This is the tweet of the year. It’s not from a president. But it could be about a president, and about the rest of us, too, if only we will learn the lesson:
“I’ve failed many times in my life and career and because of this I’ve learned a lot. Instead of feeling defeated countless times, I’ve used it as fuel to drive me to work harder. So today, join me in accepting our failures. Let’s use them to motivate us to work even harder.”
So spoke Phil Mickelson, about two weeks before he stepped onto the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island and, at age 50, became the oldest person ever to win a major golf championship — and the hero of every American closer to the wisdom age of 70 than to the know-it-all age of 30.
This, too, is the lesson of Joseph R. Biden Jr., the hero (or at least the reluctant preference) of 81 million voters.
The three oldest presidents in our history — Biden, Donald J. Trump and Ronald Reagan — won the White House within living memory (or four of the six oldest, if you reach back to George H.W. Bush). This is a significant departure from our founding — Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence at age 33, and John Hancock was 39 when he affixed his famous signature to it — and we still take much of our outlook from the two youngest presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Moreover, this recent aging of American leadership comes amid the growing influence of younger lawmakers such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (age 31) and Sen. Josh Hawley (41).
It turns out that the country is both older and younger. That is true demographically; the two biggest generations are the baby boomers (born 1946-1964) and millennials (born 1981-1996). But it also is true politically: A nation that always thought of itself as young — and that retains a youthful energy, and a legacy of its revolutionary past — now has attributes of the old, with a stake in the status quo as the most powerful nation on Earth.
How is this relevant beyond the 18th green?
The question comes down to the balance between experience and judgment.
Biden surely possesses the former. He has been in public life for a half-century, beginning with his election to the New Castle County Council in Delaware, ordinarily not a springboard to the presidency. (Jimmy Carter began on the Sumter County School Board but ran for the state senate, governorship and presidency as an outsider, a status Biden could never plausibly claim.) As the insider’s insider, Biden has a lifetime of political and international contacts and perspectives that Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama lacked.
So when the Middle East exploded this month, Biden had a playbook and a player roster. The roster helped a bit; he knew Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and so had his number — his phone number, to be sure, but also his psychological number. Netanyahu would continue his offensive until he achieved enough of his goal, real or symbolic, to call it quits.
The playbook turned out to be worthless; it called for the mind-numbing repetition of boilerplate statements of Israel’s right to defend itself, which was correct but limited in its range for the changed conditions on the ground 5,800 miles away — and on Capitol Hill 16 blocks away.
“Experience is valuable,” said Roger Porter, who teaches a Harvard Kennedy School course on the presidency and is the only person to have received appointments from the last nine presidents. “Relying too much on it is dangerous.”
In Biden’s experience, there was little of the sort of rhetoric on Capitol Hill questioning whether, as Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts put it, “our taxpayer dollars [should] create conditions for justice, healing and repair, or ... create conditions for oppression and apartheid?” Nor were there in the Biden experience suggestions that traditional Israel supporters would be willing to halt its security aid amid a military operation, or indeed any time.
The perspective a national-security veteran of the Bill Clinton and Obama administrations shared with me as the conflict opened helps explain how it ended, at least tentatively: “Netanyahu is totally seized on how he retains power. This military action plays to his strength. And it plays to Hamas because it shows its superiority over the Palestinian Authority and impresses Iran. Both of their interests are to continue the situation which is devastating for both of their peoples.”
That is a perspective that long years of perspective almost certainly missed.
But Linda Robinson, director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation, the nonprofit policy think tank, holds a perspective that every occupant of the White House has understood for decades. “At any time, the Middle East can wallop a presidency,” she said in an interview. “This time there’s a severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza, with COVID and the question of rearming Hamas.”
Biden knows that some of the customs and art forms that prevailed in his early political years are discordant today.
Many of those difficult lessons came within the past hard 12 months. Hugs aren’t always welcome. The bids and bleats for bipartisanship no longer resonate. The word “woke” conveys as little of the meaning it held when he was president of his class at Archmere Academy as the word “phone” does now that he is president of the United States; each has a modern power Biden’s teachers at the Catholic school in Claymont, Delaware, could never have imagined. The wisdom of the old oaks no longer has much sway with the young saplings. Conventional medical advice about vaccinations no longer has the power of yore. Indeed, nothing has the power of yore.
So maybe Mickelson had it right, advice from life’s white sand traps for the White House: “I’ve failed many times in my life and career and because of this I’ve learned a lot. Instead of feeling defeated countless times, I’ve used it as fuel to drive me to work harder. So today, join me in accepting our failures. Let’s use them to motivate us to work even harder.”
— David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.