Is President Joe Biden forgetful or a fabulist?
He has shown a consistent pattern of prevarication. For example, this week, when he claimed that he had visited the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh after an anti-Semitic attack that killed 11 people there in 2018. “I remember spending time at the, you know, going to the, you know, the Tree of Life synagogue, speaking with them,” Biden told Jewish leaders.
But as Barb Feige, executive director of the Tree of Life, told the New York Post, Biden has not visited the synagogue. The White House scrambled to explain the lie, saying that what Biden meant was that he had had a brief telephone call with the chief rabbi of Tree of Life a year later. (In fact, it was then-President Donald Trump and his family who visited Tree of Life in the days after the attack).
This is not the first time Biden claimed to have done things he never did. In fact, one could say it is a feature, not a bug, of his political life. In 1988, he ended his presidential campaign after he was exposed as having borrowed U.K. Labor leader Neal Kinnock’s life story and passed it off as his own. This lie was reexamined in 2008 when Barack Obama was considering Biden as a running mate. As David Greenberg reported in Slate at the time, “Biden lifted Kinnock’s precise turns of phrase and his sequences of ideas . . . But the even greater sin was to borrow biographical facts from Kinnock that, although true about Kinnock, didn’t apply to Biden. Unlike Kinnock, Biden wasn’t the first person in his family history to attend college, as he asserted; nor were his ancestors coal miners, as he claimed when he used Kinnock’s words.”
When his lies were exposed, Biden was unrepentant. He “angrily denied having done anything wrong and urged the press to chase after the political rival who had sent out what came to be called the ‘attack video.’” But the press tracked down further instances of stolen ideas. As Greenberg notes, Biden had also lifted passages from the speeches of Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. He had even exaggerated the extent of his participation in the civil rights movement: He had not, as he often had claimed, “joined sit-ins to desegregate restaurants and movie theaters.”
Biden also liked to inflate his academic credentials. When running for president in 1988, he snapped at a voter who challenged him, saying, “I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect.” Biden went on to claim, falsely, that he “went to law school on a full academic scholarship.” He also claimed to have graduated in the top half of his law school class and to have earned three degrees. As Greenberg notes, all of those claims were lies.
Many politicians lie and exaggerate—Senator Richard Blumenthal’s infamous stolen valor; former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s lie about having “landed under sniper fire” in Bosnia; the many boastful, bombastic lies of former president Donald Trump.
But the press challenged many of those lies, Trump’s most enthusiastically. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and other news outlets kept a daily tally of every possible prevarication that emerged from Trump’s mouth during his four years in office.
Now that Biden is the liar? Not so much.
Rather, the media prefers to “fact check” people who call out Biden for his behavior. When some Gold Star family members of the U.S. Marines killed in the terrorist attack in Kabul complained to the press that Biden had been checking his watch during the service when their children’s coffins were being brought home at Dover Air Force base recently, USA Today initially claimed that the family members statements were “partly false.” This was despite the fact that a picture showed what USA Today itself described as Biden “appearing to check his watch.” When video emerged proving the parents right, the paper had to issue a “clarification” noting that, in fact, “Biden checked his watch multiple times at the dignified transfer event, including during the ceremony itself. The rating on this claim has been changed from partly false to missing context.”
A similar unwillingness to challenge Biden has marked the press’ response to Biden’s statements of fact with regard to the number of Americans who were left behind in Afghanistan or the many Afghan allies eligible for entry to the United States whom we abandoned to the Taliban. Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post’s “fact checks” of Biden’s statements more often than not read like talking points from the White House communications office; Kessler frequently claims Biden’s untruthful statements are only lacking context, or that his errors of fact were simply him “bungling” a line—benefits of the doubt Kessler never extended to Trump.
Even though any reporter worth his or her salt knows of Biden’s penchant for telling whoppers, none have made a strenuous effort to expose them. On the contrary, many have tried to make any excuse possible to avoid calling out his lies.
Perhaps the administration’s policy of brazening through Biden’s lying is a way to avoid a more uncomfortable conversation about the fact that Biden’s practice of making stuff up and meandering off-topic seems to have worsened with age. If Biden was a Republican, you can be sure there would already have been dozens of stories about the fact that Biden hasn’t released the results of any medical exam in almost two years (the White House claims he will do so later this year) or speculation about whether or not he was mentally competent to perform the job of president, which often occurred during Trump’s term in office.
When a public figure repeatedly lies to the public (and is repeatedly caught out for doing so), it’s worth asking what motivates him to continue the practice.
For Biden, the lies aren’t meant to protect an innocent party or even to soothe the anxious public. They are almost always to burnish the reputation of Joe Biden. He is at the center of these fabulations, and when he tells them, he makes himself sound more empathetic, heroic, decisive, or intelligent than the truthful record demonstrates he is. Americans might have become cynical about how often our politicians lie to us about matters of policy. But it is worth considering what it says about Biden that he has spent his political career lying about— and perhaps to—himself.