On Thoughtful Pauses


Joe Biden is tottering around Europe with the poise, grace, and dignity of an angry old drunk muttering obscenities while bouncing off a slot machine at a seedy casino .

There’ve been all the usual gaffes and awkwardnesses we’ve come to expect from our somnambulant president: calling the RAF the RFA, asking to introduce heads of state who’ve just been introduced, mixing up Libya and Syria, waving off reporters’ questions by claiming he’d get in trouble for answering them, violating royal protocol by discussing his conversation with Queen Elizabeth, meandering off into a painful seven-second pause in the middle of an already confusing answer to a question about Vladimir Putin, and even canceling a direct meeting in front of the press with the Russian President because “this is not a contest about who can do better in front of a press conference or try to embarrass each other.”

Mostly the president’s been trying to read his prepared notes without garbling them or losing his place, and to look attentive and engaged. Whether he’s succeeding is an ink-blot test of political affiliation. If you see a doddering and confused old man who appears to be up past his bedtime at all hours of the day, you’re probably a conservative. If you see a spry and lively elder statesman expertly navigating the snake pits of European power, you’re probably drunk.

When I checked the headlines on Berlingske this morning at about quarter past seven, there was absolutely nothing about Biden. There still isn’t.

DR had two articles side by side on their home page, if one was only willing to scroll down to find them:

Before, Putin was ”a murderer without a soul.”  Now Biden thinks that the Russian president is “a worthy opponent”
DR.dk, June 15

Biden is ready to revive relations with the EU: But he’s still quarreling with the EU leaders
DR.dk, June 15

The first article appears to be DR’s attempt to appear balanced: “We’re not biased! We can be critical of a Democratic American president! We did a whole article on how Joe Biden talked tough about Putin on the campaign trail, and in office, but softened up as their first meeting approached.”

The article begins by reminding us what President Biden had to say about Vladimir Putin back in March: that he was a murderer without a soul.

It then says his more recent descriptions of Putin are somewhat more flattering:

“I have met him and he is sharp, he is tough, and I have been able to state that he is—as they said when I played ball—a worthy opponent,” stated Joe Biden after the NATO summit in Brussels.

But does he still believe that Vladimir Putin is a murderer, a journalist would like to know. That question, however, was met with a long, somewhat forced outburst of laughter and a long pause for thought from the American president.

“I don’t think it will mean much in relation to the meeting we’re going to now,” he added.

In the clip below you can see the segment where the question “was met with a long, somewhat forced outburst of laughter and a longer pause for thought.”

That’s a seven-second pause for thought. And after those seven painful seconds of thought, here’s the answer he offers (my transcription, and my emphasis on the part that DR chose to present as his answer):

“The answer is, I believe, he is [has?] in the past, extentially [essentially?], acknowledged that he was a, there were certain things that he, uh, would do, did do. Look, um, when I was asked that question on air, I answered it honestly. But it’s not much of a, I don’t think it matters a lot in terms of this next meeting we’re about to have. And if you violate the agreement you made, then we, the, quote the treaty’s off. I’m hoping that, uh, that President Putin concludes that there is some interest, in terms of his own interest, in changing the perception that the world has of him in terms of whether or not he ah, will engage in, uh, um, behavior that’s more consistent with uh, um, what is considered to be, um, appropriate behavior for a head of state.”

(Then, as you can see in the video, he goes railing against the need to fight against “phony populism,” and strengthen the resilience of our democracies, et cetera.)

I transcribed his words as accurately as I could. You can compare my transcription to the video. If you agree that my transcription is accurate, ask yourself: how on earth could anyone even pretending to be a journalist suggest that after a “long pause for thought” (længere tænkepause) the president merely added, “I don’t think it matters a lot in terms of the next meeting we’re about to have?”

The President of the United States, confronted with a question that he had to have know he’d be hit with, froze up, then barfed up a laconic word salad. He was either unprepared or he blew his prep.

One could argue that it was a tough question and that Biden handled it cautiously, as such a question at such a moment and in such a forum warranted. Had he simply said what he appeared to be trying to say, I might even agree. It would have been fine if Biden had kept it to, “Putin’s acknowledged in the past that he would do, or had done, some pretty nasty stuff. So when I was asked what I thought of him back in March, I gave an honest answer. He knows what I think of that stuff. But I don’t think any of that’s relevant to the meeting we’re about to have.”

But that’s not what he said, or how he said it. He was like a kid giving an oral report on a book he hadn’t read all the way through. He wanted to talk tough, but didn’t have the balls to talk directly. The problem is, tough talk has to be direct.

“You toucha my car, I breaka you face” is direct and therefore tough: a clear and unambiguous line has been drawn. If you do this, I will do that. It’s transactional.

Here’s the indirect, not-tough version: “I like my car, it’s a good car, I’m fond of it, I don’t like when bad things happen to it, and if something bad happens to it, if I find out that someone was actually responsible for that, that it wasn’t just an accident but that they actually did it on purpose, then, you know, I couldn’t necessarily guarantee my usual pacifism, so it’d probably be best if, you know, if you weren’t to test me on that.”

If you read that and think “ooh! statesmanlike!” then you have completely misunderstood the notion of statesmanship, which is not simply saying weaselly things that always leave you an out, but, as Talleyrand put it, “to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence.

The only occurrence Biden’s rambling answer was likely to expedite was the galvanization of Putin’s belief that his American adversary is a mushball. Which belief is unlikely to expedite anything good.

This whole Putin-has-no-soul thing, by the way, goes back to 2011. Here’s the opening of a 2014 article from The Hill:

Vice President Biden told Vladimir Putin that he did not believe the Russian leader had “a soul” during a visit to the Kremlin in 2011, the vice president said in a New Yorker magazine interview published Monday.

Biden said the incident occurred while he was touring Putin’s office in the Kremlin.

“I had an interpreter, and when he was showing me his office I said, ‘It’s amazing what capitalism will do, won’t it? A magnificent office!’ And he laughed. As I turned, I was this close to him,” Biden said, signaling that the two leaders were standing just inches apart. “I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.’”

Pressed on if the anecdote was true, Biden confirmed, “absolutely, positively.”

“And he looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, ‘We understand one another.’” Biden said. “This is who this guy is!”

Not just true, but absolutely, positively true!

You can file it right next to the Great Corn Pop adventure in Uncle Joe’s Big Book of Bedtime Stories.

(I was going to go over the second DR story, but it got late pretty fast, so that’s it.)