio hosts days after his debate debacle, telling one he was proud to have been “the first Black woman to serve with a Black president,” I knew it spelled trouble.

First of all, if any white man could claim to be “the first Black woman” in the Oval, it was Bill Clinton. Black fans called him “the first Black president” and feminist fans called him “the first woman president.”

Second of all, we were entering a new post-debate examination period with President Biden, where his every word would be scrutinized. He was always a fast and voluminous talker, and as he has gotten older, the words and ideas sometimes tumble out in the wrong order. Also, he’s more slurry now, so words get smushed together, and words and thoughts collide; words get dropped, caesuras skipped, and sentences sometimes trail off into the ether.

The Times’s chief White House correspondent, Peter Baker, told me he has started using the translation headsets on overseas trips, even when he is 20 feet away from the president, because they offer a magnified volume when Biden starts to mumble.

The White House press corps, stung by critiques that they did not pull back the curtain enough on the president’s diminished powers, are now on the alert, ready to tear down the Pollyanna scrim erected by Biden’s family and aides.

The White House and the Biden campaign are so smotheringly protective that, as news outlets reported, Biden aides helped draft the questions that local radio hosts asked the president in the wake of his calamitous debate.

In going through Biden’s verbal mistakes in his Times story, Shear used the phrase, “He appeared to mean …”

And that is going to be a big issue moving forward. A panicky White House is going to be persnickety, acting as though journalists are unfairly picking on the president about every gaffe, berating them when they don’t properly interpret the president’s elisions and jumbles. Joe Scarborough, a supporter and confidante of the president, took to X to mock the “breathless NYT syntax blogs.”

But how the president puts words together — or doesn’t — happens to be a life and death matter. We’re now dwelling in a murky area of what the president intended to say, or what he said that was incomprehensible, and whether we should take the White House interpretation.

Journalists are going to be appropriately resistant to making corrections based on what the White House asserts Biden said, or its version of what Biden intended to say. It’s not our job to play Mad Libs with the president.

Ronald Reagan’s press aides would issue a lot of clarifications after news conferences, but those were not because it was hard to hear what he was saying. Even in his 70s, he spoke in a clear baritone. His clarifications were more to correct remarks he made, as when he said trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.

Biden’s word salad and sudden drops in volume to pianissimo are relevant for reporters to cover because they’re a microcosm of the questions at the heart of the 2024 Democratic campaign: Is the president’s mental state strong enough to beat Donald Trump and can he serve for four more years? The desperate Biden team is ready to go to war over every syllable.

In my Saturday column, I quoted Biden’s line to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, about how he would feel if Trump were sworn in as president because he refused to step aside: “I’ll feel as long as I gave it my all and I did the goodest job as I know I can do, that’s what this is about.”

Now, “goodest” isn’t a word. But my researcher, Andrew Trunsky, and I listened to the video, our ears up against the computer, 10 times, and that’s what it sounded like. We also checked the ABC News transcript and that’s the word they used. Times news reporters and reporters for other news outlets took their cue from the ABC transcript.

The confusion was so universal that on Axios Saturday, there were two different versions: Mike Allen’s newsletter used “goodest” and another story used “I did as good a job as I know I can do.”

After my column posted Saturday morning, T.J. Ducklo, a Biden campaign spokesman, emailed me to “flag” that ABC News had updated its transcript to read: “I’ll feel as long as I gave it my all and I did the good as job as I know I can do, that’s what this is about.”

Ducklo asked if I could “tweak” the column and change the word “goodest” to make my piece “consistent with the corrected transcript,” even though the revised version was also gobbledygook.

When I said we would tell our editor what he thought, Ducklo wrote back: “Yeah again, it’s not what I think. It’s what ABC News, who conducted the interview, thinks. I think it would be quite unusual if the Times asserted the president said something that the news organization who conducted the interview says he didn’t say …”

Andrew and I both emailed Ducklo, asking whether ABC had changed the transcript on its own or if the Biden team had asked them to change it.

“ABC News, like any news organization, makes their own independent editorial decisions,” Ducklo replied to us. “surely you are not suggesting otherwise.” He emailed again to add: “Had another convo on this. ABC News received the tape and confirmed the error to us. Then made the correction.”

I was more confused than ever. What tape? From whom?? Why the runaround??? Given the White House’s egregious coverup about Biden’s sag from aging, the spokesman’s coyness seemed de trop. By Saturday night, Shear and Michael Grynbaum had a Times story clearing up things. Indeed, the White House had asked ABC News to check whether the president said “goodest” or “good as,” after the White House stenographers, who had recorded the president on ABC News, noticed the discrepancy between their recording and the network’s transcript.

The Times attached notes on my column and all the news stories that had used “goodest,” explaining the befuddlement.

Whatever the president meant, his answer to that question went over like a lead balloon. No one cares if he feels good about himself in a losing cause.

It might seem like much ado about goodest. But it’s a harbinger of tense times between a White House in bunker mode and a press corps in ferret mode.

Maybe the White House should think about closed captioning.



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