Living in the White House: Bidens, Bushes, Kennedys, Et Al.

President George W. Bush (right) with Senator Ted Kennedy in the Oval Office, December 12, 2007 (Jim Young / Reuters)

On Joe Biden, George W. Bush, Ted Kennedy, Chris Matthews, Vladimir Putin, Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, and more

In a televised “townhall,” President Biden let it slip that he had never been in the White House residence until he himself became president. This, despite having been vice president for eight years, as you know.

He also said: Living in the White House is much different from living at the vice-presidential spread. At the latter, you got lots of room, and you can go out and do things. The White House, however, is like a “gilded cage.”

Also, people wait on you at the White House. They hand you your suit coat and so forth. “I find myself extremely self-conscious,” said Biden. “I don’t know about you-all, but I was raised in the way that you didn’t look for anybody to wait on you.”

Being in the White House gives you a sense of history, or ought to, I guess. “I’m not Abraham Lincoln,” said Biden. “I’m not Franklin Roosevelt. How do I deal with these problems?”

The business about not having been in the White House residence reminded me of George W. Bush — early, early in his first term. The second week, in fact. The first movie he screened was Thirteen Days, the Kevin Costner flick about the Cuban Missile Crisis. The new president invited members of the Kennedy family to watch the movie with him.

So, that was February 2001. As I recall, Ted Kennedy and some of the others had not been invited to the residence since JFK’s assassination, almost 40 years before. The invitation was very, very Bush.

Listen to Chris Matthews, in a column:

Call me traditional, but this is how a first family should use this country’s most cherished house.

Matthews further said,

This is American government at its best. A Republican president pays tribute to a Democratic family and, in so doing, builds goodwill for his legislative agenda. A conservative with one set of values and loyalties exploits the grandeur of the White House to forge a workaday bond with the country’s most prominent liberal.

(The last reference was to Ted.)

Matthews went on to bash George W. Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, for having no sense of historical responsibility over the house. “He treated the White House as a fund-raising casino,” Matthews said.

And this is how his column ended:

I remember sitting at dinner in the inaugural weeks of 1993 alongside a young Clinton aide who laughed aloud at something said by the man her guy had defeated, the senior George Bush.

“He was asked what was the greatest thing about being president,” she hooted with loud mockery, “and he said ‘The honor of it.’”

She thought the old man’s sentiment was beyond contempt. I believe that one of the first good things the younger Bush can do is bring it back.

Yes, the honor of it. Very, very important.

• When I was doing a little reading about living in the White House, I came across a fact, rather startling: Barron Trump was the first boy to live in the White House since John F. Kennedy Jr., more than 50 years before. Plenty of girls — but no boys.

• Here is President Biden on Xi Jinping: “He doesn’t have a democratic — with a small ‘d’ — bone in his body, but he’s a smart, smart guy.” Yes.

• The meeting in Anchorage between U.S. officials and Chinese officials was “admirably acrimonious,” said George F. Will. I agree. And let me review a couple of remarks.

In advance of the meeting, the U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said, “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.” I think of a Buckley phrase: “neatly formulated.” Blinken went on to say, “And we will engage China from a position of strength.”

In Anchorage, Blinken’s counterpart, Wang Yi, said, “I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize the universal values advocated by the United States.” My chief concern is: Do a majority of Americans recognize those values?

• Let’s pause for a language note, as I sometimes do in this funny column. Above, I said, “Do a majority” — do you prefer “Does a majority”? In English, it’s either-eyether.

• A headline reminded me of the Soviet Union: “Hong Kong activist Andy Li held at psychiatric hospital in secret after return from mainland.” (To read the article, go here.) Yes, that’s what they did back in the USSR: They held dissidents and critics in psychiatric hospitals, usually torturing them, sometimes to death.

The CCP and the CPSU are indeed cousins.

• In 2015, I wrote an article called “A Question of Honor: As the wolves circle, Iraqis who helped us are pleading for visas.” For The Atlantic, George Packer has now written an article called “A Debt of Honor: The U.S. must fulfill its responsibilities to the Afghans who put their trust and lives in American hands.”

We screwed the Vietnamese. We screwed the Iraqis. We will screw the Afghans. It is very, very dangerous to be a friend of the United States, as Bernard Lewis and many others have observed — often more dangerous than being an enemy.

• Bill Browder — father of the Magnitsky acts — tweeted the following:

Alexey Navalny has gone on a hunger strike to protest the sadistic denial of medical care for his crippling back problems. Putin is trying to kill him in slow motion. I saw the same exact thing with Sergei Magnitsky.


• Last summer, Russian agents poisoned Navalny with the military nerve agent Novichok. Ultimately, he was saved in a hospital in Germany. Before that, he was treated in an emergency room in Omsk, a city in Siberia. Recently, two heads of that hospital have died suddenly — unexpectedly.

I think of one of my favorite lines from Garry Kasparov: “I believe in coincidences, but I also believe in the KGB.”

