The Secret Life of Joe Biden
In a classic episode of Seinfeld, Jerry is accused by his new girlfriend, a police officer, of being a fan of the tacky 1990s soap opera Melrose Place. When Jerry lies and denies it, she suggests putting him on a polygraph to find the truth. In an effort to beat the machine, Jerry seeks the advice of his masterfully mendacious friend, George Costanza, who tells him that his talents can’t be taught — “It’s like saying to Pavarotti, ‘Teach me to sing like you.’” Still, he leaves Jerry with a vital nugget of advice: “. . . Just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it.”
I think of this bit whenever Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden starts in with one of his folksy tales about growing up in hardscrabble Pennsylvania and listening to his dad’s extraordinarily forward-thinking adages. We’re probably only a few speeches away from Biden recalling how his dad used to sit on the edge of his bed and tell him, “Champ, always remember, transgendered folk are just like the rest of us.”
Biden, after all, isn’t always reliving memories of his own life. And I don’t mean his political life, which is filled with momentous but imaginary accomplishments. I mean that he has a habit of engaging in Walter Mitty-like episodes of delusion that he retells with great élan and specificity.
It wasn’t long ago that Biden was telling a rapt audience at Dartmouth the story of a brave Navy captain who had rappelled down a steep ravine in the mountains of Kunar province in an unsuccessful bid to rescue his comrade. An unnamed general had implored the then-vice president to fly to Afghanistan and personally pin the Silver Star on this captain.
“And everybody got concerned a vice president going up in the middle of this,” a fearless Biden recalled, “but we can lose a vice president; we can’t lose many more of these kids, not a joke.”
Now, don’t fret. Biden is no stranger to peril. During a presidential primary debate in 2007, he told viewers about the time he had been “shot at” during a trip to the Green Zone in Iraq.
In any event, the naval officer in question would not let Biden pin the medal on him. “God’s truth, my word as a Biden,” the former senator said. “He stood at attention, I went to pin him, he said: ‘Sir, I don’t want the damn thing. Do not pin it on me sir, please. Do not do that. He died. He died.’”
The only problem with this moving tale was that Biden never visited Kunar province as vice president nor did he ever pin a silver star on any Navy captain, much less one who refused to accept the honor. Nor, incidentally, had Biden ever been “shot at” by anyone.
The media dug up some vaguely similar tale — an Army specialist who had a medal pinned on him by Barack Obama at the White House — so they could claim that Biden had “misremembered” and “conflated” details. But he’s been doing this kind of thing for decades.
It was Biden whose “soul raged upon seeing the dogs of Bull Connor,” who claimed to have marched in the civil-rights movement. “When I was 17, I participated in sit-ins to desegregate restaurants and movie houses,” Biden told audiences in his first presidential bid. In 2014, he was still going on about how he “got involved in desegregating movie theaters.”
In the real world, Biden was 17 in 1959, and it is exceptionally unlikely, nor is there any evidence, that he had participated in any sit-ins at the local Wilmington cinemas, or anywhere else.
Biden has long imagined himself in the thick of the nation’s greatest civil-rights struggle. During one congressional hearing, Biden told a civil-rights activist that “Joe Biden was a lawyer who did work for the black community, represented the Black Panthers at the time they were burning down my city.”
Joe Biden did neither of these things.
In the real world, Biden spent the decade after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination sucking up to a number of race-baiting segregationists such as James O. Eastland, Herman Talmadge, J. William Fulbright, and Strom Thurmond to further his political career. Biden even created an imaginary friendship with the segregationist George Wallace, who he bragged considered him “one of the outstanding young politicians of America” and gave him a nonexistent award to show his appreciation.
Biden’s most infamous mythologizing came during a 1988 campaign for the presidency. In one instance, the candidate lashed out at a man who asked him about his law school and grades:
I think I have a much higher IQ than you, I suspect. I went to law school on a full academic scholarship — the only one in my class to have a full academic scholarship. The first year in law school, I decided I didn’t want to be in law school and ended up in the bottom two-thirds of my class. And then decided I wanted to stay and went back to law school and, in fact, ended up in the top half of my class. I won the international moot court competition. I was the outstanding student in the political science department at the end of my year. I graduated with three degrees from undergraduate school and 165 credits; you only needed 123 credits. I would be delighted to sit down and compare my IQ to yours, Frank.
Other than the fact that Biden hadn’t attended Syracuse Law School on a “full academic scholarship,” and hadn’t finished in the “top half” of his class — rather, 76th out of 85 — and hadn’t won any award for outstanding political science student at the University of Delaware, and hadn’t graduated from that university with “three degrees,” but with a single B.A., the statement is mostly true.
Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Biden’s academic background. But it’s his preternatural Costanza-like imagination to concoct a fake resume on the fly, so rich in detail, and with such conviction, that is most impressive.
During that same 1988 race, the “young lawmaker,” Biden — only 46 years of age! — engaged in what might be the most blatant act of plagiarism in national political history. Joe had pinched an entire speech from one-time British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, yes, but he pilfered the words of Hubert Humphrey, and John and Robert Kennedy, as well. One wonders why he felt the need to steal the thoughts of others when he was blessed with such a vivid imagination.
In any event, Joe didn’t merely steal Kinnock’s words; he brought them to life. As a reporter named Maureen Dowd noted in 1987, Biden engaged in method acting, giving “Mr. Kinnock’s closing speech with phrases, gestures and lyrical Welsh syntax intact.” Biden reflected on his kin’s knack for composing poetry, toiling in the coal mines, and playing football.
When an aide was asked which of the senator’s relatives were coal miners, he replied that Biden was merely referring to “people that his ancestors grew up with in the Scranton region, and in general the people of that region were coal miners.” When informed that Biden had used the phrase “my ancestors,” the aide replied: “Evidently, he had a great-grandfather who worked in a mining company.”
We’re still waiting for confirmation.
We do know one of Biden’s grandfathers was a state senator in Pennsylvania. His dad was a successful used-car salesman, which is a perfectly honorable way to make a living, though probably not the best story for someone running for public office.
Then again, Biden’s middle-class shtick has been something of a fantasy as well. Taking a business-class Acela train, which costs nearly as much as plane fare, from Washington to Wilmington isn’t exactly like riding a covered wagon to the hinterlands. In the real world, Joe pays $20,000 a month for a tony place in McLean, Va., that could comfortably fit four families. That’s when he isn’t slumming it in his $2.7 million, 4,800-square-foot vacation house in Rehoboth Beach.
“Middle Class Joe?” I guess it’s not a lie if you believe it.