When the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gets an opportunity to question the secretary of the state, you normally can prepare for a deep and mind-numbing conversation about global politics.
Or, in the case of Idaho Sen. Jim Risch’s recent grilling of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, there are many hot-button issues to spice up the proceedings. They could have talked about the mess at the border, the disastrous developments in Afghanistan, or Risch’s claim that President Biden’s foreign policy is mismanaged.
Instead, Risch used his time for a not-so-compelling discussion about mute buttons, and the effort by White House staffers to selectively silence the president.
“Someone has the authority to cut off the president. Who is that person?” Risch asked, saying it happened during the president’s recent visit to Idaho. Blinken, not surprisingly, said that he was not aware of anyone using a mute button. Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press, who was among the pool reporters in the room, wrote in her commentary that no one pulled the plug on the president. Critics labeled the senator’s line of questioning as a waste of time.
Risch, of course, would never ask such questions during the Trump presidency – where the senator was a committee chairman and valuable part of the inner circle. But the politics are different with a Democrat in the White House, and Risch being on the outside.
The implication from Risch’s questions was that, our 78-year-old president isn’t all there mentally – something that Blinken would never acknowledge even if it were true. So if the president is a few bricks shy of a load on the mental end, and Risch knows something about it, then there’s reason to bring up the matter in a public setting. As any good teacher will say, the only “dumb questions” are the ones not asked.
Risch had some foundation to his questions. Politico published a story recently (citing White House officials as sources) saying that when Biden gives public remarks, “staffers will either mute him or turn off his remarks.” The same story said that advisers encourage their boss to essentially stay with the script and not answer spontaneous questions from the media.
The New York Post offered its account of what happened when Biden was in Boise, saying that an official White House livestream of the president was abruptly cut off in mid-sentence – without warning -- as Biden was asking a question of a forest official.
The Post described the matter in Boise as only “the latest example” of the White House cutting off its online coverage of the president.
Biden has admitted to being a “gaffe machine,” which must drive his entourage nuts. As the Politico story indicates, White House staffers have made an effort to minimize those blunders. But when a president is knocking on the door of 80, there will be questions about whether he’s just too old to be president. We heard those whispers during the second half of President Reagan’s term, and to a lesser extent, during the Trump years.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m 71 – and 78 doesn’t look so old. Risch is just a year younger than Biden and shows no signs of slowing down. But there’s a difference between being a U.S. senator from Idaho and the leader of the free world. As for myself, an unpaid political columnist, I’m not in either league -- unless you think the weight of the world hinges on bad golf.
The good thing about Biden is that he acts and sounds presidential for the most part. The bad thing is that he looks and sounds like an old man, which makes him an inviting target for Republicans over the next three years – or until Trump rides to the rescue in 2024.
Of course, Trump will be 78 years old by then, so be careful what you wish for.
Chuck Malloy is a long-time Idaho journalist and columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org