• Did you see this headline in the Wall Street Journal? “Russian Disinformation Campaign Aims to Undermine Confidence in Pfizer, Other Covid-19 Vaccines, U.S. Officials Say.” Yeah, of course. What a sick m.o., IMO.

(For the Journal article, go here.)

• “So, you know Vladimir Putin,” said George Stephanopoulos to President Biden. “You think he’s a killer?” “Mmm hmm, I do,” answered Biden. This was in sharp contrast to Biden’s predecessor.

To refresh your memory: The first time Donald Trump was asked about Putin and killing, he said, “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also.” The other time he was asked about it, he said, “What, you think our country’s so innocent?” Conservatives used to call this “moral equivalence,” back in the bad old days.

In reaction to Biden’s comment, Putin recalled his ambassador, and he challenged Biden to a debate. Many a democrat — note the small “d” — said that Putin ought to debate his political opponents in Russia, rather than imprisoning them. On Fox and so on, some righties were chortling that Putin would clean Biden’s clock, etc.

Did you see Adam Kinzinger’s comment? He, as you know, is a renegade Republican congressman from Illinois (and a former Air Force pilot):

Russia is not our ally; Putin is a murderer. He’s a tyrant who targets freedom-loving people & their elections. He helped Assad kill over 50k children in Syria & tortured activists in Belarus. He sows chaos & acts with impunity across the globe.

I’m rooting for America, always.

Kinzinger talks like a Republican from the bad old days. He ought to be in a museum or something.

• I would like to quote Alon Ben-Meir. He is a veteran international-relations expert, born in Baghdad. In 2019, I did a podcast with him, writing about it in a blogpost, here. The other day, he tweeted,

The ten-year-old civil war in Syria has gone far beyond tragic mass devastation. Innocent children, women, and men should not die from starvation when their only crime is, they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Yes. In my experience, no one gives a rat’s about the Syrians (except the Syrians). No one wants to hear about it. People will weary of the Uyghurs too. I’ve watched and written about human-rights fashion for a long time now. There is a flavor of the month. Then people lose their taste for it.

Remember Darfur? The genocide in the west of Sudan? Terrible crimes still take place in Darfur, but the world has moved on. For years, I tried to interest people in the Uyghurs — people tended to snicker at the name. Now people try to lecture me on the subject. Typical.

The issue of human rights is like hemlines. I mean, interest rises and falls.

• Okay, let me lighten up — with the gun issue? Yes. Michael Che, on Saturday Night Live, had a funny line (and a serious one too). His co-anchor in the “Weekend Update” sketch, Colin Jost, was talking about gun crimes and gun legislation. Che quipped, “I just bought a gun last summer when all those white kids started talking about getting rid of the police.”

• I take my hat off to City Journal, for its current issue: which is a blueprint for the revival of New York City. The world is starving for ideas. Of “dunking” and snarking — “owning” ’em and “drinking their tears” — we have plenty. For ideas — good, honest, and effective ideas — we are starved. So, hurrah for CJ.

• The Masters is coming up. And in recent days I have had a memory. In 2008, I attended an event at “Golf House,” a.k.a. the U.S. Golf Association Museum. Arnold Palmer was one of the starry guests — the starriest — and he conducted a little press conference. Someone asked him about Tiger and his future: the record book and so on. Palmer said, essentially, “The sky’s the limit, as long as he stays healthy.” Then he spoke of some of his own injuries, as I recall.

I thought, “‘As long as he stays healthy’? Come on, this is golf we’re talking about — not football, or even basketball.” Arnold, of course, was right.

• Two years ago, I went to see Charles Hill at Yale. We did a podcast together, which I wrote about here. (The post will lead you to the podcast.) Hill was a great scholar of international relations, a great Foreign Service officer, a great teacher — a “grand strategist.” He has now died at 84.

Let me give you another link: to Eric Edelman’s appreciation of him. Edelman, too, is a distinguished U.S. diplomat and scholar.

Before going to Yale, I said to Charlie Hill, “Do you want to do a podcast?” “Sure,” he said. “What’s a podcast?”

It was such a joy to know and correspond with him a bit. He not only knew the world, he also knew America, and what makes it great. And should our salt ever lose its savour — once and for all — we are cooked. All the diplomatic skill and military might in the world won’t make up for internal rottenness.

• Some music? I review a recording — music for piano and orchestra by Chopin (sure), Rimsky-Korsakov (what?), and Korngold (what?) — here. Also, I tell an interesting story in this one, fed to me by a musicologist friend. I relate the story to William Shatner, of Star Trek — you’ll see.

• A little language? Critics will say to me, of an article of mine, “You lost me at . . .” This phrase has grown up like a weed. It’s everywhere, taking over the lawn. I’m tempted to reply, “You lost me at ‘You lost me at.’”

• I don’t know whether you’ve tried it, but Pepsi has put out a Peeps version, for Easter — you know, Peeps, like the chicks (marshmallow). On one hand, I think this heralds the end-times. On the other, I think: “Yankee ingenuity.”

Bless you, my friends, and thanks for joining me. See you soon.

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