Armchair View of Feebleness

Terry Schwadron
5 min readJun 21, 2024

Terry H. Schwadron

June 21, 2024

The presidential campaigns — and an inordinate number of media reports — are making a lot of noise these days about the mental capacities of Joe Biden and Donald Trump, apparently part of the relentless concern about two aging candidates.

Of course, among the campaigns themselves, exaggeration is a game of persuasion. If the campaigns can make us think the opponent is doddering or unable to focus or otherwise just out of it, the expectation is that any rational voter would opt for their candidate for that reason alone.

In other words, we have become inured to these treatments and expect campaigns to stretch the truth or outright lie about opponents.

The questions arising from media reports about the campaigning, about the public appearances of candidates, about flip-flops, gaffes, and missteps are something else altogether. The coverage of the campaigns now likely has an outsized role in setting perceptions about what the candidates themselves even have to say.

As such, we are seeing plenty of evidence that the political lean of various organizations offering “news” as well as commentary is leading us down unwanted paths of mental and emotional psychology and intentions for and against all the candidates. Through selectivity of images and words, we’re receiving constant messages not about issue differences or even the desire to defend or undercut democratic institutions, but about the candidates’ supposed mental state.

Candidate “character” is about far more than perceived feebleness.

Gaffes Aplenty

An image of Biden turned to watch an arriving paratrooper during the European gathering of international leaders was variously cropped and presented in selected media as if he was completely out of the moment and place — evidence of a doddering fellow who didn’t know where he was. Reports from a private fund-raiser between Trump and various business leaders suggested that Trump was babbling incoherently, much to the amazement of those present. MSNBC routinely cuts away from Trump speeches because he repeats so many provable lies about himself and the country’s political life.

We’re being presented with these “facts” with incomplete context, that are treated differently on CNN or in The New York Times or The Washington Post than on Fox News and commentary hours as if it is the media outlet’s campaign for office. Then commentators suggest that the mainstream outlets are biased for the perceived liberal and The New York Post and Fox for the more conservative.

The Wall Street Journal, which usually is seen as awfully mainstream itself, brought industry criticism on itself with a highlighted article about how confused Biden seems to be as a working partner — quoting only Republican opponents who had negotiated with Biden over policy. Whatever else, the presentation appeared unfair and unbalanced through its choices of whom to quote.

The point is that any news reporting is unlikely to change any minds about candidates now, still months before the election, because anything seen as criticism of one candidate is perceived as untrue or biased. On the one hand, any trust in the storytellers is being eroded by the day. On the other, the various audiences of voters are not open to hearing criticism about their choice in candidates.

Worse, however, is the desire to paste labels about mental acuity and competence based on verbal or physical gaffes from over-subscribed 80-year-olds. Surely, there are some conclusions we can draw from public behaviors, but they are nowhere near the level of what gets thrown about by lay commentators on the ever-present cable stations.

Polls, Interviews, and Momentum

The film clips of Trump’s rallies do show a certain incoherence in the speaker’s insistence on moving from story to story without a lot of connectedness or verbal focus. But whether that lack of focus is an indicator of governance seems much less important than what Trump is telling us about how he will value personal loyalty over expertise, or how he will seek to use a Justice Department to go after rivals, or how he will seek tariffs and seek tax cuts that will boost prices rather than reduce them.

The clips of Biden that show him physically shuffling or holding a page of notes. the reports of forgetting a name hardly seem to reflect the ability to command international alliances in two current wars and a working knowledge of a variety of simultaneous legislative efforts. Again, what he really does as president should outweigh whether Fox and Friends think he lacks spryness.

Presidents run teams of people, who deploy on vast numbers of simultaneous issues. The federal agencies comprise a couple hundred thousand employees. It never is about one individual who is president. Indeed, it would be fair to judge a candidate on the kind of people that individual would appoint as a leadership team or as Supreme Court justices or as ambassadors for change.

This week, Biden is highlighting campaign ads that play up Trump as a convicted felon in the hush-money-business-records-falsification case. It’s not about Trump’s mental state, it’s about his record, maybe his character, but about something behavioral and recorded as real. Even more important is the fact that in decrying his prosecution, Trump consistently undercuts any trust in our judicial systems.

In return, Trump has every right to hit at Biden over his record on the border and over our commitments to allies in the overseas conflicts, which also are real and measurable, but loses ground by suggesting that Biden is feeble-minded, an attack on aging from which he clearly exempts himself.

We may not much like the fact that our two major candidates are both old, white men who embellish their own histories. But psychoanalyzing one or the other as mentally unstable hardly seems as if it is persuasive to a system that is so committed only to winning at all costs. Plus, it’s not medically sound. If commentors want to focus on the need for mental competence testing beyond memorization of five words in order, fine,

Can’t we ask the armchair analysts just to stick to reporting what happens and let us decide whether the candidate is too wifty to trust with a nuclear button?