Thirty-six years in the Senate, eight as vice president, nearly three in the White House — President Joe Biden has a long record to be judged by, a deep familiarity with Washington that Americans can decide to see as an asset or an impediment. But what happens in November 2024 may have significantly less to do with how he has navigated the corridors of power than with how he moves from the edge of the stage to the lectern and from subject to verb.
Is there a wobble in his step? A quiver in his voice? He’s 80, and that’s not just a number. In a poll published by The Wall Street Journal on Monday, 73 percent of registered voters said that Biden had too many years on him to seek four more. In a survey by The Associated Press and NORC released last week, 77 percent of adult Americans, including 69 percent of Democrats, said that he’s too old to be effective during a second term.
But that doesn’t mean they won’t give him one, because their alternative would probably be Donald Trump, who has been charged with an array of felonies, 91 in all. That, too, is not just a number. It’s an irrefutable measure of his indecency and his rapacity, no matter what jurors decide about the criminality of his conduct.
It’s also a preview of how Trump will spend much if not most of the 14 months between now and Election Day — preparing his defense, railing about prosecutors and judges, and possibly sitting and seething through testimony about his transgressions. His legal odyssey overshadows everything else about his bid to return to the White House, which could come down to what the small group of persuadable swing voters make of the evidence against him and the spectacle of it all.
Biden’s age. Trump’s trials. One man’s attempt to manage the rigors of a presidential campaign without being or seeming depleted by them. Another man’s challenge to manage any kind of presidential campaign at all with the sword of imprisonment dangling over his head. I can’t shake the feeling that the 2024 presidential election hinges on those anomalies, with all the usual dynamics minimized or rendered irrelevant by the uncharted terrain that both Biden and Trump are traversing.
Granted, there could be an eventual matchup other than Biden versus Trump. The seeming inevitability of that face-off prompts me to distrust it: Life in general and politics in particular are seldom as tidy and predictable as that.
And even if it does turn out to be the choice before us, we’ll hear plenty about matters other than Biden’s health and Trump’s indictments — about inflation, Hunter Biden, migrants, Hunter Biden, NATO, Hunter Biden, abortion, Hunter Biden. In terms of values and policy as well as demeanor, Biden and Trump have governed and will govern as differently as two leaders can.
But questions about Biden’s physical and cognitive fitness aren’t going away. In private and in whispers, many Democrats express doubts about his robustness and crispness. They entertain the possibility of — and in some cases, wish for — a turn of events by which someone else becomes the party’s nominee. They contemplate how much is at risk.
As well they should. “If Trump beats Biden next year, there won’t be another free and fair election,” A.B. Stoddard wrote in The Bulwark recently, an assessment that I find as correct as it is blunt.
Trump’s chances of prevailing are bound up in what happens with his indictments and how they mature in the public mind. Until now, they seem to have helped him with the Republican primary electorate by feeding his martyr act, by supporting his portrayal of himself as a proxy for Americans who don’t meekly obey elite liberals’ orders.
But that could change. I suspect it will. Even a part played as well as Trump’s poor, persecuted me suffers from overexposure, and even an electorate as polarized as ours includes some voters who make their decisions along practical lines. The uncertainty of Trump’s legal fate and the mess and melodrama of every second of his existence will matter to them.
If they’re wise, it will matter more — much, much more — than Biden’s diminished brio. Picking between Biden and Trump wouldn’t be about surrendering to the lesser of two evils. It would be about distinguishing imperfection from evil, about recognizing that one route preserves democracy while the other opens the door to autocracy, about realizing that there would be remedies for Biden’s limitations but no reprieve from Trump’s excesses.
Old is workable. Depravity is a dead end.
Words Worth Sidelining (the Iconic Edition)
When I started working at The Times, way back in the Mesozoic Era, I learned quickly that certain sloppily used words rankled the news organization’s vigilant copy editors much more than others. “Unique” was prominent among them.
We overexuberant writers regularly tried to shuttle it into our articles to ramp up their drama and puff up their significance, and we were repeatedly and rightly slapped down: Was the “unique” sequence of events or the “unique” political actor really one of a kind? Without peer? Without replica?
The answer, almost always, was no. “Unique” didn’t apply. So “unique” didn’t survive. We grudgingly settled for “unusual.” We made peace with “atypical.”
Why hadn’t we started out there? I think there’s a reason beyond a reflexive purpling of our prose. Regardless of our professions, many of us humans — certainly, many of us Americans — tend to see the circumstances and challenges of our own moment in the grandest, most self-inflating terms. And so we tend to describe them in the grandest, most self-inflating terms.
“Unique” isn’t unique. It belongs to a whole lexicon of hyperbole, an entire brood of overstatements. Two in particular rankle you. I know that because they pop up frequently in emails that you send me, urging me to call them out. You’ve had quite enough of “unprecedented.” And the ubiquity of “iconic” is driving you mad.
Like “unique,” “unprecedented” is fitting only under strict conditions, and after Donald Trump stormed onto the presidential scene in 2015, news events met them more often than usual. But once writers and commentators extracted “unprecedented” from their verbal tool kits, many used it indiscriminately. It was a hammer with such a resounding, rewarding thwack. Enamored of that sound, they reduced it to white noise.
To overuse a word is to undermine it, and “iconic” illustrates that as well. Recently, I did a Google search of its mention in news sources over the prior week. I found references not only to “iconic” hotels (fair enough) and “iconic” dishes (ditto) but also to “iconic” raincoats, “iconic” images of the track star Usain Bolt and “iconic” beauty serums. There was even a list of the actress Blake Lively’s seven “most iconic roles.” Seven?! One was her shark-terrorized surfer in “The Shallows.” I’ve seen “The Shallows” (don’t ask), and I can vouch that her character musters considerable courage and ingenuity. But that doesn’t make her some soggy Erin Brockovich.
