KOLB: Communication Challenges At Biden’s White House

(Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Charles Kolb Charles Kolb was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House
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Joe Biden looks presidential: trim in his blue suits with perfectly tied, sporty neckties, plus a nod to a conservative tradition with his starched, precisely folded, white pocket handkerchiefs.

These images aside, things are beginning to fall apart with White House image-making. With the recent Afghanistan turmoil, one has to ask: who’s in charge of presenting the president?

Ronald Reagan had Mike Deaver, who, along with Counselor Edwin Meese III and Chief of Staff James A. Baker III, ran the Reagan White House almost seamlessly. Impresario Deaver famously scripted Reagan’s every move: camera angles, lighting, backdrops. Mistakes were few. Reagan’s appearance at a Bitburg, Germany, cemetery nearby Nazi soldiers’ graves was one.

But Deaver’s triumphs still impress: Reagan standing before West Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate challenging the Soviet Union’s leader with: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Or Reagan’s Normandy address on D-Day’s 40th anniversary, when he spoke by the famous Pointe du Hoc cliff and saluted “the boys of Pointe du Hoc.”

Go there. Stand where Reagan stood. Stare down that cliff and imagine the American GIs who scaled that rock while facing German machine-gunners firing point blank into their ascending faces.

If you do, you’ll appreciate two fundamental aspects of life: confirmation that evil truly does exist in our world and that good can triumph given the selfless courage of unbelievably brave heroes fighting for freedom.

Deaver’s genius was at work on these occasions, as were speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s words when Reagan addressed the nation from the Oval Office when the Challenger space shuttle disintegrated after liftoff in January 1986.

Reagan’s many critics used to say that the former actor couldn’t think for himself, that his every word was scripted. Not true.

Sitting 10 feet away from Reagan one afternoon in the Old Executive Office Building’s fourth floor briefing room, I watched Reagan address some 75 business leaders. He spoke using his index cards. When he finished, he put the cards in his jacket pocket and took questions from the audience for about 10 minutes. This supposedly “amiable dunce” answered every question with perfectly formed sentences and without notes. Reagan even cited U.N. resolutions by name and number.

During the first six months of his presidency, Joe Biden did not experience a major leadership crisis — until his Afghanistan departure debacle last month. His handling of communications related to the withdrawal was a textbook example of how not to communicate.

When Kabul fell over a weekend, Biden was vacationing at Camp David. Days later he emerged, gave brief remarks, turned around and left the room without answering questions.

When he later took questions, they were few and far between. Biden even announced that his staff had given him a list of reporters on whom to call, and on one occasion Biden revealed that his staff told him not to entertain questions. Biden’s one-on-one interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos only raised more questions about the president’s crisis management capabilities.

Biden’s Aug. 31 mid-afternoon speech to the nation, after the last American soldiers left Kabul, was a curious mix of crotchety blame-shifting, stubborn denial and surly defensiveness. Again, he spoke and departed without taking questions. Clearly, Biden knew in advance he wouldn’t be taking questions, so why didn’t he deliver this important speech in prime time sitting behind the Oval Office’s Resolute Desk?

Then there’s Vice President Kamala Harris, who was dispatched to Singapore and Vietnam shortly before Afghanistan imploded. If she was such an essential Biden partner, she should have returned home immediately. Instead, as Kabul fell and people made comparisons with our hasty 1975 Saigon embassy-rooftop departure, Harris was seen in Hanoi standing before a bust of Ho Chi Minh.

What kind of White House staffing went into creating these unforced errors?

But perhaps it’s unfair to blame the staff. They’re limited, after all, by the talents with which they must work.

Even a gifted planner like Mike Deaver might have made little difference. All presidents have “handlers,” but what those handlers handle can be beyond their control.

Biden is not a gifted speaker. Even reading from texts, he slurs and jumbles his words. By repeatedly declining or limiting questions, he conveys an aloof reluctance to be held accountable. JFK’s press conferences were altogether different. Watch them.

Biden wants to move on from Afghanistan, but it is likely that his decision-making will remain the focus for reasons he will not welcome and which the best of his handlers cannot change.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House