Below is my column in the New York Post on the controversial speech of President Joe Biden in Philadelphia. The speech has received sharply different reviews from “disgusting” and “hateful” to a historic declaration of war against the enemies of the state. Some like MSNBC regular (and writer for The Nation and Above the Law) Elie Mystal insisted that the speech did not go far enough because all Republicans are white supremacists, not just MAGA Republicans. I thought the speech was divisive and inflammatory. However, it was not the content but the optics of the speech that was particularly unsettling. Framing Biden were two Marines standing like nutcracker props in a highly political speech. His use of the Marines (and the Marine band) violated long-standing rules for shielding the services from such political events.
Here is the column:
President Joe Biden’s speech in Philadelphia has produced sharply different responses from the media. On CNN, it was praised as a rallying cry for patriots. On conservatives sites, it was denounced as hateful and divisive. For many of us, however, the optics was a glaring distraction with the intense red background and prominently placed Marines framing the President. The use of the Marines and the Marine band raised concerns given the clearly political purpose of the speech. Indeed, the networks did not view the speech as an address to the nation and refused to give the White House primetime slots.
While White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre assured the media that “it’s not a political speech,” it was unabashedly political from calls to get the vote out to direct attacks on “MAGA Republicans” and Donald Trump. That again raised the legal questions over the use of the Marines in such a speech. Even CNN flagged the concern over the use of the Marines and CNN chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins stated the obvious that “it was a very political speech.”
The optics of the speech instantly became a source of Internet chatter with the weird red background that made the President look like he was giving a stump speech from Dante’s Inferno. Indeed, it almost had that High Chancellor Adam Sutler look from V for Vendetta. (The comparison ultimately did not end with just the optics. Sutler warned his inner circle that “every day…brings us closer to November” and “I want this country to realize that we stand on the edge of oblivion. I want every man, woman and child to understand how close we are to chaos…to remember why they need us!”).
However, it was the use of the Marine guards that most stood out — framing the President as he declared Trump supporters to be a threat to democracy . Biden denounced “MAGA Republicans” thirteen times as well as repeated references to his past and possible future political opponent, Donald Trump.
The speech was obviously political, as noted by CNN’s Collins, as a “full frontal attack” on his political opponents.
The United States has long drawn a line between the work of federal employees in public service and the use of such employees for political purposes. The Hatch Act was passed in 1939 to curtail the political activities of civilian federal employees.
The Marine Corps expressly forbids personnel from being used or participating in such political events.
“Active duty members will not engage in partisan political activities, and all military personnel will avoid the inference that their political activities imply or appear to imply DoD sponsorship, approval, or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign, or cause.”
The other services have also drawn a bright line against such appearances. Army officials, for example, stress that their rules bar such involvement because “actual or perceived partisanship could undermine the legitimacy of the military profession and department.”
In Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 the long list of prohibited involvement in political events include:
“Attend partisan political events as an official representative of the Armed Forces, except as a member of a joint Armed Forces color guard at the opening ceremonies of the national conventions of the Republican, Democratic, or other political parties recognized by the Federal Elections Committee or as otherwise authorized by the Secretary concerned.”
These rules also expressly bar the wearing of uniforms at such political speeches: “The wearing of the uniform by Service members … is prohibited … during or in connection with furthering political activities, private employment, or commercial interests, when an inference of official sponsorship … for the activity or interest may be drawn.”
There are obviously gray areas for a president who is necessarily accompanied by members of the military. Moreover, drawing the line between what is a presidential address and what is a political speech is often difficult. Presidents are politicians and often use official statements to slam their critics or opponents. Such events often have color guards and military bands.
The enforcement of such rules are also rather anemic. Even violation of the Hatch Act are routinely brushed aside by presidents and both the Biden and Trump administrations have violated the Act in the past.
Yet, what is interesting is the relative silence of many in the media on the use of these Marines as virtual nutcracker props for a political speech. The media overwhelmingly condemned President Trump for his picture in front of St. John’s Church after the clearing of Lafayette Park in 2020. While the media falsely claimed that the park was cleared for the photo ed, many criticized the photo with military and law enforcement officials as inappropriate. Later, Gen. Mark A. Milley, apologized for being in the photo, declaring “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
Yet, Milley has said nothing about supplying not just the Marine Band but Marines to stand directly behind Biden at a political speech as he denounced his political opponents as threats to democracy and part of what he was called a “semi-fascist” movement. Those Marines stood at attention as the President declared “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.” (Apparently, nothing says that you are against fascism as much as labeling your political opponents enemies of the state with Marines on either side of you).
The use of the Marines would certainly seem to “create a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.” Moreover, the message sent to other military personnel, particularly other Marines, is that support for the President’s opponents is considered a threat to the constitutional Republic.
The Washington Post previously objected to the use of the Marine band at the White House when President Trump was viewed as giving a political speech. During the Trump Administration, others joined such criticism including Members of Congress and public interest groups.
Alice Hunt Friend, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Post that the use of the band was a “big violation” since “Americans who see uniformed military personnel at partisan political functions may assume the military has a partisan identity. Presidents running for reelection always have to take extra care to keep their military aides out of their campaign activities.”
Those voices are, thus far, silent in President Biden’s use of these Marines for a highly partisan and divisive speech.
Winston Churchill once said that it is “always dangerous” for military to find themselves mixing with politics because “they enter a sphere in which the values are quite different from those to which they have hitherto been accustomed.” That was never more evident as two young Marines stood at attention as their president accused millions of their fellow citizens of being enemies of the constitutional Republic. They deserved better from the President.