Joe Biden’s worst-ever campaign moment, revisited

The question from readers is: Did this really happen?

Well, the best attack ads rely on a rival candidate’s own words. And Biden really said this stuff.

The Facts

Biden’s first run for the presidency more than three decades ago exploded in a controversy over plagiarism. Without credit, Biden’s stump speech included lines lifted from a speech given by Neil Kinnock, then leader of the British Labour Party. An operative in a rival campaign — that of then-Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, who eventually won the Democratic nomination — gave to the media a tape comparing Biden’s speech and Kinnock’s speech.

Biden tried to hang on, but then reporters discovered he had flunked a class in a law school for submitting a paper that borrowed heavily from another law review article without proper citation. The coup de grace came when Newsweek reported that Biden had made false or exaggerated claims about his law school record during a discussion months earlier with voters in New Hampshire, which had been captured by C-SPAN.

The Newsweek article had an impressive quadruple byline of Mickey Kaus, Eleanor Clift, Howard Fineman and John P. McCormick. The magazine distributed its report to other outlets before publication — something that was done in the pre-Internet era. Thus, even though the official date of the Newsweek issue is Sept. 28, 1987, Biden was already out of the race by then. He withdrew on Sept. 23, citing ”the exaggerated shadow” of his mistakes.

It all started when, after about 40 minutes of an almost-continuous Biden monologue at an April event, Frank Fahey, a Claremont, N.H., teacher, asked Biden: “What law school did you attend and where did you place in that class?”

Here’s Biden full answer:

“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 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.”

Biden didn’t even mention where he went to law school, but it was at Syracuse University. The problem was, as Newsweek revealed:

  • Biden did not go to Syracuse Law School on a “full academic scholarship.” It was a half scholarship based on financial need.
  • He didn’t finish in the “top half” of his class. He was 76th out of 85.
  • He did not win the award given to the outstanding political science student at his undergraduate college, the University of Delaware.
  • He didn’t graduate from Delaware with “three degrees,” but with a single B.A. in political science and history.

Talk about Four Pinocchios!

The Restoration PAC ad simply takes a clipped version of Biden’s remarks — leaving out, for instance, his admission he did not do well in his first year — and overlays the audio so the focus is on Biden. (C-SPAN mostly kept the camera on Fahey.) Then, it shows damaging news reports on the incident, including Biden’s admission that “his memory had failed him.” The ad concludes with the tagline: “Joe Biden. Unsuited then. Unsuited now.”

A great book on the 1988 presidential race, Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes,” recounts how Biden in law school never wanted to be a grind and spent most of his time in the student lounge, gabbing. He barely made the cut after the first year, when Syracuse kicked out the bottom-third of the class. Biden after the first year ranked 80th — and only the top 88 were permitted to go on to the second year. We’re not sure how Biden could have forgotten that.

Still, with its focus on the 1987 incident, the ad leaves out some contemporary context: Years later, Fahey now is a Biden supporter.

Fahey told WMUR in 2019 that Biden had apologized for his comments when they met again in 2008, during Biden’s second run for the presidency. “He said, ‘You’re Frank Fahey,’ and he knew right off and he said, ‘I want to apologize.’ He said, ‘I was way out of line that day,’” Fahey recalled, adding: “I like his honesty.”

The Biden campaign declined to comment.

The Pinocchio Test

The incident in question took place 33 years ago — and Biden was talking about his record in law school 23 years earlier. Voters may find that fibs about events that took place more than a half-century ago may not be especially relevant, especially when Biden is running against a man who has his own problems telling the truth. The ad, for understandable reasons, does not include the fact that the man Biden insulted is now a supporter. Some voters may find that relevant.

But everything happened in the ad as described. The editing of the clip leaves in place the essence of Biden’s remarks and does not manipulate it in a misleading way. So Restoration PAC does not earn any Pinocchios.

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