Biden's Decency Is Being Greatly Exaggerated
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Again and again, Joe Biden’s supporters return to a common theme. Matthew Dallek writes that “in an era of nearly relentless nastiness, Biden exudes decency.” Former primary rivals Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke have been touting his decency, too. The anti-Trump Republicans at the Lincoln Project ran an ad about it. And Barack Obama said his former vice president "has the character and the experience to guide us through one of our darkest times."
The candidate himself is not too modest to concur. After winning primaries in mid-March, Biden said, “Tonight we are a step closer to restoring decency, dignity and honor to the White House. That’s our ultimate goal.”
Political campaigns always involve a lot of exaggeration, but the mismatch between Biden’s character references and his actual character is particularly stark.
Start with honesty. Biden lies routinely and pointlessly. His first presidential campaign, in 1988, went off the rails because his speeches included plagiarized passages. He didn’t just steal turns of phrase from the British politician Neil Kinnock; he stole his autobiography, pretending that his family too had worked coal mines and that he too had been the first of his name to get a college degree “in a thousand generations.”
Biden has been on notice for a long time, then, about the dangers of this kind of embellishment. Still, he can’t help himself. During this year’s campaign, he had to retract a story he had repeatedly told about being arrested “on the streets of Soweto” while trying to visit Nelson Mandela in prison. Mandela supposedly thanked him for his trouble. It never happened. His revised story is that for a while he wasn’t allowed to leave an airport since he refused to go through a door for whites.
Even in the case of a story that garners Biden enormous and deserved sympathy — the loss of his wife and young daughter in a 1972 car accident — he edits the truth, and not in an innocent way. For many years he presented them as victims of a drunk driver. There was no evidence that the other driver was drunk; he wasn’t even at fault. That driver’s daughter wrote to Biden in 2001 to ask him to stop denigrating her late father, and he wrote a conciliatory note back. In 2007, during Biden’s second presidential campaign, he told the false story again. He apologized for it in 2009.
Biden isn’t above dishonesty when talking about his public record, either. During this presidential run, his third, he said that he opposed the Iraq war as soon as it started. In truth, he voted for it and supported it, coming out against it only after two and a half years.
The Lincoln Project’s pro-Biden ad highlighted remarks he made in a speech in June: "I won’t traffic in fear and division. I won’t fan the flames of hate. I'll seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued our country, not use them for political gain.” Maybe that’s what he’ll do in the future. It’s not how he has behaved in the past. In 2012, he infamously said that if Mitt Romney won the presidency, “They’re going to put y’all back in chains.” While the Obama campaign insisted it wasn't a reference to slavery, Republicans and Democrats alike interpreted it as one.
Biden hasn’t distinguished himself from run-of-the-mill politicians in his devotion to principle, either. He said he would support Robert Bork if Ronald Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court. If liberal groups “tear me apart, that’s the medicine I’ll have to take.” Then the nomination came, liberals opposed it, and Biden fell in line.
For decades, Biden opposed federal funding for abortion, even sometimes voting against it in cases of rape and incest. In 1994, he wrote a constituent that “the government should not tell those with strong convictions against abortion, such as you and I, that we must pay for them.” He flipped on the issue to get through this year’s primaries.
Then there’s the way Biden’s son Hunter has traded on his father’s public office to enrich himself. The evidence doesn’t bear out the Republican accusation that the younger Biden got his father to lean on Ukraine to help him out. But the son took a well-paid job that was obviously given to curry favor, not to buy expertise he didn’t have. “My son did nothing wrong,” the candidate has said. Even progressive allies of Biden have admitted that the best that can be said about this kind of corruption is that it is neither illegal nor unusual. One might expect a higher bar for someone who keeps talking about bringing honor back to the White House.
Biden has endured a lot of tragedy and persevered. Many people attest that he is generous in consoling others who are grieving. But let’s look at both sides of the ledger with clear eyes.
“Character is on the ballot,” Biden said in February. In a normal campaign, his would be a liability.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.
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