When I was a little boy, we were taught to venerate the bravery of President John F. Kennedy’s appearance at the Berlin Wall in June 1963, when he famously said, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” When I was a young man, it was Ronald Reagan’s similar moment that was lionized, standing in the same West Berlin where Kennedy spoke and imploring the leader of the Soviet Union in 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Joe Biden’s moment in Kyiv on Monday not only stands alongside those two moments, it surpasses them.
It surpasses them because while Kennedy and Reagan were both on the right side of history, they made these important declarations in safe spaces—friendly territory, surrounded by the usual phalanx of guards. Biden was not. As you may have read or heard by now, he is now the first president since Abraham Lincoln to visit a war zone that wasn’t under U.S. control or where hostilities hadn’t already ceased. He strolled outside with Volodymyr Zelenskyy under skies that Russian missiles are still capable of puncturing. Russian hardware has been fired at Kyiv as recently as late last month. It’s not inconceivable that they could have, as they say, lit Biden up.
And the journey Biden took to get there was extraordinary. If you haven’t already, read the stunning ticktock published in Tuesday’s New York Times by Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear. On Saturday evening, the Bidens went to mass at Georgetown University. Then they went out to eat at a place in Washington called the Red Hen. They returned to the White House, and the small army of people whose job it is to be constantly aware of the president’s whereabouts figured he was in for the evening.
But “a few hours after midnight,” Biden was taken to Joint Base Andrews, where he hopped on Air Force One. The plane took off at 4:15 a.m. and landed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany shortly after 5 p.m. local time. It refueled and took the 90-minute flight to Poland.
Then he took a roughly hour-long ride along “a mostly empty highway” to the train station. He boarded a train around 9:30 p.m. It arrived in Kyiv nearly 11 hours later. He had trouble sleeping on the train. But when it arrived, he spent five hours doing the things presidents of the United States are obliged to do—meaning he had to be “on” the whole time.
This is going to bottle up the “he’s too old” trope for a while.
Now, here’s the thing: Liberals tend to feel funny about hero worship. People to the left of mainstream liberal really don’t like it, unless the hero ticks off a pretty long list of boxes. Young people just aren’t going to gush about an 80-year-old man. And one moment in time is just one moment. Inequality and injustice still exist; a trip to Kyiv doesn’t erase that. All of this is stipulated and understood.
But we lose something important when we lose the ability to look upon a political leader, and a political act, and say: Yes, this was unequivocally good. This is what we want a president of the United States to do. This is how we want to see our country represented to the rest of the world.
Take a moment to imagine how they’d be gushing on the right if a Republican president had done this. The hosannas would be nonstop for days. If you’re old enough, you may remember what it was like in 2003 when George W. Bush got in that flight suit and hopped that Navy jet to land on an aircraft carrier to declare “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. That was pure, 1,000 percent theater, right down to the exaggerated codpiece. It was nothing like what Biden did. The right went gaga for a few days. The war dragged on for a few years.
Today, with some noteworthy exceptions, the right is more or less acting just as you’d expect. A few of them whined that Biden went to Ukraine before East Palestine, Ohio. Others, kvetched that he hadn’t visited the border. Marjorie Taylor Greene, of course, took Russia’s side: “Today on our President’s Day, Joe Biden, the President of the United States chose Ukraine over America, while forcing the American people to pay for Ukraine’s government and war.”
The two appearances, Biden’s and Bush’s, make for a perfect juxtaposition. Bush started an unnecessary war of choice that killed north of 200,000 Iraqis (and maybe a lot more) and cost the United States dearly in terms of both treasure and reputation. It was, allegedly, a war to impose democracy, but somehow the cruel paradox contained in that phrase—impose democracy?—never bothered the war’s supporters. It was an act of aggression, based on lies about Iraq’s destructive potential, and if you really know the history all the way back to the infamous 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, you know that the real purpose of the war was to establish unipolar U.S. hegemony in the region and world.
Biden traveled, at some personal risk, to an unprotected war zone, where he was placing the United States not on the side of a war of choice, but alongside a democracy being attacked by an authoritarian and oligarchic kleptocracy. (How it must have steamed Vladimir Putin that the hated Biden made it to Kyiv before he did!) Yes, this too was theater. But this was also a theater of a real live shooting war, and in setting foot in that theater, Biden put the U.S. emphatically where it always claims to be but alas too rarely is: firmly, and truly, on the right side of history.