Wednesday, April 3, 2024

BTRTN: The Dems’ “Three Presidents...” and What Does the GOP Have to Offer?

Steve scored tickets to the “Three Presidents” event at Radio City and provides his first-hand observations. The uplifting evening made him wonder -- what would the equivalent event look like for today’s Republican Party?

The email arrived, and I assumed it was spam.

“Click on this link and get your tickets to see Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton in New York City on March 28!”

Hey, I couldn’t resist. What if it was real? Heck, I should at least find out how many zillions of dollars I’d have to spend to get a couple of tix to this Democratic political junkie uber-fantasy.  I click on the link. Yikes, I say to myself. It sure looks real.

  The poster: It was real!...

I scan the ticket prices and see that my concerns about pricing are justified. Seats for $250,000 each? Already sold out. The $100,000 seats? All gone. The $50,000 seats? Nothing left.

I keep scrolling all the way down, and blink in disbelief. There are still seats available for $250. My heart races.

I pounce. Worst case scenario, I figure, I have made a nice contribution to the Biden campaign, and I am going to be told that my $500 entitles me to two passes to the most expensive Zoom call of all time.

But no. It’s real. I have two tickets to see Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden interviewed live by Stephen Colbert. It is the Mount Rushmore of liberalism. It is on the scale of the Beatles reunion that never happened. And I’m gonna be there!

The author in political junkie heaven.

The big day arrives. After enduring a stupefying wait in a light rain on Fifth Avenue and 49th Street, the crowd begins an agonizingly slow march of six-inch steps up Fifth, finally turning left onto 51st Street. Thousands of people press forward, seeing no evidence of queues, officials, or instructions. It is a complete mess. I am reminded of Will Rogers. “I belong to no organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

We reach our seats at 6:40, minutes before the event is supposed to begin.  Radio City Music Hall is largely empty: most patrons are still on 49th Street in the rain.  We settle in for a long wait. At 7:50, Hakeem Jeffries and Chuck Schumer are sent out to create the illusion that the event will start soon.  But it is just a filibuster, buying time until the soaking donors are inside the building.

At 8:20, Mindy Kaling appears to call the event to order. She is warm and engaging. She tells the crowd that accepting this gig means that she is forfeiting the possibility of landing the lead role in any future Nikki Haley biopic. I smile and ask myself if anyone has ever noticed that there are no Republican comedians. We’re finally underway.

In rapid sequence, Lizzo, Ben Platt, Lea Michele, Queen Latifah, and Cynthia Erivo perform with deafening percussion and an eyeball-searing light show. Given the average age and greying hair color of the Democratic donors in the audience, I am thinking that a soft acoustic set from Carole King and James Taylor would have been more on point.

Finally, at approximately 9:00 – and we only report the factual veracity of truth and accuracy here, folks – we hear the thunderous opening chords of the national anthem of New Jersey and the raspy baritone of this website’s patron saint, as a recording of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run explodes and the strobes bring this fair city light. One of the aircraft carrier-grade hydraulic lifts underneath Radio City powers up, and the foreground stage rises, bringing the “Three Presidents” and Late Show host Stephen Colbert up to stage level. The crowd goes absolutely bonkers.

As the thunderous applause recedes, they sit, and Colbert’s opening joke sets a tone: “This is an especially exciting and rare occasion. Three presidents have all come to New York, and not one of them is here to appear in court." 

Colbert gets down to business, greeting the three presidents by noting that each is a world class talker, and suggests five-minute limits on Obama and Clinton, and affording Biden seven minutes. It’s a cagey gambit: Colbert knows that once a President of the United States starts talking, there is no way he can interrupt. And each President has his own hand-held mic.

The ingoing storyline is simple: Joe Biden has taken an enormous risk by appearing onstage with two men who are younger than him and widely viewed to be among the most charismatic, energetic, and articulate politicians in American history. Bill Clinton, who was elected President 32 years ago, is three years younger than Biden.

But once again – as he did in the State of the Union – Joe Biden beats expectations.

