The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden’s White House by Chris Whipple

“Anybody in the United States can grow up to be president,” quipped Gore Vidal. “And anybody has.” This was uttered long before our 45th president had even considered running, so clearly Vidal had other Oval Office occupants in mind.

Rankings of presidents tend to be popularity contests and not judgments about how consequential, for better and for worse, their years in office were. Barack Obama is far more popular than Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, but can any serious historian argue that what he did was more consequential than what those two did?

It is foolish, of course, to rank a sitting president, other than to say Joe Biden is clearly not a Roosevelt (take your pick) and just as clearly not by a long shot an Andrew Johnson. Biden is not exactly an accidental president, but he is a president whose election depended on the extreme distaste many had for his opponent.

Being relatively bland also helped, but just as it is hard for most Americans to hate him, it is equally hard to admire him. Joe Biden is the Bob Newhart of presidents, but without the sense of humor and self-effacing geniality.

With The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden’s White House, Chris Whipple has taken a crack at assessing Biden midstream, and his credentials make him an excellent candidate to do so. He worked at both Life magazine and 60 Minutes, and his books include the excellent The Gatekeepers, a look at White House chiefs of staff over the years. He is a sharp observer and sympathetic listener, and deploys his access to the Biden White House to put you straight into the president’s mind. After all, the first sentence of his book is “Joe Biden was worried.”

What Biden was worried about in November 2021 was the massing of Russian troops on the border of Ukraine, and his belief, bolstered by a phone call his C.I.A. chief had had with Vladimir Putin himself, that this was no bluff, that an invasion would indeed take place. One could reasonably argue that this would be the beginning of Biden’s finest hour so far, convincing initially reluctant allies to go along with his determination to punish Russia and aid Ukraine.

Joe Biden is the Bob Newhart of presidents, but without the sense of humor and self-effacing geniality.

The Fight of His Life is very much told from Biden’s point of view, and this is the book’s considerable strength. “In the beginning, Joe Biden liked having Kamala Harris around.” Until he didn’t, due partly to her own missteps and reports about dysfunction among her staff. Giving her the task of handling illegal immigration was a bit like asking her to make high tides a little lower, but that did not change the fact that Biden hated even hearing about the border crisis.

There are many insider-y observations in Whipple’s book, like the “shockingly gracious” (in Biden’s words) two-page letter Trump left his successor (according to Jared Kushner, Trump spent three days composing it) and Biden’s strained relations with his Secret Service detail, who, he believed, included many MAGA sympathizers. He never trusted “the Davids” (Axelrod and Plouffe, from the Obama White House) and often feels looked down upon by Ivy Leaguers. The transition was even more fraught than reported, with particular nervousness about how far Trump would go to retain power.

Whipple is by and large sympathetic to Biden’s two biggest blunders—the poorly executed withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and his premature celebration of “independence from a deadly virus” on July 4, 2021. (Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from the coronavirus since then.)

The sympathy is warranted, since officials within Biden’s own administration disagreed about the withdrawal, and no one can seriously argue that the administration made vaccines hard to get.

Yet there is something about Joe Biden that does not engender awe, and perhaps it is because he is constantly casting himself as good ol’ Joe, a blue-collar guy who would be happy to have a beer with you if he actually drank.

It is unclear if Whipple ever spoke with Biden himself, as good a chronicle of an ongoing presidency as his book might be. But Richard Ben Cramer did, at great length, for his classic What It Takes, detailing the 1988 race for the White House. And what Cramer said then in a sympathetic portrait is still true: Biden is insecure, erratic in emotion, confident that he can win over anybody if he just has enough time with them, and adamant that there are and always will be folks out there who have it in for him. And then there is the sloppy storage of classified documents … go ahead, make your own presidential comparisons.

Biden is not the first and surely not the last president to have a chip on his shoulder, and one can argue how much of that chip is justified (there has been much tragedy in his life) and how much is not. What is undisputed is that Biden, at age 80, has been lucky in his opponents, be it Trump or the handful of Republicans in the House who have recently made the Democrats look very much in array. The next two years will show how lucky he really is, and how worried he should be about all those folks who have it in for him.

Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL