For the full audio version of “America This Week,” plus a free audio preview, please click here. Below, an excerpt of the discussion between Walter Kirn and Matt Taibbi about President Biden’s speech Thursday night:
Walter Kirn: The speech was like Alfred Hitchcock coming out before his show, or an MC coming out to welcome you to an evening of entertainment. They’re not very specific, but they say, here’s what’s coming. They’re vague. And now the curtain opens, and we see the show, as I say, this is why I have a hard time believing they’re serious about any impending real fighting or real conflicts with the real American, because they seem to be hobbling in their ability to gain popular support for such a critical moment, at the same time we seem to be nearing one.
Matt Taibbi: Even Alfred Hitchcock had the decency to at least make a macabre joke about what he was doing. He would always have his head in a guillotine, with the razor about the drop as he was delivering his deadpan introduction…
Walter Kirn: Let’s remember, there was fist shaking last night.
Matt Taibbi: Oh, yeah. There’s an iconic photo already.
Walter Kirn: Yes. And fist shaking is to be used – I think modestly in American political rhetoric – it’s almost always done with reference to an enemy abroad. You know, it, his fist shaking was Khruschev-like.
That’s who we remember shaking his fists. He didn’t slam a shoe on a table. But it was really that part of it that caught my attention because I thought, maybe we’re going to be fighting a three front war: Russia, China, and Indiana. Somewhere domestically.
Matt Taibbi: Or Vietnam. We’ll be herding MAGAs into “strategic hamlets” and using flamethrowers against the huts.
Walter Kirn: Well, the MAGAs are already herding themselves in strategic hamlets. I can tell you, reporting from Montana. But I found it so strange: usually presidents in the middle of their reign should be counting their accomplishments and making their promises. Instead we had this Khruschev-like, and as I say, sort of Vincent Price-ish Tales From the Crypt style spooky address, without specifics. I’m thinking now what this pretends for the election, which we’ll be talking about as it happens. It’ll be rhetoric beyond belief. I mean, calling it a terrorist cell last night – I think it’s going to get civilizational. It’s going to get religious and cosmic. If this was the kickoff, usually things intensify after the kickoff.
Matt Taibbi: Where do you go from “clear and present danger”? There’s not a lot of room for escalating after that. It’s funny because as you say, presidents, their job usually midterm is to be like the DJ in WKRP in Cincinnati – that voice that gets on and says, “Hey, everything’s cool. Don’t worry about it.” Remember that scene in Naked Gun – oh, wait, sorry, it’s Airplane. When Leslie Nielsen addresses all the passengers and says, there’s nothing to worry about, no reason to panic, both pilots are healthy, we’re not actually plummeting to the ground. And as he is talking, his nose is visibly expanding outward.
That’s what a good president does. A good president gets up on TV when everybody knows things are terrible and lies right your face about how great everything is and how you don’t have to worry, and you’re convinced by it. That that’s the mark of a good president: somebody who can make you not worry for a moment. Biden did the opposite of that. You turned on the television and he invited you to worry about a whole range of things, turning your emotional tenor up as opposed to down. What’s the purpose of that?
Walter Kirn: There were a few little traditional crumbs in there. We were told the American economy is just roaring along, it’s the best in the world in fact. This may be true! The world’s economic situation doesn’t seem that great at the moment. There was a little of that: you’ve got it great, and it’s gonna get even better, if we get rid of these subversives.
Matt Taibbi: Right. But he didn’t even sell that very well.
Walter Kirn: Yeah. It was, it was weird, man.
Matt Taibbi: Clinton and Obama were both great at that. Even George Bush was pretty good at it –giving you shitty news and making you feel all right about it. Every half decent president is good at that. Even Reagan was good at it.
Walter Kirn: Well, Trump was at doing that three weeks after he was president, listing his accomplishments and so on, before he could have had them. Whether it was effective with those who didn’t like him or whether it made converts, we don’t know. The fact is, Biden is a very unpopular president right now. By all measures, he’s an unpopular president launching a war on a large segment of his own population, which is weird.
Matt Taibbi: I’m not sure what that was all about, but that was remarkable. I guess we still have to find out what the plan is because it was not fully discernible last night.
Walter Kirn: Let me just add my trademark paranoia to the mix. I think we’re looking at a schedule of events, probably as fixed as Roman Catholic feast days this fall. I think it’s all, I think it’s all been gridded out – there are certain Wednesdays and Fridays on which certain things will happen. I always think about how I would do it. And if I was running this election and I had just given such a speech, I’d have a script. I had just announced a variety show of unknown content, I would have act breaks and a series of moments that I could control, because you’ve created this free-floating anxiety. Now, at the same time, this is the president who announced last winter that the unvaccinated were facing a winter of severe illness and death. You know, if he had said severe illness and death last night in that setting, with those red lights, I think hall of America would’ve just shivered.
Matt Taibbi: My take on that was that he looked like a band put out to warm up for Queensrÿche.
Walter Kirn: Last night, because I ran a joke on Twitter about the optics of this thing, I had people sending Black Sabbath videos… I put up a Blue Oyster Cult video. There was a lot of Rage Against the Machine. There was a German something…
Matt Taibbi: I thought of Rammstein.