Colbert’s first question is for Biden: “How would you describe what’s at stake in this election?” Biden is not shy: “I think our democracy is at stake. Not a joke. I think our democracy is literally at stake.” Biden goes straight at Trump, castigating his infamous “both sides” line after Charlottesville, and spoke of an “inflection point in history… this guy denies that there is global warming…got rid of Roe v. Wade… but wants to get rid of the ability of anyone anywhere in America to have the right to choose. All the things he’s doing are so old.”

Democrats who were worried that Biden was not up to the fight – or up to this night – relax. Biden has game.

Obama and Clinton know their jobs. Each is eager to convey that this is not just about avoiding another four years of Trump… it is about staying the course with a very successful President. Each eagerly smother Joe Biden with kudos for his achievements as President.

But inside the hall, the story line of the night is abruptly altered, as no small number of Gaza protesters have managed to gain access. In a clearly coordinated and orchestrated manner, they periodically startle the crowd by randomly leaping from their seats in different sections of the auditorium, screaming angry Pro-Palestinian invective. “30,000 deaths! Blood on your hands!” Each is rapidly subdued and hauled out by the heavy secret service presence.

A security guard whisks away a protester.

Colbert once again proves himself capable of handling dicey political topics at a level far higher than one might expect of your average talk show host, altering his scripted questions on the fly to raise the issue of Gaza directly following one of the earliest interruptions. The three presidents are more than ready.

Indeed, Biden is the one who first sees and seizes the opportunity to turn the protest into a teaching moment. “That’s all right, let them go,” he says. “There are too many innocent victims, Israeli and Palestinian. We’ve got to get more food and medicine, supplies into the Palestinians.  But we can’t forget, Israel is in a position where its very existence is at stake… All those people, they weren’t killed. They were massacred. And imagine if that happened in the United States. And the – tying a mom and her daughter together, pouring kerosene on them, burning them to death. It’s understandable Israel has such profound anger. And Hamas is still there.” 

Biden demonstrates his easy command of regional politics and his certain vision for the future. “I’ve been working with the Saudis and all the Arab countries, including Egypt, Jordan, and Qatar. They’re prepared to recognize Israel for the first time but there has to be a post-Gaza plan, there has to be a two-state solution. It doesn’t have to occur today, but there has to be a progression.”

When Obama weighs in, another protester springs up and screams. Obama – usually the master of nuance, measure, and balance -- stares out in the direction of the protester and icily lectures: “You can’t just talk and not listen… because that’s part of democracy. Part of democracy is not just talking, it’s listening. That’s what the other side does,” he says sharply, and the audience explodes at the powerfully executed double-zing.

Clinton echoes that each of the three Presidents understand the volatility and emotional intensity at play in the region, and notes that each advocates a two-state solution: “When Joe Biden says he wants a two-state solution, we all lived through the same thing… And you should trust him to work for it, to work to ease the suffering of the totally innocent Palestinian citizens and not to allow Israel’s security to be lost over a bitter difference between the legitimacy of the Palestinians to statehood, which we agree with – all three of us.”

The protesters inside Radio City do not seem to realize that they are giving the leaders on stage the perfect opportunity to demonstrate knowledge, leadership, and grace. Defy the law of unintended consequences at your own peril. The  three men of substance and consequence demonstrate what strength, experience, and wisdom in real time really looks like. You may not agree with Biden on Gaza, but everyone in that auditorium got a lesson in navigating the intricacies of an emotionally super-charged conflict

Indeed, if there was a surprise for me in the evening, it was that Bill Clinton was less sharp than I expected. In his halting and occasionally meandering answers, Clinton may have helped make Biden look strong. I reported this observation to my brother, who immediately wondered whether wily old Bill Clinton was merely once again proving he was the smartest guy in the room.

The three presidents indeed lived up to Colbert’s concern that they would each exhaust their allotted time. Occasionally they rambled. It seemed possible that Barack Obama was throttling back, not letting loose his full oratorical genius for fear of irretrievably upstaging the incumbent President. But there was no doubt Obama remains the supernova in the Democratic galaxy, and Biden is smart to hold him tight and turn him loose. He’s fired up – and he’s ready to go.  

