Biden’s tendency to spin a yarn doesn’t seem such a big deal now
Trump so mendacious that his relationship with factual truth is practically non-existent
Joe Biden: now regarded as the Democratic Party’s main hope of unseating a White House incumbent who lies even as he breathes. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Senator Joe Biden arrived in Des Moines in August, 1987, with the air of a presidential candidate riding a wave.
His poll numbers were on the up and, an even better barometer, his every public appearance garnered larger and larger crowds. Then, he gave a robust performance in a debate at the Iowa State Fair that seemed to underline the impression of somebody with a genuine chance of reaching the Oval Office. His closing remarks that night drew tears from women in the audience when he talked poignantly of where his family had come from.
“Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go a university?” he asked. “Why is it that my wife is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright? Is it because they didn’t work hard? My ancestors who worked in the coal mines of northeast Pennsylvania and would come home after 12 hours and play football for four hours? It’s because they didn’t have a platform on which to stand.”
As it had been when Neil Kinnock, then leader of The Labour Party, had delivered those very same lines at a conference in Wales three months earlier. There were subtle differences.
Kinnock reckoned his forefathers only spent eight hours a day down the mines of the Rhymney Valley and didn’t specify exactly how long they played football for afterwards. Not to mention, the lifelong Cardiff City fan was, of course, talking about soccer while his Democratic counterpart was referencing grid-iron. How handy that football translated so easily from one country to the other.
For brazenly plagiarising somebody else’s biography, as much as his speech, Biden’s candidacy took a hit from which it never really recovered. It didn’t help that subsequent investigations of his oratorical greatest hits revealed similar direct lifts from the work of Robert F Kennedy and a sprinkling of egregious lies about his academic record.
Over the ensuing 33 years, those lazy cut and paste jobs somehow became a smaller and smaller part of his story and Biden is now regarded as his party’s main hope of unseating a White House incumbent who lies even as he breathes.
Yet, the putative Democratic nominee still comes trailing his own reputation for bizarrely blurring the lines regarding the actual life he lived and the version he’s selling to an audience. Witness the yarn spun at an Athens, Ohio campaign stop in September, 2012.
“I was a football player [with the University of Delaware],” he said. “I came here in 1963, and I had to go back, I just double checked my memory – you know, you get to my age and you’re not so sure of it, you know, your glory days look more glorious than they really were and all that. So we went back on the internet and I just want you to know, I came here in October 1963, and we beat you [Ohio University] Bobcats 29-12.”
Slight problem there. Biden never played football for Delaware at the collegiate level. Pretending to have done so is the American equivalent of an Irish politician claiming to have been on a county minor team that recorded a famous championship victory back in the day.
Against the background of every fresh Trump atrocity, Biden amplifying his big man on campus athletic credentials doesn’t appear such a big deal
If men of a certain age often evince a tendency to exaggerate the sporting prowess of their youth, this is the kind of easily verifiable boast that was a lot easier to get away with in the days before online newspaper archives. Worse again, he’s told the story more than once although on occasion he’s deliberately vague about whether he was a player.
The sad thing is Biden’s narrative never needed this sort of amplification.
At Archmere Academy, a Catholic prep school in Delaware where he worked on the grounds crew to offset his tuition, he was an outfielder on the baseball team and his prowess on the grid-iron earned him the nickname “Hands”. A vast improvement on “Stut” and “Joe Impedimenta”, cruel monikers imposed on him by classmates because of his stuttering.
Off the field, he claimed that part of his education about racism came when that football squad once walked out of a local diner because it wouldn’t serve their only black team-mate.
As with so much in his story, he has been criticised in the past for overplaying his own role in that particular protest. In more normal political times, this sort of fibbing and self-aggrandizement would be a bigger deal, except his opponent next November is an individual so mendacious that his relationship with factual truth is practically non-existent.
Against the background of every fresh Trump atrocity, Biden amplifying his big man on campus athletic credentials doesn’t appear such a big deal.
And, unlike Democratic frontrunners from previous campaigns, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry for starters, the 77-year-old hasn’t committed the cardinal credibility crime of feigning sporting interest to appeal to voters. He doesn’t have to do that because he’s a genuine supporter of every Philadelphia team and retains a former athlete’s misguided belief in his own abilities.
At the White House where his secret service codename was “Celtic”, he once famously called out the basketball-loving Barack Obama in front of an audience.
“I told the president, next game I have him,” said Biden. “Just remember I may be a white boy but I can jump.”