President Joe Biden’s first news conference was the high point of his administration to date; he was fluent, good-humored, well-informed, and only slightly bobbled one or two questions and not in a way that surpassed the confusion deliberately created by Dwight D. Eisenhower’s complicated syntax or Lyndon Johnson’s Texan colloquialisms.
He was very well-rehearsed to take predictable questions on the Democrats’ soft-points and respond with articulate answers that had almost nothing to do with the real issue. Less reassuringly, he read from briefing notes at length in a manner that brazenly advertised the pre-selection of questionnaires, questions, and generally windy and evasive answers. No president in the history of such press conferences, going back to Franklin D. Roosevelt, has ever responded from a briefing book, especially one where the questions were in anticipated sequence as occurred today.
Minute and repetitive questions about the dire border conditions were funneled into a series of responses based on the alleged inhumanity of the previous administration and scrupulously ignored President Trump’s achievement in reducing illegal southern border entries by almost 90 percent.
There were a few gratuitous donkey-kicks against Trump; nothing would be easier, more appropriate, and more certain to continue to moderate the American political temperature than a gracious reference to the former president-the swift development of the vaccines, or even his policy to China, which Biden did acknowledge that he was in some measure continuing. But the Democrats’ obligatory Trump-demonization script does not permit of that, though the refrain resonates more feebly every week.
It was clear as the session proceeded how pre-rehearsed it all was, but it achieved the minimum ambition of spiking claims of the president’s senility. He spoke for over an hour and there was almost none of the worrisome bumbling that afflicted many of his previous public comments, and he did not remotely appear to be adrift or vacant, as he did frequently during the campaign and at times since his inauguration.
He had the old Joe Biden casual charm and comradeliness with the working press that has made him a popular figure in Washington since he first arrived there nearly fifty years ago. He did undoubtedly raise his game on what we have seen before and everyone should be reassured that all the Manchurian Candidate and related theories of a waxworks dummy president being shunted around like an effigy and stammering incomprehensibly when asked anything more challenging than the identity of the male occupant of Grant’s Tomb is asked, were laid to rest, at least for the time being.
The journalists themselves will be aware that the whole occasion was a long-prepared set-up, but that does not imply that the regime has no answer for serious questions, even if the president was not prepared to offer any. The format and pre-selection of questioners didn’t allow the refutation of such whoppers as his assertion that the “overwhelming majority” of people arriving at the southern border were sent back, or that most Republicans support him; (the real number that does is ten percent-he may have been referring to support of his Covid Relief bill, but that is not what he said).
Nothing came up about the administration’s green ambitions, nothing about the covid pandemic apart from accelerating vaccines, about school reopenings, and there was nothing about taxes and the proverbial economic reset, nothing at all about gun control, and not one word about Iran.
There was much discussion about the filibuster, but the president and the press just filibustered each other on the issue. The closest there was to any actual news was his agreement that North Korea was the greatest foreign policy problem and his stated expectation that he would seek reelection in 2024.
It was a fair day for the president, but a further disgrace to the worthless partisan press. There was no challenge on any of the soft pre-cooked answers, except on a couple of border matters, where the president entered a cul-de-sac and self-bloviated into silence. He was not challenged on a shaming PBS question that the Mexican border was being swarmed because “Joe Biden is a decent man.”
A low hurdle was cleared and the president was alert and affable; the terrible, outrageous nightmares of the Trump-baiting press conferences and all the contumely of that era are mercifully receding, but honeymoons, especially as hokey a honeymoon as this one, don’t last long.
Conrad Black is a writer and former newspaper publisher whose most recent book is Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other. He is Chairman Emeritus of the National Interest.