Lots of things happened Wednesday.
The measles outbreak in the United States hit its highest mark since the disease was declared eliminated in the country in 2000; a figure that the Centers for Disease Control blamed on the growing number of people who resist vaccinating their children.
The World Health Organization issued guidelines on how much time kids should spend on “sedentary screen time.” (Not much.)
The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League playoffs continued, with the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes playing a decisive game seven in their series.
This, though, is about something that didn’t happen Wednesday. Joe Biden did not declare for the presidency in Charlottesville. Oh, he will run: He’s set to make his formal announcement today in a video announcement, followed by a rally in Pittsburgh. But he won’t be doing it in Charlottesville.
This is important because for a time last week, Biden’s campaign actively toyed with making the announcement there. The idea was that the backdrop — in the city that saw an infamous and chaotic march by white supremacists that ended with one counter-protester and two police officers dead — would draw a stark contrast with President Trump. Eventually, Biden’s campaign people decided to go online — and to his native Pennsylvania (although not where he was born).
The conservative Washington Examiner speculated that “the last-minute change of plan could be an indication of disorganization in the Biden campaign organization.” That’s possible. It’s also possible that Biden and his staff are capable of bold ideas, but also capable of realizing that not every bold idea is a good idea.
A Biden announcement in Charlottesville — any presidential announcement in Charlottesville, unless you’re the ghost of Thomas Jefferson — would have been provocative, and that’s using a mild word. Trump’s response to the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville — chanting racist slogans — was one of the worst days of a presidency that has not exactly distinguished itself with behavior you’d want your children to emulate. Trump talked about how there were “very fine people on both sides,” which cannot possibly be true. When one side is peopled by those waving swastikas and chanting “Jews will not replace us,” there can be no “very fine people” there.
You can argue about the degree to which Trump has or has not fanned these rising flames of intolerance, but it’s hard to argue that Trump’s response to Charlottesville was worthy of the great office he holds. This isn’t a Democrat vs. Republican thing. This is purely a Trump thing. Every single Republican of note in Virginia (save then-U.S. Senate candidate and Trump acolyte Corey Stewart) instantly put out statements that day denouncing the march and the marchers in the clearest and strongest of terms. They found no trouble finding the right words. Why is it so hard for Trump to denounce racism and intolerance in ways that sound sincere and authentic? A more decent president would have immediately condemned this so-called “alt right,” a phraseology that smears actual right-wingers. Some might have followed up by going to Charlottesville — the way Bill Clinton went to Oklahoma City or George W. Bush went to Virginia Tech after the horrors there. Trump is not that kind of president.
For that reason, a Biden announcement using the site of that march as a backdrop would have thrilled some, and if it’s one thing Biden’s campaign needs, it’s some excitement. The 76-year-old former vice president is running to represent a party that seems hungry to move on to a newer, more liberal, generation of potential standard-bearers. Biden might well be the Democrat most capable of defeating Trump, but at the moment his biggest challenge is persuading his own party to set aside its enthusiasms and embrace the living embodiment of the party establishment. Staking a political claim in Charlottesville — and emphasizing how a president should have responded — might have energized some of the party activists most skeptical of Biden. Yes, the old man gets it.
On the other hand, a Biden announcement in Charlottesville risked being seen as ghoulish theatrics — using the deaths of three people for his own political gain. It also would have gone against Biden’s “brand.” His essential political argument is that after Trump, Americans will yearn for a return to a “normal” president — the modern-day equivalent of Warren Harding’s “return to normalcy” campaign of 1920 after the tumultuous Woodrow Wilson years. Escalating the rhetoric by turning Charlottesville into a rallying cry would have been a risky move for someone who is making the case that he can help the nation turn down its volume. Starting in Charlottesville would have set a tone, but perhaps not the tone Biden really wants to set. Perhaps better for him to go to Pittsburgh — a former Rust Belt city that’s re-inventing itself as a high-tech city — and say whatever he wants to say. Biden’s flirtation with a Charlottesville announcement does show what a wound the events of that August day in 2017 left in the nation’s psyche — at least the part of the nation that really does include “very fine people on both sides.”
Some events get reduced to a single geographical modifier. Selma. Oklahoma City. And now Charlottesville. We know the city as much more than a few bad days when it was invaded by racists from out of town, but the name now carries its own emotional baggage with it. The Charlottesville march will be part of our political lexicon for a long time. It’s also now making its way into our culture in other ways. This week a play called “#Charlottesville” made its debut in the city. Musicians have worked Charlottesville into song. Interestingly, many of those have come from white Southerners eager to make it plain the marchers didn’t speak for them. The Southern rock band the Drive-By Truckers came out with “The Perilous Night.” The country singer Jesse Dayton — who has played guitar for no less than Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson — released “Charlottesville.” “We better rise up to the power,” he sings. “This ain’t no time for cowards.” Trump’s response to Charlottesville was, indeed, cowardly. By contrast, Biden’s decision not to launch his campaign there seems an act of discretion. And, as Shakespeare wrote, discretion is the better part of valor.