Thursday, February 15, 2024

Late Style in Biden


Adlai Stevenson and Mayor Richard J. Daley at the podium in the 1956 Democratic convention, via Chicago Collections

Heard Mr. Damon Linker on the radio this morning plugging a post he'd sold to The Atlantic, recycled from his Substack ("Notes From the Middleground"), where he argues that the only way to defeat psychopath Donald Trump is for President Biden to drop out of the race to reelect himself, right away. Apparently (he's a little light on the procedural details), we'll just carry through all the primaries electing an insuperable majority of Biden delegates, except when they get to Chicago on August 19 they'll be able to vote for anybody they want.

Except the one they're pledged to, of course, who won't be running. It'll be just like that other Chicago convention, in 1968! Good times! And not at all guaranteed to elect the Republican, the way the other one elected Richard Nixon. Linker kept saying on the radio "But Nixon barely won!"—which is formally true, he had to split the racist vote with the independent candidacy of George Wallace; I guess he thinks Trump will really get beat in the way Nixon almost did, by his fellow anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., though I don't know which states he thinks Kennedy will win (Wallace's were five in the Deep South; AR, LA, MS, AL, and GA).

Or not exactly. When Lyndon Johnson dropped out of the race at the end of March (not the middle of February), it was a pretty different kind of race from this year's. For one thing, only 13 states had presidential primary contests of the kind that dominate today, two of them owned by "favorite sons" who would hold the delegates in reserve until the convention, and Johnson's designated successor, Vice President Humphrey, was able to accumulate enough delegates to win without personally entering any primaries, with LBJ's expert help in the traditional smoke-filled rooms of states conventions and caucuses, and "delegate primaries" where Uncommitted had an excellent chance of winning.

Johnson had had just one serious opponent, Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, at the time of the New Hampshire primary,  but McCarthy's extraordinary second place finish there, 50-42, was the thing that persuaded LBJ's former attorney general Senator Robert Kennedy to enter the race (too late to enter any of the April primaries), and that was the thing that persuaded Johnson to make his extraordinary decision to withdraw in Humphrey's favor. 

Then came the trauma of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, while McCarthy and Kennedy were battling it out in Indiana. And then, of course, on June 5, while he was celebrating his victories in California and South Dakota, Robert Kennedy was murdered too, with the consequence, which seemed almost like a secondary matter, that Humphrey would certainly win the nomination—there would be no "brokered convention" like the good old days going back to as recently as 1960, but there would be a deeply distressed and alienated community of the young and the Black (12% of the people dying in Vietnam were African American, but nearly all of them were young men of every race), whose rages and fears would not be represented on the convention floor but rather in the street theater and accompanying police riot (and more "unrest" for the northeastern and western Republicans to focus their racism on as an alternative to the Southern-style version, as "law and order" voters for Nixon and Agnew, following the urban riots of 1967).

I don't know exactly how Linker is imagining what's going to happen now if the party decides to obey him: he mentions half a dozen plausible candidates including obligatory diversity representatives (Whitmer's a woman, Warnock is Black, Shapiro is Jewish, Polis is gay, it's like an updated World War II combat movie) plus the white male multimillionaires he's most interested in (Pritzker and Newsom)—not gonna lie, I like them all fine myself, even the rich ones, but what are they going to do? Hold a series of 12 debates? How will it connect to the ongoing selection of Biden delegates in the primaries from March through June? Will there be a poll race in lieu of primaries going on at the same time, maybe eliminating a candidate every couple of weeks? It's a little too reminiscent, for my money, of this year's parade of Republican candidates not-named-Trump, an occasion for the press to keep changing its mind every so often about who's hot and who's not, not an occasion for somebody to democratically emerge, as Biden himself emerged four years ago in the South Carolina primary. I don't know what it is, but among the Republicans this year it was an occasion for people to notice that Trump wasn't there and the press was just being fools.

And what will happen in the convention itself, in the system designed by George McGovern for his own 1972 campaign that has endured until now, where it's a TV spectacle of unity? Are we going back to yet a third Chicago convention, in 1956? (Adlai Stevenson, the 1952 nominee, won by a mile over his rivals in the first ballot, but it took three ballots to nominate a vice presidential candidate, with an unexpectedly fierce competition between Estes Kefauver and the very young senator John F. Kennedy.) Will the state delegations be marking their space with those tall signs? What if they haven't got a decision? Will there be a real contest? Could it last 103 ballots like the 1924 convention? (They lost too, as did Stevenson.) What will the backroom dealing be like, and will we ever know? Will we feel a nostalgia of our own for the thing we've lost, the primary process in which democracy is made a part of the selection? (Primaries were invented in the Progressive era, in a reaction against the corruption of the 19th-century process; Linker thinks they yield the wrong answer.)

I'll tell you one thing: if it's a movie, and it might as well be, and you want it to end with a bang, you couldn't do better than having the convention deadlocked, and winding up dragging Biden onto the floor, because he's the character who brings the coalition together, male and female, Black and white, union members and wage slaves, woodchucks and immigrants, Boomers and Zoomers. In spite of the way some of us may be feeling at the moment on a specific issue here and there (I'm betting the migration question and the Gaza question will look somewhat different to us in August, I'll get into that in later posts). 

One of the biggest things Biden exemplifies is what's good about being old; he's got what the late Edward Said described as a "late style" (Said was thinking especially of Beethoven) completely different from his maturity 30-odd years ago: spare and cantankerous, gnarly, with too many ideas to finish any of them, with

the power to render disenchantment and pleasure without resolving the contradiction between them 

I'm not even kidding, that's why his policy prescriptions are so good. We'll start recognizing it, I hope, the way the Viennese public recognized Beethoven at the premiere of the ninth symphony, when he insisted on conducting though he was too deaf to know what was going on, and the concertmaster had to push him to turn around and take his bow when it was over—the tempo in his mind was slower than the tempo the musicians were using—but the audience understood the extraordinary character of the music they were hearing, and roared with applause he couldn't hear. I’m even drawing an analogy between Beethoven’s deafness and Biden’s stutter, as part of an explanation.

Cross-posted at the Substack.

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