OPINION: 100-year-old vet says he saw the faraway look in Joe Biden’s eyes

President Joe Biden meets Hilbert Margol, a 100-year-old World War II vet, at a ceremony in Normandy commemorating D-Day.  French President Emmanuel Macron is in foreground.

Credit: American Battle Monuments Commission

Credit: American Battle Monuments Commission

President Joe Biden meets Hilbert Margol, a 100-year-old World War II vet, at a ceremony in Normandy commemorating D-Day. French President Emmanuel Macron is in foreground.

The 80th anniversary of D-Day last month and a trip to Normandy was a solemn occasion for the dozens of World War II veterans who flew across the Atlantic.

For 100-year-old Army veteran Hilbert Margol, it was a proud trip — and one that brought a sense of surprise and sadness when he met President Joe Biden.

His suspicions from his brief meetings with the president in France a month ago were reinforced when he watched last week’s debates. It seemed the poor man was just not all there.

“I’m not a doctor but I’ve lived with dementia; it is nothing new,” Margol told me this week. His wife of 75 years, Betty Ann, has been diagnosed with it, although she often functions well. “It’s been building for the last three years. Little by little, it gets a little worse.”

Margol’s close encounter with President Biden was at a ceremony at Omaha Beach, with more than two dozen world leaders attending, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Great Britain’s Prince William and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Actor Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg were there, too.

Macron approached the 11 World War vets at the ceremony and spoke briefly with each as he pinned the Légion d’Honneur, his nation’s highest military honor, on their jackets. He spoke briefly with Margol, the first of the veterans to be honored, laughed and held the old soldier’s shoulders.

President Joe Biden prepares to kiss the cheek of World War II veteran Hilbert Margo during a ceremony in Normandy.

Credit: American Battle Monuments Commission

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Credit: American Battle Monuments Commission

“I told him, ’We have one thing in common, we’re both married to beautiful women,’ " Margol recalls telling the French president before Macron kissed him on both cheeks.

Biden then approached, smiled, said something to him and then kissed Margol on his right cheek.

“When President Macron kissed me on both cheeks, that did not surprise me; I understand that’s the European thing to do,” Margol said. “When President Biden kissed me on one cheek, I was surprised.”

He was the only veteran kissed by the president. He thinks Biden was confused watching his French counterpart and just did the same.

But it wasn’t the kiss that gave the centenarian an odd feeling, during their less-than-20-second close encounter, which is on tape. It was Biden’s eyes.

“It was his eyes, his face; more so, when he kissed me, I don’t think he knew what he was doing,” Margol told me. “I looked in his eyes. It gave me the same message I get looking into my wife’s eyes. It’s glassy, like they’re not focusing 100%.”

He tried to lighten the moment with the 81-year-old Leader of the Free World, a man who was a toddler when Margol served in an artillery unit fighting across Europe.

“I said, ‘Mr. President, age is just a number,’ " Margol recalled. “He said, ‘You’re right,’ and walked away.”

Hilbert and Betty Ann Margol in front of cards celebrating his 100th birthday. The couple has been married 75 years.

Credit: Bill Torpy

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Credit: Bill Torpy

Margol thought of brief personalized things to say to those who honored him to help lighten the interactions. “I said it because I thought it was something he’d like to hear,” he said.

Margol was surprised Prince William called him by his nickname, Hibby, and he told the future king that he hoped his wife had recovered from her surgery and that his father was doing well.

Margol said he did not express his observation of Biden with his fellow vets but it all came back last Thursday night.

“I watched the debate and, frankly, felt sad for President Biden,” he said. “Some of his actions didn’t surprise me. I think the only reason (his aides) want him to continue is to remain in their positions, their perks, their power.”

In defense of Biden, Margol said there was a lot of activity going on each day and it’s hard to always be in the moment. He said Tom Hanks shook his hand and then hugged him and “I didn’t remember (the hug) until I saw a picture of it. There was a lot going on. It’s possible President Biden was confused.”

He also said Biden also spoke well during a 15-minute address to a large crowd.

Biden’s team chalked up the poor debate performance to a cold. A day later, he was his fiery old self at a rally, saying, “I don’t walk as easy as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to.”

But, he added, “I know how to tell the truth.”

Hilbert Margol (center) on transport ship after the war. Photo from Hilbert Margol.

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Margol, a retired furniture dealer who is Jewish, was one of the first American soldiers in 1945 to come upon Dachau, the Nazis’ “model” for concentration camps. He often tells his story in presentations to schools and other organizations.

His recall is pretty solid. During our phone interview, he had a call come in, was gone for at least a minute and then clicked back to our call and started right on with the point we were discussing.

He is also politically conservative but our discussion came about in a circuitous fashion. We have known each other for years and communicate fairly often. He contacted me trying to reach a New York Times reporter who had called him Monday. She called fairly early in the morning and he wanted to get back to her to make sure she got things right.

She was calling the men who met with Biden in Normandy. I got some info about her and passed it on to him. I then asked, almost off-handedly, about his interaction with the president.

And he told me.

“She called me, I didn’t call her,” Margol told me. “There’s no reason for me to say anything.”