Walter Kirn: It was a techno band. The point is, no one on my Twitter feed at least thought it was a Joni Mitchell song, or, you know, uh, any, anything approaching folk or hippie music. It was all metal of one kind or another.
Matt Taibbi: It was a song that Beavis and Butthead would’ve liked.
Walter Kirn: It’s Metal Joe now.
Matt Taibbi: Well, I guess we’ll find out what those Wednesdays and, and Friday events will be in the upcoming weeks, but that was a pretty strong signal, I thought.
Walter Kirn: Are you starting to feel like we’re narrating a baseball game? The thing about baseball is it’s a great opportunity for talk, because the situations develop slowly, the, the plays have space between them and, and the strategy is well known. So, depending on the inning and the score, and depending on who’s up, you can make pretty interesting, educated guesses to cover the action. It feels like that to me, except this is a baseball game in which the ball might explode and blow up the stadium.
Matt Taibbi: Also, they’ve clearly left the starter in too long in this one. They should have made that call to the bullpen in maybe the third or fourth inning. But he’s in there. It reminds me of that Dock Ellis no-hitter on acid.
Walter Kirn: The Dock Ellis no-hitter on acid is one of the great mansplaining stories. I don’t know why, but men tend to know about it, especially men who’ve done acid.
Walter Kirn: But, Ellis had preternatural abilities in that game. He saw the mitt like it was two feet away. But I’m not seeing a no hitter here, nor am I seeing preternatural abilities.
Matt Taibbi: No, but the quality of only being able to tell if the batter is on the left side or the right side, which is something that was true for Ellis – maybe that applies. He could only see whether they were lefthanded or righthanded. I think the catcher had to have reflective tape on his fingers so he could see the signs. There’s some Biden in that.
Walter Kirn: Sometimes one does have that feeling with Biden. I mean, they ballyhooed this speech. That’s the other thing we didn’t mention, there was a big runup to this thing. And if the fate of our democracy is at stake, and the networks and PBS aren’t covering it – it seems like backstage in the movie network they just said, “Nope, Nope, Nope. Stay away from this one. We’ll figure out how to cover it tomorrow when we can play with the footage.” But it was weird that he was kind of ignored.
Matt Taibbi: It was unusual that they decided to pass this one over. By the way, speaking of the movie network, you didn’t get a little bit of a Howard Beale visual, with that cross above him and the red light?
Walter Kirn: Oh, man, I sure did. It was Howard Beale. You just hit the reference which was hovering and unconscious the whole time. It was, “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
Matt Taibbi: It had all the elements. It had that creepy red light. Most people didn’t notice, there was a cross, above the independence hall… it was in the shot most of the time.
Walter Kirn: It was. It was.
Matt Taibbi: And he was gesticulating like Howard Beale in the in the middle of it. He did the double arm-raise multiple times.
Walter Kirn: There was a quasi-religiosity to the thing. It spoke to a cosmic confrontation between the forces of good and evil.
Matt Taibbi: That’s always been a little bit of a theme with Biden. Having governed him – on the campaign trail he often talks about the light and the dark. There was a big line in there last night about that, about, uh, about the forces of darkness and how this is the way back into the light.
Walter Kirn: With two spooky Marines, silhouetted, facelessly with their arms next to them was kind of mind bending for me. Usually speeches about good versus evil. If you’re trying to represent the good, it’s done with a light, brisk, inspiring, awakened energy. And visually this was darkness fighting darkness…
Matt Taibbi: I certainly took the speech to be an announcement of the beginning of a campaign of some kind. And maybe they’re just going to wait for some other thing to happen. Who knows?
Walter Kirn: As a novelist and a screenwriter, I have a deep and abiding knowledge of how the best laid storylines can go awry. And it may have been overkill. There were times when I was looking at it and I was thinking, you know, when this memetically filters out to America, they may think, “This is ridiculous. Wait, we we’ve gone too far. This is stupid, getting us nowhere, likely to be dangerous. Can they fricking cool it?” I would like to think that there’s still that reservoir of common sense in America.
Matt Taibbi: Well, I don’t know. That’s optimistic on your part.
Walter Kirn: Of course, America might just sit on its ass during this episode that’s supposed to cause blood in the streets. I kind of recommend it, frankly. If I had my way, I’d say, “Take your civil war and shove it, this is the best time to watch TV and gain weight.”
Matt Taibbi: As you say, that instinct is in our blood. It may be our best quality.
Walter Kirn: It’s certainly a gift we have.
Matt Taibbi: Well, I like your optimism. I’m not sure I agree with it, but I hope you’re right. Well, we’ll see. Anyway, that was America this week. There is other news to check out in the full column. There was for instance an interesting FTC case, which I’m told has potentially serious ramifications for corporate enforcement. But I think we’re on the main storylines, this domestic issue with the MAGA crowd, and then internationally with tensions escalating in Russia and in China now. We’ll keep an eye on that and hopefully see you next week.
Walter Kirn: See you next week!
To check out Walter Kirn online, look at @WalterKirn on Twitter, “Unbound” at walterkirn.substack.com on Substack, and Walter’s author page on Amazon here.