Joe Biden has long been adept at talking with a foot in his mouth, so perhaps it’s no surprise lately he has overdosed on whoppers. Nevertheless, it has unnerved many Democrats to hear their 2020 front-runner oscillate so frequently between fact and fiction.
Which prompts me to wonder: Is a serial gaffer the best possible candidate to challenge a serial liar? Or is Donald Trump so uniquely horrific - Peter Wehner, a former aide to three Republican presidents, calls him “pathologically dishonest” - that he has basically lowered the bar for Biden?
Biden has been on a tear, and not in a particularly good way. In August, he said that Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated in “the late 1970s.” Actually, they were assassinated in 1968. He lamented the recent mass shootings in “Houston” and “Michigan” - which took place in El Paso and Dayton. He said that he met with students of the Parkland shootings while he was vice president, but the shootings took place in 2018, long after Trump was elected. A few weeks ago, he thought he was in Vermont, when in fact he was standing in the critical early-primary state of New Hampshire.
We’re perhaps tempted to chalk those up to the aging process (he’s 76), but in 2008, when he was 11 years younger, he offered this Great Depression history lesson: “When the stock market crashed, Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television.” Um. When the market crashed in 1929, Herbert Hoover was president. Roosevelt didn’t become president until 1933, and he never went on television. He was dead during the rise of television.
But Biden’s piece de resistance (thus far) happened on Aug. 21, in a New Hampshire meeting hall, when he recalled how he had journeyed to Afghanistan and pinned a medal on a Navy captain who had rappelled down a ravine to fetch the body of comrade killed in combat. The Navy captain had risen back up the ravine, carrying the body on his back. The captain said he didn’t deserve the medal, telling Biden: “Do not pin it on me, sir!” Recalling this story, Biden told his New Hampshire audience: “This is the God’s honest truth. My word as a Biden.”
Well, some fact-checking reporters at the Washington Post scrutinized Biden’s “God’s honest truth,” and found that “almost every detail in the story appears to be incorrect... In the space of three minutes, Biden got the time period, the location, the heroic act, the type of medal, the military branch and the rank of the recipient wrong, as well as his own role in the ceremony.”
Biden has long told variations of this story to a number of audiences. Sometimes it’s a Navy captain (according to military records, that character is fictitious), sometimes it’s an Army captain (according to military records, ditto), and sometimes the heroic action took place in Iraq, not Afghanistan. Sometimes the dead soldier was pulled from a ravine, sometimes from a Humvee.
The truth (which should be enough) is that, in 2011, Biden did pin a medal on an Army staff sergeant who’d tried without success to rescue a dead comrade from a burning vehicle in Afghanistan - and who had indeed told Biden that he didn’t deserve the medal. And yet, after The Washington Post parsed his erroneous story-telling, he didn’t seem to understand the problem: “I was making the point how courageous these people are ... What is it that I said wrong?”
Hence the conundrum for Democrats: Has Trump - with his documented 12,000 lies - lowered the bar so that Biden’s falsehoods should be deemed no big deal? That Biden should get a pass because his fictional forays are far more benign?
Biden himself has insisted that he should get a pass, saying last December,“I am a gaffe machine, but my God, what a wonderful thing compared to a guy who can’t tell the truth.”
Some Democratic primary voters in South Carolina, interviewed recently, don’t care a whit. One woman said Biden’s flubs were fine because “his heart is in the right place and that’s what we need right now.” One guy, asked about Biden’s errors, said, “So what? I do too. He’s human. It makes him real.” Another woman said, “That’s what makes him likable.” Another guy said, “The gaffes don’t matter because we all mess up, we’re all human.”
If voters like a politician, they’ll give that person plenty of slack. Trump’s cultists prove the point in the extreme, but it’s not a new phenomenon. After all, voters elected Ronald Reagan twice despite his frequent flights of imagination.
Context is everything. If Biden can convince enough people that he’s a comfortable soft landing after four dire years of Trump turbulence, his blarney won’t be a deal-breaker.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.