‘This is a thing to do now’
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Over the years, presidents have leaned on their predecessors for help in the White House. Lyndon Johnson, for example, asked Harry Truman for assistance to win approval of Medicare. More often, however, they have kept their distance. “All the time I’ve been in politics, there’s only two people I hate, and he’s one,” Truman said of Richard Nixon. He meant it.
Even so, if the country is very lucky, sometime tomorrow morning Joe Biden might pick up the phone and instruct the White House Communications Agency to put in a call to Donald Trump. It would be perhaps the least likely, but most consequential, president-to-president telephone call since John F. Kennedy telephoned Dwight D. Eisenhower 59 years ago at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. (youtube.com/watch?v=IyAr Uh8eqJ0)
Mr. Biden: Good morning, Mr. President. This is Joe. Hope you’re well.
Mr. Trump: This is one call I didn’t expect.
Mr. Biden: There are a lot of things in life presidents don’t expect.
Mr. Trump: You can say that again. In fact, I can think of one big one.
Mr. Biden: Now, now. I’m calling you president to president, No. 46 to No. 45. And believe me, this call is no easier for me than it is for you.
Mr. Trump: I’m listening.
Mr. Biden: I’ll skip the pleasantries, except to say I hope you and Mrs. Trump and Barron are OK. Mr. President, we both love this country. We both consider ourselves patriots. And, along with Jimmy, Bill, “W” and Barack, we are the only ones who have sat in this chair, at this desk. And I believe we six have always put our nation first, no mat- ter what the press and our critics say.
Mr. Trump: Yes, that’s true.
Mr. Biden: What’s also true, Mr. President, is that our country needs you. I need you. Our country is hurting.
Mr. Trump: That’s what I’ve been saying. Do you see the crowds I’ve been get- ting? Beautiful people. Beautiful. Loving crowds. Loving people.
Mr. Biden: Mr. President, this is above politics, above whether you like my tax plan or I liked your border wall. This has nothing to do with the Supreme Court or the Electoral College. We are one hurting country.
Mr. Trump: Go on.
Mr. Biden: This virus thing — it stung you and it’s wearing me down. I’m trying my darndest to get this country vaccinated, and I’ve run into a roadblock. A god- damn roadblock.
Mr. Trump: The Chinese
Mr. Biden: No, no. Forget the Chinese right now. It’s Americans I’m worried about. And I know you are too. We who have sat where I am sitting feel a burden of responsibility. But also we know — let’s face it, we both know — that presidents may be the most powerful people on Earth, but they still can’t get people to do what they’re supposed to do. Remember what old Harry Truman used to say? “My definition of a leader in a free country is a man who can persuade people to do what they don’t want to do and like it.” And remember Bill Clinton’s definition of this job? “Being president is like running a cemetery: You’ve got a lot of people under you and nobody’s listening.”
Mr. Trump: I couldn’t even get my own vice president to do what he was supposed to do.
Mr. Biden: That’s for another day. Really, I can’t get this country past this virus if I can’t get everyone vaccinated. Or at least most people. Seventy percent, 80%, 85 — I don’t know. But we’re nowhere near where we need to be.
Mr. Trump: Hey, I got you the vaccine. Operation Warp Speed. Think any of your socialist friends hanging around Crazy Bernie’s campfire up in Vermont munching on kale and speaking “woke” remember that?
Mr. Biden: I know you did. You did a great job. A huge, great job. You deserve the country’s thanks. That’s partially why I am calling.
Mr. Trump: What’s the other part? There’s a catch in here somewhere.
Mr. Biden: You’re famous for the “art of the deal.” So I am going to make you a deal.
Mr. Trump: A deal. You?
Mr. Biden: A deal. Here’s the deal. You come down here — I’ll send a govern- ment plane — or I’ll fly up there. I’ll do it tomorrow if you agree. We stand togeth- er. We call together the press, even the ones I don’t like at Fox and the ones you don’t like everywhere else. I stand there, right beside you, and say that Americans are a grateful people but we have not expressed enough gratitude to you for all that you did to get these vac- cines into arms. And I per- sonally and publicly thank you. Jill does, too.
Mr. Trump: And what do I do?
Mr. Biden: You stand beside me — you won’t have to do this again, I promise, not ever — and you address all your people. Your base. All of them. And you say that you love all of those who voted for you — more people than ever voted for a sitting president — and that because you love them you want them to survive. For all I care you can say you want them to live so they can vote for you against me. Really, I don’t care. Say it. But tell them to get vacci- nated.
Mr. Trump: That’s quite an ask.
Mr. Biden: But this is an unprecedented time. And really, you’re not going out on a limb. Mitch McConnell said it the other day.
Mr. Trump: The traitor.
Mr. Biden: OK, forget Mitch. Sean Hannity. He did it. Fox News stars Steve Doocy and Harris Faulkner did a public service announcement. Some mem- bers of the House Republican leadership — and the GOP Doctors Caucus. They did it. Gov. Asa Hutchinson down in Arkansas. For gosh sakes, Steve Scalise got the vaccine and said it was “safe and effective.”
Mr. Trump: Scalise? Mr. Biden: Scalise. Mr. Trump: I’ll think about it. You’d actually stand here — would you come to Bedminster? — and praise me? Actually praise me?
Mr. Biden: I’d do it.
To both of you, I repeat what Winston Churchill, hoping to acquire surplus destroyers in the dark days of World War II, told Franklin Roosevelt in 1940: “Mr. President, with great respect, I must tell you that in the long history of the world, this is a thing to do now.”
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.