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Joe Biden and Peter Doocy is the rivalry everyone can love

Liberal Biden fans cheered (“literal lol,” per MSNBC host
Chris Hayes). Fox News pundits pounced on a new grievance (“What a nasty old
man,” said host Tucker Carlson). Newspapers got clicks (The New York Times’
version of the story was among the most read on the paper’s website) and cable
news found fresh chum for its 24/7 news processing plant.

But the spectacle of Biden lobbing an unintentionally
amplified expletive at Peter Doocy, the fresh-faced Fox News reporter and a
regular foil, also turned out to be one of the most unlikely feel-good moments
of his time in office.

OK, hear me out.

Yes, it’s never a good thing for democratic discourse when
the most powerful man in the country insults a reporter for doing his job. (See
Trump, Donald, many examples from 2015 to present.) Yes, children probably
should not overhear the president mutter such language live on television. Yes,
coarse insults and ad hominem attacks are helping to fuel what sometimes feels
like a hopeless partisan divide.

But what happened afterwards was weirdly heartening.

Doocy, 34, beamed into Fox News from the White House lawn
and … laughed about it. “Nobody is fact-checking yet and said it’s not true,”
he said with a self-deprecating grin, defying the entreaties of network
colleagues like Sean Hannity to indulge in a Biden-bashing victory lap.

And the president did something that his predecessor, Trump,
never seemed to contemplate after one of his tirades against the press: He
called up Doocy and cleared the air.

“He said, ‘It’s nothing personal, pal,’” Doocy said of the
call from Biden, which arrived within an hour of the president’s uncouth
remark. “We were talking about just, kind of, moving forward.”

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Bob Schieffer, a veteran CBS News anchor, surveyed the
exchange from the vantage point of having covered 10 presidents.

“It was something we don’t see that often: a civil
exchange,” Schieffer said. “Both of them came off looking the better for it.”

Part of Doocy’s calculus, surely, was remaining cordial with
the White House, which he covers every day and whose staff members are
important gatekeepers for his ability to do his job. And aides to Biden have
never seen much advantage to being drawn into active warfare with Fox News,
preferring to keep the vitriol one-way and avoid alienating the independent and
persuadable members of the network’s vast audience.

Biden’s allies have also expressed concern that his
relatively few formal interviews with the news media have given critics too
much room to define him. An unfiltered moment, inadvertent or not, can remind
voters of what they liked about him as a candidate — a politician at his best
when he is open with his emotions, even the frustrations of a tough day at the
office.

“They were both adults,” said April Ryan, the White House
correspondent for TheGrio, who weathered a number of nasty remarks from Trump,
none of which required a hot mic to be heard. “Biden did the right thing and
apologised, and Peter was gracious and accepted that. And that’s it. The
apology and then the acceptance and the moving on was the best scenario of an
ugly situation.”

Plus, even the harshest partisans got a kick out of it.

“Don’t tell my fellow right-wingers, but I thought what
Biden said was funny,” Ann Coulter, the arch and arch-conservative pundit,
wrote in an email. Although Coulter could not resist taking a shot at Biden’s
mental fitness, she also conceded, approvingly: “He’s still got sarcasm!”

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While the exchange echoed past presidents’ venting about the
press, some around Washington pointed out that its resolution showed just how
different things are under Biden than his predecessor.

Trump not only viciously insulted reporters (“disgrace”;
“loser”; and “enemy of the people”), he also incited public anger against the
press. His supporters sent frightening threats to journalists and in at least
one case mailed a pipe bomb to CNN. Freedom of the press groups have credited
his behaviour with eroding the rights and privileges of journalists in
autocratic countries around the world.

Jim Acosta, a CNN correspondent who was often on Trump’s
radar, at times seemed to relish his role as an antagonist. His 2020 memoir,
called “The Enemy of the People,” was described in marketing materials as “an
explosive, firsthand account of the dangers he faces reporting on the current
White House.”

It is possible that Doocy could have his own book soon
enough. (A riff on Biden’s comment might make for a blunt, if eye-catching,
title). But in a brief interview Thursday, he signalled a more conciliatory
approach.

“It’s important — whatever people think of me and Biden — to
see that we can have a quick phone call and resolve things, that he and I could
just chat,” Doocy said. He said he has received an enormous response to the
episode, including calls from long-lost elementary school classmates.

Schieffer said Biden’s gaffe reminded him of his days
covering George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign for CBS. The Democratic
candidate was greeting voters in Michigan when a local heckler began taunting
him (accurately, it turned out) about his impending loss to Richard Nixon.

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“McGovern called him over and, loud enough that we could
hear it, said, ‘Hey, kiss my ass,’” Schieffer recalled.

It would take about 15 seconds in today’s world for such an
unguarded remark to start blanketing Twitter and CNN panel discussions.
Instead, the political correspondents “spent all afternoon, the rest of the
day, trying to figure out if we could use the word ‘ass’ in our reports.”

(The Times, in its own account of the McGovern incident,
which took place in Battle Creek, Michigan, in November 1972, referred to the
candidate’s remark as “a vulgarism.” And like Biden, McGovern later offered
regrets, telling a journalist, “We need a little more courtesy in this country,
and I am going to practice a little more myself.”)

Schieffer, who still occasionally contributes to CBS but is
spending much of his time painting, said that in the end, Biden’s gaffe was
“not that big a deal.”

“In the course of American history,” he said, “this is not
going to get a lot of second-day play, if you know what I mean.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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