By Susan Milligan
President Joe Biden has never been regarded as a smooth talker, and his gaffes have become a meme-launching part of his political persona.
But Wednesday’s cringe-worthy reference to a dead congresswoman – whom Biden called out to at a conference as if she were there – was especially jarring and had the White House press corps peppering Biden’s press secretary about what the president was thinking.
Speaking at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition & Health – an event the late Rep. Jackie Walorski, Indiana Republican, had helped organize – the president, as he commonly does, called out the names of Republicans and Democrats committed to the issue of hunger.
But Biden appeared to forget why Walorski, who was killed in a car crash in August, was absent.
“Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie? She must not be here,” Biden said.
For a younger president, the painful misstep might be a mere late-night talk show joke. But for the 79-year-old Biden, who was the oldest person to take the oath of the presidency, the gaffe carried a more serious question: Did the president just mis-speak in the moment? Or had he actually forgotten that a woman whose family he will meet this week at an event honoring her was, in fact, dead?
Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, was asked repeatedly about the gaffe at Wednesday’s briefing, growing impatient as the assembled reporters pressed her on the matter.
“She was at top of mind,” Jean-Pierre said repeatedly, noting that Biden will meet with Walorski’s family at an event where a VA clinic in Mishawaka, Indiana, will be named for her.
“It’s not like it happened outside of context,” Jean-Pierre said. “It happened to an event where (Biden) was calling out the champions, the congressional champions of this issue, this important issue, when it comes to food insecurity. She was on top of mind.”
When a reporter noted that the slain Beatles band member John Lennon was on top of his mind – yet he didn’t call out to Lennon as though he were in the room – Jean-Pierre responded in kind.
“When you sign a bill for John Lennon as president, then we can have this conversation,” Jean-Pierre said.
Biden’s Republican detractors often question the president’s mental acuity, pointing to episodes where Biden, who is known for making off-the-cuff remarks, appears confused. Biden has also managed a presidential schedule that includes long overseas trips, meetings and press conferences – even after he had a colonoscopy earlier this year.
He bicycles (with the media in tow) when he goes to Delaware on weekends, and he worked throughout his bout with COVID-19.
Asked about his age and mental sharpness earlier this month, Biden was defiant. “Watch me,” Biden said during an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
“If you think I don’t have the energy level or the mental acuity, then that’s one thing. It’s another thing, you just watch and keep my schedule.”