Samuel Johnson was an English genius and a great writer in the 18th century. Among other things, he wrote the first dictionary of the English language, which – as you might imagine – was a pretty daunting feat. He said two things that I’ve always loved, both associated with the dictionary.
First, when he initially set out to write it, by himself, in three years, an old Oxford friend was skeptical, pointing out that the recently published dictionary of the French language had taken 40 French academics 40 years to complete. Johnson said, “ Sir, thus it is. This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.”
I like that kind of patriotic confidence! And I feel about America the way Johnson felt about England, and so appreciate a cocky, light-hearted slap at a rival nation.
But his second statement is my favorite, because it might be the most erudite literary napalming of a smarmy bigshot in history. So it naturally reminds me of how Joe Biden – if he were conscious, and alert, and 158 times smarter than he is – should have responded to Obama’s endorsement of his candidacy last week.
When Johnson’s dictionary came out – it took him 7 years, instead of 3 — and quickly appeared to be a triumph, he got an endorsement from the Earl of Chesterfield, an entitled blueblood who was born on third base and thought he’d hit a triple. Think of an 18th century Ted Kennedy, or Chris Cuomo.
But it turned out that when Johnson had been just beginning his dictionary, he had unsuccessfully tried to get Chesterfield’s patronage, because that’s how writers did it back in old timey days: you found a rich guy to financially support your writing projects. (Nowadays, a struggling writer with a need for purely medicinal Scotch and a Wonder Dog to feed puts a Tip Jar on his website.)
Anyway, Johnson composed a famous letter to Chesterfield, which perfectly combines a superficial fawning with repeated rhetorical kicks to the groin. He wrote, “When, upon some slight encouragement, I first visited your lordship, I was overpowered, like the rest of mankind, by the enchantment of your address, and could not forbear to wish that I might … obtain that regard for which I saw the world contending; but I found my attendance so little encouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it. When I had once addressed your Lordship in public, I had exhausted all the art of pleasing which a retired and uncourtly scholar can possess. I had done all that I could; and no man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.”
Yes. Smart guys wrote like that in the 18th century, God bless them.
Johnson continued, “Seven years, my lord, have now passed, since I waited in your outward rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it, at last, to the verge of publication, without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before.”
You can see where this is going. Johnson has set up his foppish opponent with repeated verbal jabs to the body, and now the guy’s hands are down, leaving his chin vulnerable. And Johnson heaves a roundhouse haymaker that starts on the far bank of the Thames and gains momentum as it nears the target:
“Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it: till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it. I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the public should consider me as owing that to a patron, which providence has enabled me to do for myself.”
Down goes Chesterfield! Down goes Chesterfield!
When I heard Obama’s endorsement of Biden last week, I thought of Chesterfield’s self-serving attempt to jump onto a bandwagon had already left town without him, and to take credit for launching it.
For the better part of a year, Biden hoped for Obama’s support. He was in a field of a dirty dozen demagogues (alliteration for the win!), and his best talking point was that he had been Obama’s hand-picked right-hand man in the White House for eight years. Given that, Obama’s inaction felt not just like the lack of an endorsement, but a pointed refusal to endorse.
And Plugs really needed that endorsement! He was flailing and stumbling from one mistake to another, and as soon as the primaries started, he slid disastrously from undisputed front-runner to guy who didn’t know where he was, or who he was, or why that fat guy in Iowa was challenging his degenerate son’s getting in bed with Ukranian kleptocrats. (Not to mention his dead brother’s widow!) As he got trounced in Iowa and New Hampshire, Biden was plainly “a man struggling for life in the water,” and the water was filled with sharks, in the form of preachy tween gay guys, and old Cherokee white ladies (#wecanstillmockherforawhilelonger), and centenarian socialist loons, and midget billionaires.
And all the while, Obama stood on the shoreline, as a drowning Joe pounded the water into a froth around him, sputtering about lying dog-faced pony soldiers and trying to remember what you’re supposed to say on your deathbed, except that it came out, “Forgive me, father, for I… have spinned… or spun… or… you know the thing! The thing I’m supposed to say now!”
Then, when it looked like Bernie might actually win, the lefty establishment finally roused itself, and knifed him in the back, and oh-so-reluctantly got behind Biden. After he’d won in South Carolina and swept on Super Tuesday, it was clear to everyone that he would be the nominee. After more weeks went by, even Bernie finally accepted the inevitable, and endorsed Sleepy Joe.
