Performing magic at birthday parties, like imagining you could become the Beatles in your own garage – was common 50 years ago. No chance at music, my attention went to card tricks and pulling coins from kids’ ears. The biggest trick was “The Grand Illusion,” something that wowed even adults, a beautiful illusion, like disappearing in a puff of smoke. Give Biden’s handlers credit – they have it down.
What do I mean? Just this. Lyndon Johnson’s “grand illusion,” from March 1965 to January 1969, was making America believe we were “winning” the Vietnam War. We were not, never were, an illusion, delusion.
Richard Nixon’s “grand illusion,” from 1968 until it was unsustainable, was gravitas, riding Dwight Eisenhower’s epic status as Ike’s vice president – and his ill-fated Sun-Tsu reverse, going from diehard anti-communist to revolutionary China opener, more float and hope than gravity and foresight.
Then we got Gerald Ford, a decent fellow, no spontaneity or imagination, his “grand illusion” fictional dynamism, a depth beyond decency. An honest guy without a personal rapport, he could not be inventive, he had to be cued to laugh, and despite being a real athlete, stumbled everywhere.
Now we come to Jimmy Carter, his “grand illusion” not a war, no failure of honesty or decency, just imagined competency, thinking as a one-term Georgia governor he could manage the US economy, vast energy sector, foreign relations, national security, US-Soviet conflict, like his peanut farm.
Truth is, Jimmy Carter – like many presidents – was a person of faith, a patriot, a believer in his own ability to do what he was not prepared for. He pushed that “grand illusion,” not realizing it was an illusion.
Ronald Reagan stands out as jujitsu, the leader who knew his own heart, knew his ability to influence history, and knew history. He appreciated evil and lived by goodness yet projected underestimation, causing our adversaries to misunderstand, miscalculate, and buy into an illusion of their own creation.
George Herbert Walker Bush’s “grand illusion” was not about people but himself, a victim of his measured, establishment past. A good man, qualified beyond measure, cautious, and self-effacing, he mixed up governing with campaigning, loved the first, hated the second, and people saw through that.
As for Bill Clinton, his illusions were everywhere, self-oriented, self-indulgent, self-impressed, yet able to broker bipartisan agreements between people of principle, since he had none. If he had a “grand illusion,” it was that he represented something other than power, a reality his wife saw, then mimicked.
George W. Bush’s “grand illusion” – again a variety that tricks the performer – was imaging he was in charge, that he was the final voice in the room, which he seldom was. Outmaneuvered by a Vice President, Secretary of Defense, and restless neocon ideologues, he never saw what hit him until over.
As for Barack Obama, he was an anti-traditional, anti-conservative, arguably anti-American transformationalist, an ideologically saturated activist who came to power on one message, hope, and change, without defining either, betraying the understanding most Americans had of both.
Trump was what he was, his “grand illusion,” another jujitsu move, but slightly different. He was exactly what he projected, angry about the lack of accountability in the federal government, blunt, personal, at times offensive, even self-absorbed, but not without higher purpose, and not without being effective.
In Trump’s case, the illusions defining his tenure were not of his making, except that his style offends those vested in the political order who fear him, so created a cottage industry in conspiracies and derision, collusion, confusion, causing people to be terrified, lest they understand him as a rare disruptor of political power, a force for holding accountable the unaccountable, privileged, untouchable.
Now, we come to Mr. Biden and his intrepid entourage, ultimate performers of “the grand illusion,” masters of an art, hard to get right, let alone master, and here is why.
Joe Biden has long since passed the ability to conceive, articulate, and actuate an original idea, often cannot find his way to or from a mic, slurs his words so embarrassingly that those nearby look down, away, and roll their eyes in dismay.
Joe Biden has not only failed as the messenger, but the message carried – coming from his support group – is one of misery, shutting down the energy sector, overspending and overtaxing for nothing, opening the border to millions of illegals and thousands on the terror watch list, creating a massive spike in economic uncertainty, inflation, and interest, condemning – and now prosecuting – his political opponents.
All this is happening in front of us, before the curtain, hard to hide, harder as the impact is felt nationwide. But “the grand illusion,” reason Biden’s handlers deserve credit – given grudgingly – is that they have made someone appear, appear to be in charge, engaged, and fair – who is not there.
What is becoming painfully clear – to all Americans – is that this president is vacuous, capacities so eroded our adversaries are leaning in, his inability to respond only dwarfed by his inability to foresee.
Speaking as a young magic performer with the “grand illusion” fresh, only one thing is harder – or scarier – than watching someone disappear. That is watching someone insist we ought – to see what is not.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.