What's Tony Thinking

Marilynne Robinson Comes to Joe Biden’s Defense


Marilynne Robinson has an essay in the British paper, The Guardian, in defense of President Joe Biden. It is written in her characteristic precise, somewhat tart, and eloquent prose. I encourage you to read it all. Not too long.

Her point is not simply to come to the defense of a man who, as the title of the essay puts it, bears “the weight of the world on his shoulders.” It is more than that. It is to remind us what’s now at stake. Namely, our country, our democracy. Here’s the opening paragraph.

“Joseph R Biden has the weight of the world on his shoulders. These words are as true of him as they have ever been of any mortal soul. Until his term ends, he will be alone with the gravest decisions that have ever confronted an American leader. Things might have gone very badly for Abraham Lincoln, but the varieties of loss and destruction now possible if the systems of order fail are great beyond imagining.”

Robinson, a year younger than Biden, is testy about the constant drumbeat of age-based criticism and innuendo, e. g. “sleepy Joe,” “confused Joe.” She turns this criticism on its head, noting not only that Biden has wide experience, but that his age and experience mean he remembers a time when American government actually did things. Period. Full stop. As opposed to just obstructing things and facilitating grand-standers.

Moreover, government did things that made us a better, stronger, fairer country. One of her longtime causes has been the public university. (She teaches at the University of Iowa, in its famous writers program). She has watched as defunding, tuition increases and shifts in educational policies and priorities have diminished a great system, once the envy of the world.

She also notes, under the category of “unrealistic expectations,” how quick the press is to declare a “failed Presidency,” presenting cheap shots and apocalyptic headlines (see my recent blog on “Watching the News”) as journalism. More from (the other) Robinson:

“An article in Time magazine that marked Biden’s first year in office is titled ‘Big Promises, Bad Outcomes’. The failed promises include to ‘Fix Democracy’. In 12 months he should have repaired our political system, which has been allowed to decline over many years and is now under direct, calculated assault from outside and inside our government. He, alone, cannot fix it. Any grownup should know this. Unreasonable expectations simply find failure where there is difficulty and a need for thought, patience and collaboration. They pass among the press for tough-mindedness. In fact they only demonstrate a failure to acknowledge the gravity of our situation.” (emphasis added)

Implicit in Robinson’s critique of a Republican Party committed to a failed Presidency, of media sensationalizing negative headlines, and of a malignant right-wing chanting, “F-you Biden,” is a warning about the cost of failed Presidencies. They aren’t just a failure for one person or party. They are a failure for us all, one that eats away at our nation’s health and strength. The forces of obstruction, negativity and chaos may enjoy their feast in the short term. But, to echo a phrase of Frederick Buechner, they may awaken to notice that the feast they are consuming is themselves and ourselves, our nation and common life.

One of the things I used to counsel and caution churches about, and occasionally I still do, is the cost of a failed pastorate. People get caught up, often quite self-righteously, in the whirl of attacking their current pastor. They seem to think 1) if we just get rid of this person everything will be fine and 2) that there is ready supply of competent, gifted pastoral leaders. But assumptions are dead wrong. Number  one allows a congregation to avoid looking at its own part in the problem. Number two is just flat out wrong. Partly because congregations can be so tough on their leaders, fewer sane people are signing up for the job.

Most churches can stand one failed pastorate. But two or three in succession? By then a once strong congregation isn’t any longer strong. It has become vulnerable, susceptible to infection, caught in a downward spiral. We think our institutions are permanent. They are not. Most are in fact much more fragile than we think.

This is true in other leadership settings (schools, government, NGO’s) as well.

Robinson reminds us that it is true of the Presidency, and that the stakes are now very, very high.

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