Pat McArt: Joe Biden bowing out will be bad news for Ireland

US President’s disastrous debate performance recalls struggles of John Hume

Pat McArt

Pat McArt

Pat McArt is a former editor of the Derry Journal and an author and commentator

US President Joe Biden (left) is greeted by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as he arrives for a state dinner at Dublin Castle during his visit to Ireland
US President Joe Biden with then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during his visit to Ireland last year (Damien Storan/PA)

Back in the day, the SDLP leader John Hume had a habit of dropping in to my office at the Derry Journal. I was the editor there at the time.

He would come in, light up a cigarette, take about two puffs and then stub it out as he got into the full swing of telling a story. Talk about wasting money on fags.

Anyway, as the years rolled on I noted that with increasing frequency when he lit a cigarette, he sometimes went into his own wee world, even sitting for five or 10 minutes without speaking.

This was a totally new development, and as I am definitely not good with silence it used to unnerve me more than a little. Do you try to re-start a conversation? Do you just ignore him and start subbing copy? Do you answer the phone and pretend he’s not there?

No matter how often it happened I never knew what to do.

Hume was aware of this trait and mentioned that he was concerned about it. He explained that he couldn’t concentrate like he used to, that he sometimes couldn’t remember the names of people he knew well, and revealed he had mentioned this to a couple of doctors.

Friday's Future Politics conference at UU has been organised by the John and Pat Hume Foundation. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
John Hume in later years with his wife Pat. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

Then he told me this story. It is as near verbatim as I recall.

He said: “I was in California a couple of weeks back and I was at a dinner. I was sitting beside this psychologist and we got talking and I mentioned my memory lapses. This guy asked me what I did, and I told him I was a politician. And he said to me that there were two groups of people who should be concerned about their psychological health – politicians and journalists.”

I asked him why those two groupings?

“The psychologist guy used the analogy of a carpenter coming to work on a Monday morning and knowing that before Friday he has to make a table and chairs. He knows what’s ahead of him, how much time he has to do it, and when Friday comes and the table and chairs are finished he can relax, switch off and think about going golfing or whatever.

“The difference with journalists and politicians is that there is no off-switch. There is no table and chairs sitting finished. It’s a never-ending carousel and the brain, which is a muscle and needs rest, tends to wear out.”

Hume then pointed to the number of his political colleagues – Margaret Thatcher, Ronnie Reagan, Harold Wilson, Jack Lynch etc – who all had Alzheimer’s.

Hume, of course, developed the condition too.

His story came to mind last Friday morning when I saw news clips of Joe Biden’s dreadful performance in his head-to-head with Donald Trump.

The debate covered a wide range of topics (Gerald Herbert/AP)
Donald Trump and Joe Biden face off in the first presidential debate (Gerald Herbert/AP)

On occasions the US President looked like a deer caught in the headlights. His answers were frequently incoherent and rambling, and it was beyond obvious that he was having trouble focusing.

Maybe I am being unkind but he really should have had the sense to see that on taking office at 78 years of age, one term would have been sufficient. Now, whether the Democrats decide to stick or twist in regard to his continued candidacy, chaos lies ahead.

To digress just a little, on RTÉ on Friday evening Mick Mulvaney, a former chief-of-staff for Donald Trump, was far from gloating when questioned by the interviewer about his claim that Biden was ‘clearly cognitively impaired’. He explained that his mother is now suffering from Alzheimer’s and that he could easily discern that Biden was, in his opinion, in that same territory. He had, he said, those same confused reactions as he had seen in his own mother.

Former US special envoy to Northern Ireland Mick Mulvaney
Former US special envoy to Northern Ireland Mick Mulvaney

Few American voters, I feel, will dispute Mulvaney’s opinion.

Clearly the substantive outcome from last Thursday night’s debate is that Donald Trump is now odds-on to be heading back to the White House.

And that’s not good news for us.

Reform UK leader Nigel Farage with former US president Donald Trump
Former US president Donald Trump with Reform UK leader Nigel Farage (Tia Dufour/The White House/PA)

Who is president of the US matters big time here. Despite his many faults, Biden has been a friend of Ireland’s. His attitude to the British was clear and unequivocal in regard to Brexit; Ireland’s interests were not to be harmed. And he was regularly to the forefront in encouraging American companies to invest here.

It goes without saying that Trump has zero interest in our well-being.

Despite his many faults, Biden has been a friend of Ireland’s. Trump has zero interest in our well-being

Indeed, in the broader context, he’s likely to cease American aid to Ukraine, increase support for Israel, cozy up to Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jung Un, withdraw the US from Nato, and whatever crazy policy you are having yourself.

With Trump as pilot in Washington we should all buckle up for what could be a very turbulent political flight in the coming years.