The “senile Biden” narrative often relies on egregious distortions of...

The “senile Biden” narrative often relies on egregious distortions of President Joe Biden's state of health, and on ignoring questions about Donald Trump’s mental fitness. Credit: Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla

With less than five months until Election Day, the issue of President Joe Biden’s age and alleged cognitive decline is increasingly the subject of political warfare. Most Democrats say Biden is being targeted by right-wing smear tactics; most Republicans say Democrats are denying Biden’s obvious decline. Who’s right?

One can certainly raise legitimate questions about Biden’s physical and mental vigor at 81 and wish for a younger or at least more energetic candidate. But it is also true that the “senile Biden” narrative often relies on egregious distortions — and on ignoring questions about Donald Trump’s mental fitness.

The latest controversy involves several video clips trumpeted on the right. One showed Biden at the Group of Seven summit, seeming to wander away until Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni steered him back for a group photo. Another showed him standing on the stage at a Hollywood fundraiser looking into the audience until, critics said, Barack Obama led him away.

It turned out that the G-7 video was deceptively cut: It didn’t show that there was a skydiving exhibition happening, and Biden went to talk to a skydiver with whom he had interacted before. Getting distracted is quite different from wandering off aimlessly and staring into empty space.

As for the fundraiser footage, it’s from the end of the event; the likely explanation is that Biden is listening to the applause. The video is shot from too far away to see a supposed frozen expression, and Obama's gesture may simply be a friendly hand on the arm.

Some conservative pundits have argued that the context changes nothing: Biden still looks disoriented and weak. But appearances can, in fact, be deceiving. If a person who seems disoriented is actually talking to someone off-camera in a noisy environment, that’s relevant. Few conservatives would argue that context is irrelevant if a video that shows a police officer beating a suspect leaves out earlier footage that shows the suspect being violent — even if the officer’s actions still look brutal.

But White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was wrong to suggest that the videos are “deepfakes.” Yet, it’s certainly fair to say that they are manipulated and tendentiously framed.

Other Biden gaffes, including occasions when he read instructions such as “pause” from the teleprompter, raise more serious questions. Is it mental decline or a simple error that could happen to anyone who spends a lot of time in the public eye and under pressure? Is it more important that the president makes unscripted remarks and gives interviews? People can legitimately disagree.

But let’s not forget that Trump has made his own share of gaffes, mix-ups and bizarre rambling remarks; several business leaders who recently attended a meeting with him were reportedly struck by his inability to “keep a straight thought.” His energetic and even manic demeanor, at 78, may be masking his cognitive issues.

Biden is set to debate Trump on June 27 — and Trump has already claimed that Biden may do well thanks to being “pumped up” on drugs. If, as a Trump ad recently suggested, Biden has dementia, of which no proof exists, there are sadly no drugs that could help. 

It’s a sad commentary on this political moment that for most people watching, the real question will not be “who’s got the better policies and ideas” but “is either of them mentally fit.” But that’s where we are, and that’s the question that may have a clearer answer in less than a week.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.

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