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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden, storyteller in chief, spins yarns that often unravel

President Joe Biden leaves the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington after an evening Mass on Oct. 1, 2022. Biden has embraced storytelling as a way of connecting with his audience, but his folksiness can veer into a personal folklore.

By Michael D. Shear and Linda Qiu

Standing in front of Floridians who had lost everything during Hurricane Ian, President Joe Biden on Wednesday recalled his own house being nearly destroyed 15 years ago: “We didn’t lose our whole home, but lightning struck and we lost an awful lot of it,” he said.

Biden has mentioned the incident before, once saying he knows what it’s like “having had a house burn down with my wife in it.”

In fact, news reports at the time called it little more than “a small fire that was contained to the kitchen” and quoted the local Delaware fire chief as saying that “the fire was under control in 20 minutes.”

The story is not an isolated example of embellishment.

The exaggerated biography that Biden tells includes having been a fierce civil rights activist who was repeatedly arrested. He has claimed to have been an award-winning student who earned three degrees. And last week, speaking on the hurricane-devastated island of Puerto Rico, he said he had been “raised in the Puerto Rican community at home, politically.”

For more than four decades, Biden has embraced storytelling as a way of connecting with his audience, often emphasizing the truth of his account by adding “Not a joke!” in the middle of a story. But Biden’s folksiness can veer into folklore, with dates that don’t quite add up and details that are exaggerated or wrong, the factual edges shaved off to make them more powerful for audiences.

Biden’s instances of exaggeration and falsehood fall far well short of those of his predecessor, who during four years in office delivered what the Washington Post fact checker called a “tsunami of untruths” and CNN described as a “staggering avalanche of daily wrongness.”

Former President Donald Trump lied constantly, not only about trivial details (such as insisting it hadn’t rained during his inauguration when it clearly had) but about consequential moments — misleading about the pandemic, perpetrating the “big lie” that Biden stole the 2020 election and claiming falsely that the Capitol was not attacked by his supporters on Jan. 6, 2021.

Biden’s fictions are nowhere near that scale. But they are emblematic of how the president, over nearly five decades in public life, has been unable to break himself of the habit of spinning embellished narratives, sometimes only loosely based on the facts, to weave together his political identity. And they provide political ammunition for Republicans eager to tar him as too feeble to run for reelection in two years.

His stories have been repeatedly and publicly challenged, as far back as his 1987 campaign for president, when his attempts to adopt someone else’s life story as his own, and his false claims about his academic record, forced him to withdraw.

White House officials disputed the characterization of Biden as a serial exaggerator and emphasized the contrast with his predecessor.

“President Biden has brought honesty and integrity back to the Oval Office,” said Andrew Bates, a White House spokesperson. “Like he promised, he gives the American people the truth right from the shoulder and takes pride in being straight with the country about his agenda and his values; including by sharing life experiences that have shaped his outlook and that hardworking people relate to.”

But ethicists said contrasting himself with Trump does not excuse Biden.

“I worry about the corrosive effects on democracy, of making ‘more honest than Donald Trump’ the standard for politicians,” said Michael Blake, a professor of philosophy, public policy and governance at the University of Washington.

Two days before his remarks in Fort Myers, Florida, Biden made his comments about the Puerto Rican community back home in Delaware as he toured the destruction on the island.

I’m one of you, he seemed to be saying.

But Biden made not a single mention of Puerto Rico in either of his biographies. Officials could not point to specific instances when Biden had worked on issues involving the island, although Ted Kaufman, Biden’s former chief of staff, defended his close friend’s description, saying Biden had personally engaged with Puerto Ricans early in his career, in the same way he had with other groups, such as the Black or Jewish communities.

Biden’s critics have seized on his falsehoods to depict him as either a purposeful liar or a forgetful old man.

“When you lie about big things, you lie about small things,” Greg Kelly, a host on the conservative network Newsmax, said this year, “and always in a political sense, always in a way to try to get people to like him, and exaggerating along the way.”

Biden has been delivering exaggerations at least as far back as his first presidential campaign.

During his first presidential run in 1987, Biden said he “went to law school on a full academic scholarship,” bragged that he “ended up in the top half” of his law school class and insisted that he “graduated with three degrees from undergraduate school.”

If fact, as he later admitted, he had only a partial scholarship, was 76th out of 85 law school student and graduated with one bachelor’s degree (with a double major in history and political science).

The most curious stories that Biden continues to tell may be the ones about his interactions with the law.

Earlier this year, Biden suggested during a speech in Atlanta on voting rights that he had been arrested while protesting for civil rights.

“Because I’m so damn old, I was there as well,” he said. “You think I’m kidding, man. It seems like yesterday the first time I got arrested.”

There is no evidence he was ever arrested during a civil-rights protest.

During the 2020 campaign, he said he had been arrested while visiting Nelson Mandela in South Africa. He later admitted he had been blocked from moving by police but not arrested. In 2008, he said he had been arrested as a college student following a group of women into an all-female dorm. He hadn’t, as he conceded years later. In 2007, he recounted being arrested by a Capitol Police officer as a 21-year-old student in 1963. But in his memoir, he writes that the officer “didn’t arrest me or anything.”

Blake suggested that there could be a cumulative effect even if Biden had excuses and explanations for individual instances of inaccuracy.

“It’s an attempt to create a sort of picture of who he is as someone who has empathy and knowledge and connection with people who are unlike him,” Blake said.

“But the problem is,” he added, “when it’s verifiably a false story, at that point trust in that story, it fails.”

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