Is it possible that the Democrats’ second-oldest presidential candidate, former vice president Joe Biden, has mastered the newest reality of American politics: that in the post-Trump world, factual details don’t matter as much as gut feelings? Biden and his advisers seem to think so. He is refusing to admit there was anything fundamentally wrong with an emotional story he told on the campaign trail last month, about giving a medal to a heartbroken veteran, although The Washington Post revealed that Biden got crucial details wrong—including the date, the place, the soldier’s military branch, his heroic deed, and the type of medal he won.
In case you missed it: Biden told a New Hampshire crowd that as vice president, he’d been asked to go to Afghanistan’s Konar Province to award a medal to a Navy captain who’d rappelled down a ravine under fire to retrieve the body of a fallen comrade. When he attempted to pin a Silver Star on the soldier, Biden recalled, the soldier tried to decline.
“He said, ‘Sir, I don’t want the damn thing!’” Biden recalled emotionally. “‘Do not pin it on me, Sir! Please, Sir. Do not do that! He died. He died!’” The former vice president capped the story by telling the crowd, “This is the God’s truth. My word as a Biden.”
Except, as the Post revealed, “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 traveled to Konar province as a senator in 2008, not as vice president, and it was President Obama who had awarded a medal of honor, not the silver star, to the Army specialist, not Navy captain, who’d braved fire to retrieve the body of a comrade.
To be fair, in 2011 Biden did pin a medal on a soldier who insisted he didn’t deserve it, Army SSgt. Chad Workman, who tried and failed to pull a colleague from a burning vehicle. But the details of that soldier’s story were almost entirely different from Biden’s tale.
It turns out that Biden has been telling some version of this story since he returned from his trip to Konar Province in 2008. During the 2016 campaign, details of two different soldiers’ stories were conflated and the tale got more dramatic. But Biden and his team have insisted that mixing up the tales of two heroic men shouldn’t matter. “I was making the point how courageous these people are, how incredible they are, this generation of warriors, these fallen angels we’ve lost,” he told the Post’s Jonathan Capehart after the paper’s revelations last week. “I don’t know what the problem is. What is it that I said wrong?”
And he’s continued to make that point every time he’s asked. On Monday he told NPR: “‘I was making a point about a generation. That has nothing to do with a judgment of whether or not you send troops to war, the judgment of whether you bring someone home, the judgment of whether or not you decide on a health care policy. You understand that.” When NPR’s Asma Khalid pressed him on getting the details wrong, he pushed back. “The details are irrelevant in terms of decision making…. It’s like saying, ‘I had this very bright reporter and I think her eyes were blue.’ What difference would it make about whether you were a bright reporter? Your eyes are brown. It’s irrelevant and you know it.” A minor digression: Given complaints about Biden’s old-school treatment of women, personalizing his response with details about a female reporter seems ill-advised, but that’s probably the least of the issues here.
The Washington Post’s running tally of Donald Trump’s lies since Inauguration Day 2017 has passed 12,000. Biden seems to think, given that backdrop, his mistakes won’t hurt him—or at least shouldn’t. Part of me admires the former vice president’s pluck. It remains true that the media, while critical of Trump, has one standard for the prevaricating president, and another for the Democrats challenging him, just as so many reporters did for Hillary (But her e-mails!) Clinton in 2016. Maybe Biden thinks toughing this one out will keep the press focused on the bigger issue: Trump’s manifest incompetence and corruption.
But I doubt it. For one thing, Biden’s Afghanistan story-telling didn’t occur in a vacuum but during a campaign in which he’s made numerous mistakes and misstatements. In just one day last month, he confused recently ousted British Prime Minister Theresa May with her long-ago predecessor Margaret Thatcher, said “poor kids are just as talented and as bright as white kids” (inadvertently conflating “white” with “bright” and seeming to depict poor kids as nonwhite), and insisted Democrats should “choose truth over facts.”
Democratic primary voters rightly want to know if the 76-year-old vice president is up to the rigors of the presidency—regardless of the fact that Trump is not. In a primary where at least 10 viable candidates are competing (if we just stick with those who made the cut for the next debate), the party’s voters don’t have to settle for someone whose own troubles with truth and facts threaten to take Trump’s off the table, as a campaign issue, come the fall of 2020.
On the other hand, Biden holds a significant lead over his closest rivals, Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. That would indicate that so far, anyway, Biden’s propensity to misspeak (which predates the current campaign) is not swaying his supporters. We may find out over time that just the way Trump’s numerous flaws, from sexual misconduct to serial lying, seem to be, as pundits annoyingly put it, “baked in” to supporters’ estimation of him, so are Biden’s gaffes and misstatements.
Still, it’s fair for reporters to question Biden on his occasional trouble with facts. It’s also a fair issue for his rivals, although exactly how to raise it, without seeming cruel, is a dilemma. Although Harris rose in national and early state polls after she challenged the former vice president on his long opposition to busing, she has declined since the second debate, when some observers—unfairly, in my opinion—judged her to be too hard on the front-runner. Senator Cory Booker’s decision to hit Biden after he boasted about working with segregationists didn’t boost the New Jersey senator’s poll numbers at all. Facts are stubborn things, as President John Adams said (optimistically) long ago—but so is Biden’s popularity with traditional Democrats, older voters, and, in particular, older black voters.
I honestly don’t know if Biden’s gambit here will work against Trump. But it would be a shame to find out that it won’t only after he’s the Democratic nominee.