Former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

Early debate leads to crisis

Some might have heard the tale about one pious man’s reaction to an impending hurricane and flood. A kindly neighbor knocked on his door to say, “C’mon, George! We’re evacuating in my truck! Take what you can carry for now and I’ll bring you back when it’s over.”

“No, Mike, but thank you,” he said. “I’ll stick it out. I have faith in the Lord.”

When the flooding happened, George told the crew of a rescue boat, “I’m staying on my property. I trust in the Lord.”

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Then when things got even worse, a helicopter searching for the stranded saw George calmly looking out a second-floor window of his house. “The worst of this is over. It’s passing! I have faith in the Lord,” he shouted at his would-be rescuers. They couldn’t hear him, but they got the message that he was refusing assistance.

Eventually George was swept away and he perished in the flood. In the after-life, he said to the Lord: “I put my trust in You.”

And the Lord said, “George, I sent you a truck, then a boat and finally a helicopter. What more did you need, precisely?”

Referring to his ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos last week, one media outlet reported that President Joseph R. Biden “defiantly says he will only step aside if the Lord Almighty comes and tells him to.”

How the Lord’s views on this might be relayed was not made clear. Many of us were raised to believe that God moves in mysterious ways. And in the 21st century divine messages certainly don’t come through personal appearance, voice mail or text message. As I understand it, the faithful, at least in the Catholic tradition, are more likely to look for signs. Human reason plays a big role, too. 

So, whether Biden or the dithering Democratic Party is the “George” of our story, the question is the same – how many signs do they need?

On Sunday, the 10th day of the current crisis, the New York Times published a report that a senior White House official told them that Biden should not run. That’s somebody, the paper said, who works with and has traveled with the president abroad, and has seen his health decline noticeably in recent months.

There’s sign No. 1 right there, if we were to work backwards in time.

One of the diverting aspects of this media watching is trying to interpret what it is people are saying.  But it’s clear enough to this writer that Jen Psaki, the former White House press secretary, wants her ex-boss to step aside from the campaign. Sign No. 2.

There’s been a report by Carl Bernstein, who became famous the year Biden was elected to the U.S. Senate, 1972. His contacts expressed concerns about the president’s decline as seen up close. Sign No. 3.  (Bernstein’s Washington Post partner in helping to bring down President Nixon, Bob Woodward, has colorfully referred to Biden’s debate performance as a “political hydrogen bomb.”)

A New York Times report on July 2 was headed, “Biden’s Lapses Are Said to Be Increasingly Common And Worrisome.”  Sign No. 4.

And these are the cries for help from within or near the Biden camp.

But there’s no shortage of pol “friends” of Joe who’ve lined up to show loyalty like Stalinist apparatchiks, with no real apparent concern for the man’s dignity or health or long-term reputation and legacy.

In the words of one congressman, quoted by Huff Post, Biden beat Trump in 2020 and “he’ll do it again in November.”

Yeah, like that follows logically.

As David Axelrod, political consultant to then Senator Obama’s 2008 campaign and later a senior White House advisor in his administration, has said,“Tom Brady won a Super Bowl three years ago, and he’s out of football, OK?”

Psaki said of the Stephanopoulos appearance, “"When the interview ended, it left us all in this sort of purgatory for the moment. It was better than the debate, not a home run at all. Even if it was a home run, one interview definitely doesn’t have the capacity to change the perception out there of 72% of voters, according to a CBS poll, who do not believe that Biden has the mental or cognitive health to serve. Even the White House and the campaign know that."

Biden is a good man; the presumptive Republican nominee is a bad man; and Biden has been a good president, above the average, and his opponent was a bad one, below the average. Nonetheless, the Republican has been ahead in the polls for a while now, and has increased his lead in the aftermath of the televised debate. We could say he’s “inexplicably” in the lead, except that the polls have been showing for more than a year now that loyal Democrats and independents say Biden’s age and perceived frailty are a huge concern for them. 

“Perception. Perception. Perception.” That’s the political strategist’s mantra. 

If memory serves, Axelrod was one of the few to raise the age issue in 2023, but when the New York Times’ Ezra Klein took it up earlier this year he felt it was too late. However, the normally circumspect Axelrod isn’t holding back about his distress regarding “Biden’s stubborn denial of his public standing and position in a race that he has characterized as an existential battle for the survival of American democracy.”

He bluntly summed up the Biden position in a CNN essay in recent days as, “Denial. Delusion. Defiance.”

Axelrod added, “When Stephanopoulos asked him how he would feel if he continues and Trump were to win in November, the president who has told us that this is the most consequential election of our lifetimes seemed unmoved by that prospect. 

“‘I’ll feel, as long as I gave it my all, and did as good a job as I know I can do … that’s what this is about.’

“No, sir. It’s not,” Axelrod wrote. 

James Carville, another man who first became famous winning a presidential election from the back rooms (Bill Clinton’s in 1992), was gung-ho about Biden’s prospects ahead of the June 27 CNN event, telling the world what the president should say to Trump. All changed with the debate, which he sees now as a gift to the Democrats – whether from the Lord Almighty or not, he hasn’t said – to rescue the situation with a mini-primary. 

“It’s been an agonizing time for those of us who think President Biden more than earned a second term, but isn’t going to win one,” Carville wrote in the New York Times on Monday, “But now we’ve got to move on.”

De Gaulle's Exit

The first 2024 presidential debate via streaming on CNN was not an uplifting or pleasant experience. But the Tour de France can help make up for such downsides in life. It’s being streamed in six-hour daily broadcasts via NBC’s Peacock service. 

Veteran cycling journalist Phil Liggett is crucial to that magnificent effort, but I doubt that he — or anyone on his behalf — is angling for an NBC contract through 2029. 

Liggett will turn 81 next month. In fact, he’s 8 months and 20 days younger than President Biden, but it’s reasonable to assume that he’s assessing his position on a year-to-year basis. 

For now, we can dip in and enjoy his commentary and that of his colleague in the NBC booth in France, former pro cyclist and native Californian Bob Roll, over these three weeks through the Tour's July 21 conclusion in Nice (for the first time not on the Champs-Élysées in Paris because of Olympic Games preparations).

It’s great that the Merseyside native Liggett always talks up the Irish, and this year we get to cheer on the first-timer Ben Healy, who already has impressed with a 9th place (in the first time-trial) and a 5th place, and Sam Bennett, who returns for the first time since he won the Tour’s sprint specialists’ green jersey in 2020.

On Saturday morning, as the Tour went through Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, Eastern France, the helicopter camera caught a view of a vast image of Charles de Gaulle, whom Liggett and Roll then discussed. The Tour was close to the iconic French leader’s long-time home and place of his death in 1970.

De Gaulle was a man who knew how to make an exit. The first time, famously, was on a plane to England in 1940. The last was his decision to retire four years into a seven-year presidential term, using the occasion of a 1969 referendum defeat of some reforms he’d proposed. 

As Axelrod said in his CNN essay, “Sometimes the Lord Almighty comes in the form of enlightened self-awareness.”

NBC Tour de France commentators Phil Liggett, left, and Bob Roll.