Being president means never having to say you’re sorry.
The line is an allusion to the Erich Segal novel Love Story, released on Valentine’s Day in 1970, when an obscure young man who had passed the Delaware bar exam only two months earlier was setting his sights on the lofty position of New Castle County councilman. Every romantic young person of that era – and few men of his generation matched callow Joe Biden in that aspect – knew that phrase.
On Friday, Mr. Biden spoke about American efforts to withdraw civilians, allies and others from Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban surge across the country, citing what he called “significant progress” on facilitating evacuations. But like almost every president before him, he was unapologetic about his part in an evolving crisis – in this case, one prompted by his decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan this summer.
He did not acknowledge that he defied the advice of the very sort of experts he pilloried Donald Trump for holding in contempt. He did not say he regretted declaring Monday that he stood by his decision and suggesting it was right and brave.
And he gave no hint that he put his presidency in grave peril so soon after he took office with such good intention, public spirit and high hopes. All that evaporated in a 72-hour period of chaos, contention and confusion. It vanished in heartbreaking scenes of Afghans besieging huge American jets, themselves symbols of American good intention, public spirit and high hopes – and in wrenching scenes of Afghan parents handing their babies to American soldiers, not in joy the way they did as American troops liberated France in 1944, but in desperation.
“There will be plenty of time to criticize and second-guess,” he said, “but now – now – I’m focused on getting this job done.”
The President called the Afghanistan operation “one of the largest airlifts in history,” but its mission, tone and operation differed in almost every respect from the most famous airlift in history, the 1948 effort to bring food and medical supplies to besieged West Berlin. That airlift was an act of heroism rather than despair.
Mr. Biden’s Friday speech was an extension of his earlier remarks in which he portrayed himself as a lonely profile in courage.
That evocative phrase comes from the 1956 book by senator John F. Kennedy about political figures displaying “the most admirable of human virtues – courage,” though Eleanor Roosevelt later suggested that JFK’s career had been built on more profile than courage.
The widow of Franklin Roosevelt – a president who never apologized for interning Japanese Americans during the Second World War or for denying the entry of Jews during the Hitler atrocities – wrote the Massachusetts senator a scathing telegram saying:
“My dear boy I only say these things for your own good I have found in lifetime of adversity that when blows are rained on one, it is advisable to turn the other profile.”
In 1961 when he was president, Mr. Kennedy did just that, in one of the few presidential acknowledgments of error in an affair of state.
Mr. Kennedy recovered from the 1961 debacle at the Bay of Pigs – a botched effort to provoke a rebellion against Fidel Castro by using Cuban surrogates – in part because he admitted his errors with an unforgettable line uttered with unforgettable forthrightness.
“Victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan,” he said, acknowledging in stunning extemporaneous remarks at a news conference that “I am the responsible officer of this government.”
He survived that setback, the other Cold War challenges of 1961, and then the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Finally, with his two remarkable speeches of June, 1963 – one on peace, one on civil rights – he positioned himself for a forgiving verdict in history and very likely an easy 1964 re-election fight against senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona.
Presidents find it hard to concede that they have erred. Woodrow Wilson never acknowledged that he miscalculated in insisting that membership in the League of Nations was an indispensable part of the Treaty of Versailles; over the past century, his reputation has dropped precipitously. Herbert Hoover didn’t admit that he failed to address the Great Depression in its early days and, despite modern revisionist accounts, still is blamed, perhaps unfairly, for deepening the economic despair of the 1930s.
At age 96, Jimmy Carter is enjoying a post-presidential revival but his reluctance to own up to his failures on the economy, in his fractious relationship with congressional leaders of his own party, and in the Iran hostage crisis cost him the White House in 1980 and cost him in historical reputation. These three were men of unusual intelligence and accomplishment and yet their presidencies consistently are employed as case studies in failure.
Mr. Biden never pretended to the erudition of Mr. Wilson, nor the global reputation of Mr. Hoover, nor the dispassionate intelligence of Mr. Carter. His appeal always has been to the heart more than to the head – and to his political instincts, which were sharper than any of those doomed predecessors and which is why his 1988 presidential campaign attracted one of the most remarkable assembly of advisers of the time.
Friday, just hours after the new issue of the Economist newspaper was dropped in early distribution in front of office doors throughout Washington (headline in huge type: BIDEN’S DEBACLE), he pressed forward and vowed to “mobilize every resource necessary” to evacuate people and save lives.
He also was working to save his presidency.
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