Thursday, December 5, 2019


By Dominique Paul Noth

The "don't mess with me" moment.
December 4-5 – eleven months before the presidential election – were great days for the Democrats to erupt in feistiness. The bookends were Nancy Pelosi, 79, and Joe Biden, 77.

Pelosi’s moments were historically more consequential, the first invoking the Founding Fathers as she announced her committee chairmen – and they are hers – were writing up articles of impeachment and the other her abrupt stride back to the podium when a right-wing reporter from Sinclair Broadcasting asked if she “hated” the president -- picking up on a constant GOP talking point about her underlying motives.

Her “don’t mess with me” response was crystal clarification about the difference between opposing his policies and doing her duty to preserve the Constitution.  The president may not believe she prays for him, but no one else who heard her doubted it. Certainly not anyone raised in Catholic principles.

Nor had many previously weighed why she arrived so cautiously and then so efficiently at impeachment.  Listeners were seeing Pelosi in three dimensions – a savvy political engineer and a woman of duty to her conscience, her faith and the Constitution. It was a moment that should have made transparent to her foes why those Sinclair type of sneers will never  touch the heart of her dignity and character whether you agree with her politics or not.

The other moments – one quickly calculated, the other totally impromptu – were Biden’s.  The first was a commercial hastily patched together showing foreign leaders at the NATO gathering the same week joking and chuckling about Trump and adding the reminder moment at the United Nations when the general assembly spontaneously laughed at him.  Amazingly it was Biden who went right after Trump’s throat (and ego) with this commercial, reminding US voters how the world regards our president as a joke dragging down the US role as indispensable leader.

It was a smart move, making our international reputation rise to the top of election issues, where Biden has more credentials than anyone else in the race.

But it was also a daring insight into American attitudes of self-worth. Any president’s foreign maneuvers are usually ignored in a domestic political context, much for the reasons Pelosi gave at a climate forum in Madrid when she declined to get into questions about Trump. Ukraine has thrown that history out the window, since we now realize this president is leveraging his foreign entanglements for his own self-interest.  Biden’s team made the connection to how Trump’s foreign behavior is now a hot button issue for the American electorate.

The other moment risked a campaign no-no, attacking as a “damn liar” the remarks of a voter.  It called to mind the late John McCain running for president in 2008 gently shushing a female voter who called Obama “an Arab.” That has been called McCain’s moment of campaign bravery. In 2019 the mantle of even more aggressive bravery fell to Biden when accused of sending his son to Ukraine to get dirt on the president, something even the GOP hasn’t dared say but commentators on Fox have (though the voter tried to disguise where he had heard it as “MSNBC”). 

 Biden never lost control but his anger was low voiced and measured even when he challenged the voter to pushups.  He was also miffed by the mention of his age. Commentators suggested he needed to have an answer ready about his son’s work in Ukraine, but this is turning into what Trump hoped it would – a “when did you last beat your wife” question.

Let’s be honest. Age – particularly Biden’s age -- has been circling the Democratic field like vultures in an old Western.  Perhaps it is a needed correction when some of the most audacious punches are being landed by Pelosi and Biden, who have both suffered the arrows of being too old and old-fashioned to lead a charge into the future. But perhaps this moment focuses what the age issue should really be about.

For Biden, part of his appeal is that he been around for a long time and handled a lot of things, some quite well.  For others in the race, he is the hand of the past holding them back, to the point that they dismiss some hard-earned gains and even misread history.  Several TV debates have faltered on simplifications of the past.

Many still recall Biden as one of the handsomest and younger senators who survived personal tragedies and worked strong alliances across the aisles in Congress and then as Obama’s much used vice president. That he is still physically fit and energetic is an annoyance to old timers like me who are the same age but in nowhere near the same condition.

But Biden also differs from the even older Bernie Sanders (78) who has looked and acted older –ruddy, hair unkempt, hands gesticulating wildly and shoulders leaning forward – for decades when his passion, rhetoric or positions haven’t changed.  Consistency is a big part of his appeal.

Biden is more like the well groomed grandfather model in the advertising brochure, soft-spoken and down-home in speaking style. He is known for conversational gaffes mixed with bursts of inspirational rhetoric.  Genetics and regimen mean his skin is stretched tight over his face, a distinct contrast to others on the debate stage.   Should that matter? Well, apparently it does because there is a presumption he is too set in his ways to represent a nation brimming with youthful ideas and needing energetic solutions to the environment, immigration, the economy and more.

To this point Biden has mainly represented stability – the known quantity most likely to take Trump out without raising doubts about his record. Some of the other candidates have to prove their personality and record, which also means manufacturing bold strokes to get the recognition he automatically commands. He may be helped by the reality that Trump was so worried about him that he has been playing foreign games with Rudy for months to bring Joe down. 

At the least, Pelosi and Biden have brought a new thoughtfulness to the Democratic issue of the place of older politicians in the 2020 initiatives.  You could say they have brought some needed maturity to the debate.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  A member of the American Theatre Critics Association at its inception, he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee. 

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