What Joe Biden's memory lapse about the late Jackie Walorski really told us

I shuddered when I learned that President Joe Biden had called out to a crowd in search of a congresswoman who died nearly two months ago in an automobile accident. He’s going to turn 80 in November and let’s face it, this seemed like a memory fail – a particularly embarrassing one.

Yet there’s another way to look at this: Biden was trying to credit the late Indiana Republican Rep. Jackie Walorski – a lawmaker who voted on Jan. 6, 2021, to object to his presidential victories in Arizona and Pennsylvania and who this March labeled his agenda “radical & reckless” – for her good work on nutrition and hunger.

It’s unfortunate that he made the mistake. At the same time, it demonstrated a generosity and professionalism that was also present in Biden’s Tuesday conversation with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a frequent and harsh Biden critic, as Hurricane Ian bore down on his state.

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The two men “committed to continued close coordination,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said after they talked. “I spoke with Gov. DeSantis for some time,” Biden added Wednesday. “I made it clear to the governor and the mayors that the federal government is ready to help in every single way possible.”

President Joe Biden at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health on Sept. 28, 2022, in Washington.
President Joe Biden at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health on Sept. 28, 2022, in Washington.

No blue or red states, just the United States

This what we normally expect from national leaders. “There are no red states or blue states, just the United States,” President Barack Obama tweeted during his 2012 reelection campaign.

Later, his vice president – Biden – revived the theme in his own 2020 presidential campaign: "I'm running as a proud Democrat, but I will govern as an American president. No red states, no blue states, just the United States. I promise you. I’ll work as hard for those who don’t support me as those who did. That’s the job of a president, a duty to care, to care for everyone in America.”

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The contrast with former President Donald Trump is glaring. If he intuited “a duty to care,” he conveyed that strangely by, for instance, throwing paper towels at a crowd of Puerto Ricans in 2017 after the island had been devastated by Hurricane Maria.

“It showed such a lack of empathy,” chef José Andrés told The Washington Post a year later. By then, he and his World Central Kitchen had served 3.6 million meals in Puerto Rico.

President Donald Trump tosses paper towels into a crowd in Puerto Rico in 2017, as the U.S. territory was trying to recover from Hurricane Maria.
President Donald Trump tosses paper towels into a crowd in Puerto Rico in 2017, as the U.S. territory was trying to recover from Hurricane Maria.

This month, two days before the fifth anniversary of Maria and still struggling to recover, Puerto Rico was battered by Hurricane FionaBiden’s response: “We are with you. We’re not going to walk away. We mean it.” Then he told Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, “You have the phone number. You can call me, personally, anytime. And I mean it.”

Trump repeatedly blamed California for its catastrophic wildfires, dismissed the impact of climate change and drought, and threatened to withhold money because the state didn’t follow his advice to “clean” its forest floors. “Maybe we’re just going to have to make them pay for it because they don’t listen to us,” he said.

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And then came the COVID-19 crisis and a new wave of blue-state blaming from "an unpredictable president with a love for cable news and a penchant for retribution," as The Associated Press put it. Trump warned Democratic governors at the outset to be “appreciative” or his administration would not be responsive, singling out Washington’s Jay Inslee and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer as particular offenders in the appreciation department.

He also blamed governors for failing to handle their own problems and forcing the federal government to get involved. As if national leadership was optional during a terrifying global pandemic.

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By fall 2020, Trump was bragging that the U.S. death rate had fallen dramatically despite “tremendous death rates” in blue states. “If you take the blue states out, we’re at a level that I don’t think anybody in the world would be at,” he said. “We’re really at a very low level. But some of the states, they were blue states and blue-state-managed.”

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Lock them up? Throw them out? Take his red states and secede? COVID soon took hold in red states, of course. It played no favorites. But Trump did. He never saw himself as everyone’s president.

Memory lapses are part of aging

When Walorski died on Aug. 3, Biden offered condolences to her family and a tribute to her work. He noted in a White House statement that she was co-chair of the House Hunger Caucus and said, “I appreciated her partnership as we plan for a historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health this fall that will be marked by her deep care for the needs of rural America.”

So yes, Biden not only seemed to blank on Walorski’s tragic death, he also did it at the very conference he cited in his statement after she died.

Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., was co-chair of the House Hunger Caucus. She died in a car wreck in August 2022.
Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., was co-chair of the House Hunger Caucus. She died in a car wreck in August 2022.

As so many of us know from our own lives, with age come memory lapses, and that’s often the least of it.

I am already on record as a fan of Biden’s presidency while also hoping he won’t run for reelection in 2024. But let’s put this moment in perspective. You need only look back a couple of years to remember that some things are more important than age and a perfect memory.

Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's Walorski slip isn't just a memory fail or age, but decency