Bill Clinton paved the way for Donald Trump by introducing a new kind of shamelessness into American politics—a mode of toughing it out sociopathically that overran the social sanction traditionally provided by the threat of embarrassment and humiliation. A person with any kind of conscience to prick, faced with Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress or a tape of him bragging about “grabbing ’em by the p,” would have sought the exit because it would have seemed like the only way to make the torture stop. When there is no such conscience, and when your greatest actual strength of character is your refusal ever to quit, you could try to brazen it through—and at the presidential level, Clinton showed that could work. Trump then used the same quality to defeat Clinton’s wife in 2016, who was paid back by the Fates for having provided her husband with the cover Bill needed for his brazenness.

I think Joe Biden and his team believe “never quitting” was the secret sauce that kept his predecessors going and succeeding over their enemies, and that this belief helps explain their aggressive “I’m in it to win it and go ahead and try to dislodge me” rhetoric. Sorry, Joe and fam; “never quitting” was the least of it.

Those two former presidents not only possess uncommon political gifts—Clinton with his unearthly capacity for scrambling like Fran Tarkenton and Trump with his almost demonic capacity to intimidate—but they both found themselves in unprecedented circumstances relating not to the workings of their brains and motor functions but to their gross personal behavior. Clinton faced possible impeachment and removal for the first time in American history owing in part to a semen stain, while Donald Trump was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.

For his part, Joe Biden is a wildly conventional politician—a glad-handing loudmouth always trying to stay right in his party’s dead center—who finds himself in a situation far from unprecedented. And that is the nature of the problem for him, and why it cannot ever go away, and why he cannot make his political troubles stop.

Other presidents and their families have hidden the chief executive’s infirmities from the public in modern times. There was Woodrow Wilson (who presided over the country in WWI), FDR (commander in chief during WW2), and JFK. Decades after his death, Americans learned that Wilson had spent the last 15 months of his presidency in a near-vegetative state following a severe stroke.  And since Kennedy’s assassination, we’ve learned that he served as president while taking as many as 12 different medications a day for back pain and Addison’s disease. According to the historian Robert Dallek, as summarized by ABC News, “During the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, Kennedy was taking steroids for his Addison’s disease, painkillers for his back, anti-spasmodics for his colitis, antibiotics for urinary tract infections, antihistamines for his allergies, and on at least one occasion, an anti-psychotic drug to treat a severe mood change that Jackie Kennedy believed was brought on by the antihistamines.”

Kennedy’s drug recklessness became known to political insiders , and together with the Wilson revelations, actually led to one of the major political reforms of the 20th century: The passage of the 25th Amendment in 1967. This highly technical section of the constitution provides an incredibly complicated path for either the voluntary or involuntary removal of a president from the chain of command. That removal can be either be temporary or permanent. The rules are structured so that trying to stage a coup using its mechanisms would be nearly impossible; there are too many tripwires at every step of the way. But the point stands. The political system of the United States, nearly two centuries after its creation, found it necessary to to recognize formally that a president could be in office and unable to discharge the duties of his office—and that something would have to be done about it. As a result, what to do about a president medically or psychologically incapable of being president is part of our political conversation now. Biden knows this; after all, people on his favorite show, “Morning Joe,” blathered about invoking the 25th from the moment Trump took office in 2017 on the grounds that he was too nuts to serve.

The flaw in the American system revealed both by Clinton and by Trump is just how much it has relied on norms and shame to police bad political behavior. It turns out that if you can just cut yourself loose from the fear of humiliation, you have a Machiavellian advantage, even if it means you will eventually descend to a circle of Hell maybe even Dante did not quite fathom. Biden is trying to mimic Clinton and Trump in basically saying that he cannot be humiliated out of taking the nomination he won during the primary season and riding it to November. But that’s not going to help him at all in achieving his goal, which is to win a second term.

He won’t lose in November because of bad behavior that he will have brazened his way through. What we’ve learned is that the American people will (or at least enough of them) are willing to overlook bad behavior and might even admire a certain amount of brazenness. No, Biden will lose in November, if he gets there and does lose, simply because the American people will have judged him literally incapable of serving as president.

And then the humiliations will come; humiliations and recriminations and the judgment of history. Maybe he’ll be too far gone to care then. But he doesn’t seem like he will be far gone enough to be spared the pain of his foolishness now.

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