Alan Zendell, March 27, 2022,
In 1987, campaigning in the Democratic Primaries for the 1988 Nomination for President, Senator Joe Biden used some lines from a particularly moving speech by British MP Neil Kinnock without attributing them to him. The resulting accusations of plagiarism ended Biden’s campaign.
Knowing what I do about politicians and the thousands of speeches they deliver, and knowing what I do about Biden, I never believed he deliberately plagiarized Kinnock’s words. It’s the speech writer’s responsibility to vet the contents of every speech, and while, as Harry Truman said, the buck stops with the president (or in this case, the candidate) it’s quite a stretch to expect a politician on the stump to recognize every line from every speech given by every other politician.
Even Mr. Kinnock agrees. In 2020, when Biden was campaigning against Donald Trump, Kinnock was interviewed by The Guardian. Kinnock said he’d always regarded the incident as an innocent mistake. “Joe’s an honest guy…If Trump had done it, I would know that he was lying.” Even so, ever since, Biden’s critics have referred to him as a gaffe machine. Personally, even if he sometimes puts his foot in his mouth, I prefer a leader who speaks his mind without concern for political correctness to one who cannot utter a sentence without lying, insulting someone, or massacring the language.
The gaffe thing came up again yesterday, as President Biden was delivering a speech in support of Ukraine and his Polish hosts, who’ve taken the lead in resettling Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia’s aggression. Biden accused Vladimir Putin of starting a “war of choice” with Ukraine that had neither provocation nor justification other than Putin’s dream of recreating the former Soviet Union. After recounting acts of bombing and shelling against civilian targets, which he characterized as war crimes, Biden added, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
Oh, the furor. Every media hack who sensed that an alleged Biden gaffe would help ratings more than reporting that Russian forces had bombed another school or hospital reported, “Biden calls for regime change,” something American leaders and diplomats are apparently not supposed to do. That’s especially ironic in this case, because a large majority of Americans, including most politicians looking for new sound bites believe removing Putin from power is the only way the current war can end without risking World War 3.
The White House tried to spin Biden’s off the cuff comment to assure the world that he wasn’t advocating removing Putin as president, but referring to his potential power to threaten neighboring countries. In the process, they shifted the focus away from the unprecedented NATO summit and the meetings Biden held with the European Council and the Prime Minister of Poland. That’s more than disappointing. The world is on the edge of its collective seats trying to figure out how to defend Ukraine and prevent attacks that would trigger Article 5 of the NATO treaty and risk direct conflict between NATO and Russia.
Although Biden’s speeches this week included lists of things the United States and Europe are doing to help Ukraine, the New York Times reported today that “the president ended his trip…and returned home with few concrete answers about how or when the war will end — and grim uncertainty about the brutal and grinding violence still to come.” That’s because Biden continues to reject the idea of relocating MIG fighter planes from Poland and sophisticated anti-aircraft missile systems from Slovakia to Ukraine.
We don’t know what was said behind closed doors in Europe this week. While NATO is happy to use Biden as their spokesperson to the world, in particular to address Putin, we’re not aware, for example, whether Biden is voicing his own beliefs or simply stating that the thirty NATO nations, which can only take military action by unanimous consent, disagree about supplying Ukraine with planes and missile systems.
NATO countries that border Russia and Ukraine see the war as a precursor to Putin’s ambition to invade them next and want Ukraine defended to the max. Western Europe and the United States appear to be more concerned about avoiding World War 3. A couple of days ago, I would have strongly advocated giving Ukraine the planes and missiles they need immediately, but as Russia seems to be backing off its initial goal of decapitating Ukraine’s government and occupying its cities, the war may become a regional struggle over pro-Russian breakaway provinces.
Given Ukraine’s stoic resistance, stopping the Russian invasion in its tracks and disrupting Putin’s ability to keep his forces supplied, it may be that the more cautious elements of NATO leadership are right to keep the threat of planes and missile systems in reserve. The killing of thousands of civilians and destruction of Ukrainian cities are tragic, but if the apparent change in strategy by Russia is real, nothing is more important than transitioning back from war to diplomacy.