Joe Biden knows how to tell a story. In New Hampshire, the Democratic presidential candidate recently offered a moving tale of tragedy, heroism, and honor. When Biden was vice president, goes the story, he went to Afghanistan to decorate a Navy captain who had rappelled down a deep ravine, while taking enemy fire, to retrieve the body of another American soldier. The captain movingly tried to refuse the medal because his fellow soldier had died.
In the story’s telling, Biden relayed some of his own heroics. When some in the vice president’s circle had expressed concern about Biden’s going to Afghanistan, he says that he waived them off stoically. “We can lose a vice president,” he said. “We can’t lose many more of these kids. Not a joke.”
Not a joke, no. But virtually the whole story, according to the Washington Post, is also not true. Like much effective fiction, it was cobbled together from a few real-life tales with some colorful invention thrown in for good measure. “In the space of three minutes,” Matt Viser and Greg Jaffe write, “Biden got the time period, the location, the heroic act, the type of medal, the military branch, and the rank of the recipient wrong, as well as his own role in the ceremony.”
Good story, though. Which is probably why Biden has been telling some version of it for years.
If Biden becomes the Democratic nominee for president, how exactly is he going to campaign against Donald Trump’s “alternative facts?” According to Biden, Trump’s talent for fabrication is part of the president’s larger derailing of American politics. After announcing his candidacy in April, Biden told reporters, “America’s coming back like it used to be; ethical, straight, telling the truth.”
Biden himself is on pretty easy terms with misrepresentation. His first presidential run in 1988 was blown up after he was busted lifting multiple portions of campaign speeches from a British Labour MP. And throughout his years in public service, he’s let loose a number of memorable embellishments—even if his logorrheic, forgetful manner has sometimes served as a partial pass.
In a general election, the Afghanistan saga and other tales are sure to come up when Biden or his surrogates accuse Trump of lying. The truth, of course, is that if you’re a Democrat, you’ll take Biden’s alternative facts over Trump’s. Lies themselves are no longer reprehensible. It comes down to a question of one’s sympathy for the liar. Which means that the political distortions that Biden is running against have already, to some extent, become part of the fabric of our country’s politics.
In that case, the Democrats might as well take Trump’s falsehoods off the table. It’s like algebra: What’s canceled out on one side of the equation is canceled out on the other. So far, we’ve struck lines through advanced age and deceit. What’s next?