There was no shortage of criticism of -- and grave concern about -- Biden's predecessor in the Oval Office. Colbert was at his interviewing best when he began a question to Biden by referencing January 6. "I remember my feelings that day," Colbert said. "But I have never heard you talk about what was going through your mind that day. What were thinking about when you saw that unfold?"

Biden's is blunt.  "Look, we had no president on January the sixth." Biden continues, saying how Trump "sat there in the dining room off the Oval Office for several hours and watched... didn't do a damn thing."  Biden goes on to tell a story of meeting with European leaders shortly after taking office and trying to assure them that "America is back," only to hear one leaders sharply reply "for how long?" Biden excoriates Trump for saying he would pardon January 6 criminals, for his "love letters" with Kim Jong Un, and concludes that Trump as a "perverse" view of the world. Biden is harsh and forceful in his criticism. No "Sleepy" in this Joe.

As the protesters ran out of steam, the mood lightened. Colbert joked about bibles and golden sneakers. Biden said that he had once discussed playing golf with Trump, noting that he told Trump he’d give him three strokes if he carried his own bag.

In the days following the event, I read the reports. My favorite, perhaps, was the write-up on the Fox News website, in which Fox excoriated CBS for allowing their late-night star Colbert to participate in so partisan an event. I realized the answer to the question I had teed up earlier: comedians succeed by telling the truth. Fox, the GOP's in-house faux news organizations must settle lawsuits for three quarters of a billion because they lie. Why are there no Republican comedians? To be in the modern GOP is to buy into Trump's congenital lying.

The Fox article caused me to wonder: if Donald Trump’s Republican Party tried to match the “Three Presidents” event, who would be on their stage?

Here’s the fact of it: if Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush were alive, they wouldn’t even be invited to the racist, isolationist, fake-news party of Donald Trump.

The only other living Republican former President, George W. Bush, hides his head in Texas, hoping his deafening silence is interpreted as condemnation. Deceased former GOP Presidential nominees Bob Dole and John McCain were decorated military heroes who would be appalled at Donald Trump’s cowardice and obsequious deference to our authoritarian adversaries.

The last person nominated prior to Trump -- Mitt Romney in 2012 – was forceful and principled in his opposition to Trump, voting twice for his impeachment. Romney is reviled in today’s GOP. Voted off the island, he has chosen to retire from politics.

With no prior Presidents or Presidential candidates to put on their stage, perhaps the Republicans would invite the two government officials most responsible for the toxic gridlock and polarization that is crippling our government and democracy: Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell. If democracy in America ends in 2024 with the re-election of Donald Trump, historians will point to these three individuals as the men who killed it.

Gingrich, as Speaker of the House, can be credited with the essential philosophy of the modern GOP: that serving the party is more important than serving the country. Newt Gingrich believed in a zero-sum philosophy in which Republicans must actively prevent any legislation that would be perceived as a win for Democrats, even if it would clearly benefit the American people.

McConnell, of course, replicated Gingrich in his systematic destruction of bipartisan cooperation in the United States Senate. It was Mitch McConnell who announced that his official objective as Senate Majority Leader was to make Barack Obama a one-term President. McConnell, too, passionately believed that serving his party was far more important that serving his country.

But Newt Gingrich is a dim memory in today’s MAGA-crazed GOP. And Mitch McConnell? He could have personally ended Donald Trump’s political career two different times by encouraging his colleagues to vote to impeach Donald Trump. In failing to do so, McConnell allowed Trump to rise again – and to toss McConnell into the trash bin. McConnell’s spinelessness and cowardice led to his own demise in Donald Trump’s party.

No, there would only be one person on the stage at the Republican event: Donald Trump, who uniquely attempts to destroy democracy with the notion that self is more important than party or country.

Trump has promised us that he intends to be a dictator… and some fools believe his coy disclaimer that it will be “only for day one.”

That the Republican equivalent of “Three Presidents” would have only one bloviating, self-worshipping 30-watt would-be dictator on stage tells you all you need to know about today’s Republican Party.

That the Democrats have three titans of democracy, three uniters, and three very wise, experienced, and thoughtful men spearheading the drive for Joe Biden’s re-election tells you plenty, too.

I left Radio City Music Hall that night re-energized.

If these three guys can give it all to save democracy, so can we.


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