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Biden Speaks at Normandy

Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of D-Day, and a major commemoration was held, with both veterans of the invasion and numerous world leaders—among them Joe Biden—in attendance.

Before we proceed to the political angle here, let's pause for a very brief history lesson. By late 1943, Allied forces in Western and Southern Europe (mostly troops from the U.S., U.K. and Canada) were effectively stuck in Italy. Russia's army in Eastern Europe, meanwhile, was making steady progress in reconquering territory that had been seized by the Nazis. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill felt enormous pressure to get their forces "back in the game." Officially, that was because the war was a team effort, and it was too much to ask the Russians to do all the dirty work themselves. Unofficially, but still very much on the minds of Roosevelt and Churchill, was the very real concern that the Russians would convert any nations they "liberated" into puppet states. There was little doubt that would happen in Eastern Europe once the war was over, and the U.S. and U.K. very much wanted to limit the spread of Russian influence as much as was possible.

Under the circumstances, there weren't too many targets available. Any new offensive had to go through Western Europe; not only would an invasion of Eastern Europe be redundant, it would also be an unacceptable threat to the Russians. Going through Spain was a nonstarter. The Francisco Franco regime was an ally of the Adolf Hitler regime in all but name, which meant that the Spanish were not going to allow their territory to be used voluntarily, and that forcible entry would have led them to declare war on the Allies. So, it was either the southern coast of France or somewhere on the northern coast of Europe.

Had the decision been made in 1942, the pick would probably have been the southern coast of France, because the English channel was teeming with U-Boats. But by 1943, the Allies had sonar and were much more able to defend themselves against these underwater menaces. So, the pick was the central coast of northern France, roughly 150 miles (275 km) NNW of Paris. This target was chosen primarily due to its proximity to England (it's roughly 115 miles, or 185 km, from the southern coast of England to the site of the landings). In hopes of tricking the Germans, Allied leadership put out false intelligence suggesting the invasion would be multi-pronged, and would target: (1) Norway, (2) a portion of the French coast closer to Germany than Normandy is and (3) the southern coast of France. There is considerable evidence that this chicanery was at least partly effective.

All of this said, the Nazis knew full well that any portion of the French coast could be attacked at any time, and so all portions of the French coast were heavily fortified. Further, attacking land-based positions from water is always a tricky proposition. It's easy enough, from the vantage point of the present day, to decide that World War II was "The Good War" or that the D-Day invasion was a sound idea, because we know how things turned out. Never forget that, in the moment, the prospects of success were much more hazy. Perhaps the most useful way to illustrate this is to recount the de facto letter of resignation that Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote, to be released in the event that the attack on Normandy failed:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.

Of course, that letter was never released. Although the first wave of the Allied attack was bloody, with soldiers being mowed down by the hundreds, the Germans were ultimately unable to mount a successful defense of the French coast. Allied forces managed to establish a beachhead, and then to commence large-scale operations in northern and western France. The Germans pulled back and eventually launched a massive counteroffensive, which resulted in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. That engagement ended in defeat for Hitler's forces and, at that point, Germany's goose was effectively cooked. Within 6 months of that loss, Hitler would be dead by his own hand and the Germans would surrender. In short, D-Day was a big deal.

This year's commemoration will almost certainly be the last big D-Day anniversary to include actual veterans of the invasion. The last living Civil War veteran to have seen combat was James Hard, who was born in 1843, participated in several battles in 1861 and 1862 (at the ages of 18 and 19), and died in 1953. In other words, he lived about 90 years after his final battle. Obviously, medicine is much improved from the 19th century. However, Hard was one in 3 million veterans of the Civil War, whereas D-Day involved about 150,000 Allied troops. So, a handful of D-Day participants might make it to the 85th anniversary, at which point they will be somewhere between 103 and 110 years old. But even if the young whippersnappers of the bunch make it to 108 years of age, and live to see the 90th anniversary, it is not probable they will be able to travel hundreds or thousands of miles. So an era effectively came to an end yesterday.

And now, back to modern-day politics, Biden delivered a very able 16-minute speech at the main D-Day ceremony. Here it is, if you are interested:

At very least, as you can see in the footage, the veterans in attendance were rapt.