So there’s ol’ Joe. He’s managed to climb onto a raft made of equal parts economic ignorance, hatred of Trump, and the resignation of millions of uneasy Democrats. He’s gasping for breath, his false teeth have come out, he’s bleeding from both eyes, and he thinks he’s on a raft floating down the mighty Mississippi with his ethnic sidekick Corn Pop back in 18-clickety-clack.
And then, at long last, a life preserver thrown by Obama whistles across the water and catches Biden right in his fragile, plug-riddled head, and knocks him out cold.
If you haven’t seen Obama’s endorsement, good on you. You’ve got a life to lead, and that life is too short to spend it listening to the smug musings of a mediocre ex-president with less self-awareness than Alyssa Milano in an Angry Strawberry Shortcake outfit yowling outside of the Supreme Court building.
Luckily for you, you’ve got me. And I took one for the team, and watched Mr. “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” give his endorsement. But before I watched it, I put on my patented Martacus Wizard Hat, which – among its many powers, allows me to read people’s thoughts.
(By the way, I wore that hat when I read the comments from my last column, and I have a message for the female readers in CO nation: My eyes are up here, ladies. Also, I’m a happily married man, and you should be ashamed of yourselves.)
Where was I? Oh yeah. Here are some excerpts from Obama’s endorsement – which I swear I am not making up – with his unspoken thoughts in brackets:
“That’s why I’m so proud to endorse Joe Biden for President.” [Because there is literally no one left. How did this happen?]
“Choosing Joe Biden to be my vice president was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.” [Hey, wait a minute. What does that say about the quality of my other decisions? Good lord!]
“He’s someone whose own life has taught him…how to bounce back when you’ve been knocked down.” [Or when you’ve stepped on the same rake three times in a row. Or when you walk into a corner and just bump back and forth, unable to get out.]
“I know he’ll surround himself with good people.” [I promise: he won’t trust his own addled instincts. He’ll listen to other people.] “Experts, scientists, military officials…” [All of whom will overcome his crippling mental deficits.]
“…who actually know how to run the government.” [Oops! Did I say that out loud? That these others would be people who actually know something? Unlike Joe, who mixes up his wife and his sister, and who thinks half of the country is dead from AR-14 wounds?]
“… and care about doing a good job running the government.” [Yikes! Somebody stop me! I’m literally saying that Joe doesn’t know anything, or care about governing well!]
“Joe will be a better candidate for having run the gauntlet [I mean “stumbled” the gauntlet] of primaries and caucuses alongside one of the most impressive Democrat fields ever.” [HA! Did I say that with a straight face? What have I become?]
“Each of our candidates were talented and decent, with a track record of accomplishment, smart ideas, and serious visions for the future.” [Ugh! Come on, man! I’m going to hell just for saying this crap. Who loaded this teleprompter?]
Okay, at this point I have to stop, just to protect my blood pressure. But here’s the big picture: the endorsement was 12 minutes that I’ll never get back.
Of those 12 minutes, he talked about Biden for about 2 minutes tops, with equal time given to stroking Bernie, so that his voters will consider holding their noses and voting for Joe. He spent about 6 minutes demonizing conservatives – they want to destroy the environment, rob the poor, reward the rich, kill sick people and then pee on their graves. Amidst the litany of all of the horrible things that “the other side” wants to do, he gave the usual hypocritical call for us to resist partisanship and come together for the common good.
And he couldn’t bring himself to give even this dog’s breakfast of a speech — made up of partisan bile, insincere praise, and empty boilerplate – until after the race was long over, and Biden’s nomination a fait accompli.
What a small man he is, and what a blessing that he’s no longer president!
Trump’s flaws are manifest, and he receives a torrent of criticism for them, while Obama has an undeserved reputation for being classy and above the fray. But I defy anyone to watch minutes 6-12 of his endorsement video, and not recognize the vicious, bitter partisan beneath that glib delivery.
If Biden was a smarter man, with self-respect and in possession of his wits, he would say, “Now that I’ve reached ground, you’ve encumbered me with help. Your endorsement, had it been early, had been kind. But now that providence (and Jim Clyburn) has allowed me the nomination… stick it, Barry!”
Avenatti/ Lord Chesterfield 2020!