It’s time for restraint — with “unprecedented,” with “iconic” and with another exaggeration that has been making the rounds. How many “unicorns” can there be? They’re multiplying like deer in the suburbs. Here a unicorn, there a unicorn, everywhere a unicorn, chomping on linguistic purity like a doe on my neighbor’s hostas. Let’s end the feast.
Words Worth Sidelining is a recurring newsletter feature. Thanks to Shane Sahadi of Brentwood, Calif., and Kathy Simolaris of Wilbraham, Mass., among many others, for flagging “unprecedented,” and to Adam Eisenstat of Pittsburgh and Norma Howard of Seattle, among many others, for sounding the alarm about “iconic.”
For the Love of Sentences
The musician Jimmy Buffett died last week, and journalists paid vivid tribute to a colorful character. In The Washington Post, Amy Argetsinger and Hank Stuever framed him in terms of the rock band that gave us “Hotel California,” writing that Buffett “looked like an Eagle, or at least someone an Eagle might have hired to replace the kitchen cabinets in a house on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, who winds up staying the weekend, playing guitar.” (Thanks to Tom Davis of Green Bay, Wis., and Augusta Scattergood of Washington, D.C., for nominating this.)
In The Times, Guy Trebay appraised Buffett’s sartorial style by what he eschewed: “not for Mr. Buffett the hippie-adjacent suedes and leathers of his musical contemporaries.” (Alan Stamm, Birmingham, Mich.)
The Times also resurfaced Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s 2018 profile of Buffett as a late-blooming and lavishly compensated entrepreneur: “Jimmy Buffett — the nibbling on sponge cake, watching the sun bake, getting drunk and screwing, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere Jimmy Buffett — has been replaced with a well-preserved businessman who is leveraging the Jimmy Buffett of yore in order to keep the Jimmy Buffett of now in the manner to which the old Jimmy Buffett never dreamed he could become accustomed.” (Charles Ellis Harp, Victoria, B.C., and Chip Pearsall, Greenville, N.C., among others)
The past week was a good one for spirited takes on college football. On ESPN’s website, David Hale provided context for the Colorado Buffaloes’ upset victory, in the first weekend of college football, over the T.C.U. Horned Frogs, who played in the national championship game some eight months ago: “Sure, this wasn’t last year’s T.C.U. That team was like the guitar solo in ‘Free Bird’ — chaotic, rollicking, lasting far longer than it had any right to, but never truly earning the respect of the cultured class of critics. But those Frogs had a host of N.F.L.-caliber players. This year’s team — well, it’s a little like seeing Skynyrd today. There’s no one from the original band left.” (Chris Wheatley, Port Ludlow, Wash.)
And in The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., Luke DeCock questioned the wisdom of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s admission of S.M.U., the University of California and Stanford University into its fold. “It was a late-night deal at Food Lion: Buy one irrelevant football program, get two free,” he wrote. (Eric Walker, Black Mountain, N.C.)
Moving on to politics, Peter Sagal in The Atlantic explained that abducting and deprogramming MAGA cultists wasn’t a workable strategy, given the cult’s size: “It would take half the country kidnapping the other half of the country, and then who would feed the pets?” (Donna Cameron, Brier, Wash.)
In The Times, Vanessa Friedman pondered the moral to the promiscuous use of Donald Trump’s mug shot in merchandise produced not only by his supporters but also by his critics: “What does it mean, exactly, that no matter our allegiances at this particular moment, or our different versions of recent history, we share a common ground right in the middle of an ocean of consumer kitsch? That while we may have lost the skill of constructive dialogue, we all still speak T-shirt?” (Barbara Buswell, Oakland, Calif.)
And this is how Jack Shafer, in Politico, described Mitch McConnell’s most recent incident of sudden speechlessness: “The top Republican powered down for 30 seconds as if an unseen hand had removed the lithium ion battery from his chassis.” (Tim White, Moncure, N.C.)
To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here and include your name and place of residence.
On a Personal Note
When it’s close to bedtime and I’m too tired to read or to follow the plot of a movie or series, I favor nature documentaries. I luxuriate in images of scenery inaccessible to the casual traveler. I marvel at the patience and prowess of whoever managed to capture footage of a mature lion at the moment it killed, a young albatross at the instant it took flight.
But what we humans can do is arguably paltry next to the animals’ feats. That’s always one of my takeaways. Operating on ancient instinct, birds migrate across or between entire continents. Salmon make that crazy trek upstream. Polar bears swim for miles and miles, from ice floe to ice floe, in the frigid hope of sneaking up on a seal.
All those phenomena appear in resplendent color and breathtaking detail in “Our Planet II,” a four-part documentary that began streaming on Netflix in June. It means to awe, and it succeeds. But it does something even more powerful and important: It humbles.
I don’t know how any person can behold the diversity and majesty of the wildlife on display in “Our Planet II,” or in many similar celebrations of the natural world, and not question the presumptuousness and recklessness with which we often disturb and destroy what’s around us. I don’t know how anyone can shake off the reminder that we share the Earth with creatures too extraordinary to be taken for granted.
As a warming planet melts ice floes, those polar bears swim longer and harder, at risk of starvation. As our garbage pollutes the oceans, albatrosses sometimes choke on plastics that they mistake for food. They have no say in our behavior, but they’re often at the mercy of it. Maybe that makes some people feel godlike. In light of how we’ve comported ourselves, it makes me feel ashamed.