As chance would have it, (Z) wrote a fair bit about speeches exactly like this one in his dissertation. There's something of a one-two step going on: (1) whatever president is speaking makes sure to honor the veterans present and the sacrifices they made, and (2) that president then pivots to the present, and uses the historical event/the veterans to rally support for that president's domestic and/or foreign agenda. Being a Civil War historian, (Z) was writing about the Civil War (and specifically the Battle of Gettysburg), and how anniversary celebrations of that battle were used to rally support for the Spanish-American War (William McKinley), World War I (Woodrow Wilson), and the New Deal (Franklin D. Roosevelt). Biden's speech was about World War II, of course, but it wasn't especially different (and was about as far removed from the actual events as was FDR's 1938 speech at Gettysburg). Biden decreed:

We know the dark forces that these heroes fought against 80 years ago; they never fade. Aggression and greed, the desire to dominate and control... these are perennial. The struggle between dictatorship and freedom is unending.

What, exactly, was Biden alluding to here? Well, you could interpret this as a statement about the war in Ukraine, especially since Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was present in the audience. That is certainly how Politico, to take one example, interpreted it. On the other hand, since the Nazis were fascists, one could also interpret Biden's words as being about Donald Trump. That is how the more lefty outlets like the Daily Beast, to take one example, interpreted it.

And now, a segue. Here is what Fox's Sean Hannity said about Biden's performance yesterday:

He seemed totally, completely out of it. Biden struggled with where to walk, where to sit, where to stand, even appeared to doze off at times and look generally uneasy during the entire trip. As reported, "Biden's perpetual state of confusion on display in Normandy amid rising cognitive questions." This comes just two days after a bombshell report from The Wall Street Journal titled, "Behind Closed Doors, Biden Shows Signs of Slipping." Oh, you're just figuring that out?

Notice that none of this review applies to the actual speech. After all, people can watch the actual speech for themselves (see above) and reach their conclusions. No, the ever-disingenuous Hannity based his conclusions on things that are virtually impossible to find footage of, like Biden walking up on the dais 20 minutes before his speech. So, viewers are pretty much left to take his word for it.

But the real reason we pass along Hannity's comments is the bit about The Wall Street Journal piece, which was indeed headlined "Behind Closed Doors, Biden Shows Signs of Slipping." We were unable to read it because the article, like most content on the WSJ's website, is paywalled, and we will be damned if we ever give so much as one penny to Rupert Murdoch. Yesterday, however, both CNN and Media Matters came to the rescue.

Under the headlines "The Wall Street Journal's story about Biden's mental acuity suffers from glaring problems" (CNN) and "The Wall Street Journal's story about Biden 'slipping' is comically weak" (MM), the two outlets absolutely shred the Journal's reporting. As it turns out, there is only one named source in the entire story, and that is... Kevin McCarthy. This would be the same McCarthy who is a shameless liar when it serves his political needs, and who is currently angling for a post in a second Trump administration. It would also be the same McCarthy who was previously caught on tape saying that Biden is perfectly fine, mentally. Every other source is anonymous, and even most of those are Republican and/or are hearsay.

Meanwhile, the two "reporters" who wrote the piece (and we use that term VERY loosely) decided not to include some of the quotes they got from Democratic sources who were more than happy to be on the record. For example, Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said she gave an interview to the Journal, and yet she was not included in the piece at all.

Perhaps the best way to think about this comes from the CNN piece we link above, written by the outlet's media analyst Oliver Darcy (who is one of their best staffers):

It is difficult to imagine that the newspaper, or any outlet, would run a similar story declaring that Trump is "slipping" behind the scenes based on the word of top Democratic figures—despite the fact that the Democratic leadership has demonstrated a much stronger relationship with the truth in recent years than their Republican counterparts.

Certainly, if such a piece were written, nobody (including us) would take it seriously, because partisans not only might lie, but even the honest ones are all-but-certain to suffer from confirmation bias.

If we were conspiratorially minded, we might suspect that this story was produced on the orders of certain persons to whom we would not give a penny. We might further suspect that the timing was meant to take some of the attention away from certain ex-presidents' felony convictions. In any event, whatever the agenda was, it was not terribly successful, as the story was almost exclusively picked up by right-wing outlets whose readers/viewers already think Biden is a senile, old fool. (Z)

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