Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden wore a mask. Trump did not. Now a single accessory can define the presidency.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, wear masks as they lay a wreath at the Delaware Memorial Bridge Veteran's Memorial Park on May 25. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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When Joe Biden emerged from his home on Monday to lay a wreath at a veterans memorial in Delaware, he was wearing a plain black face mask. A lot of people saw a dignified expression of leadership and compassion. Critics of the former vice president saw a muzzle.

No one looks particularly handsome or comely wearing a face mask. But aesthetics are not simply about whether something looks good; they aren’t defined using only a single, isolated metric. Aesthetics are a complicated mixture of context and intent, timing and personage. And by those measures, Biden looked magnificent.

His arrival at the Delaware Memorial Bridge Veteran’s Memorial Park marked his first public excursion from his neighborhood in two months. He was wearing an ink-colored suit and crisp shirt. His tie was midnight blue with red-and-white diagonal stripes cutting through a print featuring the seal of the United States in gold. A politician’s flag pin was attached to his lapel. His signature Ray-Ban aviators were perched on his nose because Biden is still Biden.

His wife, Jill, accompanied him and she was in a slim skirt and matching top. The somber colors of her ensemble coordinated with his. She, too, wore a black face mask.

Their attire was considered and discreet for the occasion and for the images that would be broadcast around the world. Each detail indicated that they’d consulted each other and acted in agreement. They were dressed to convey calm, respect and quiet reflection.

And that included wearing masks — simple, functional and uncomfortable, as masks can be. They were surrounded by security and staff with similar face coverings. The Bidens didn’t exempt themselves from the rules. They didn’t position themselves as the VIPS who others are charged with protecting but who won’t make an effort to reciprocate the consideration.

The Bidens underscored the importance of community on a day when Americans recall how previous generations acted selflessly, when they remember what their own kin voluntarily gave up to protect the home front. The Bidens wore masks on a day when the country was not merely thinking about the lives lost in decades past but also those that have been lost in the past few months — nearly 100,000 gone.

As he paid his respects, Biden shook his fist in a show of strength. He saluted and thanked veterans for their service from a scientifically approved distance — a stance that was, in effect, in service to others.

In a setting that memorialized those who made such tremendous sacrifices, wearing a mask is almost a laughable gesture. But at least it’s something.

The Bidens brought a wreath of white flowers that were striking because of everything they were not: emblazoned with a flag or red, white and blue ribbons, loudly nationalistic or exuberantly militaristic. They were respectful, but not grand. They were more intimate and human-scale than those that are often laid in observation of Memorial Day. They weren’t flowers symbolic of a country as some sort of glittery brand; instead, they were symbolic of the simplicity of our humanity.

President Trump laid a patriotically bedecked wreath at Arlington National Cemetery — or to be more precise, he patted a wreath that was positioned there. He was not wearing a face mask, nor was first lady Melania Trump despite having publicly encouraged others to do so.

For some on social media, the question of the day was whether Biden looked presidential in his mask. Did he look strong and capable or did he look weak and fearful? The answer depends on how one defines the role of the president in challenging times.

Wearing a face mask is humbling and generous. That’s not how Trump defines leadership.

If one believes that a president presides over an inanimate brand — a version of America that is little more than chest-thumping, cheerleading, love letters to Wall Street and empty boasts about exceptionalism — then a mask is decidedly off message. But if a president’s role is to lead a fearful, confused populace, if his task is to remind a nation of its proven capacity to coalesce in difficult times — to sacrifice and move forward — then a mask is not a muzzle.

It’s a powerful, evocative rallying cry.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on May 26 said President Trump's retweet was not meant to shame former vice president Joe Biden for wearing a mask. (Video: The Washington Post)