Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Thursday defended his faulty description of a tale of military heroism and his interactions with the service members who carried it out.
The "essence" of his recollection is correct, the former vice president told a South Carolina newspaper Thursday after a Washington Post story detailed how an emotional anecdote Biden told recently while campaigning in New Hampshire contained inaccuracies.
Biden's telling appeared to conflate multiple events, yielding a single story of Vice President Biden pinning a Silver Star on a U.S. Navy captain in the Konar province of Afghanistan for his efforts trying to save another service member. In his latest telling of a story he's varied over several years, according to the Post, Biden got most of the details wrong: There's no military record of that specific ceremony, and Biden's records as a senator show he traveled to Konar when he was Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman and before he was vice president.
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Biden and his aides countered that the anecdote's fundamental point — that as vice president he once formally recognized the valor of a heartbroken solider who didn't want the recognition because his fellow solider ultimately lost his life — is true.
"The central point is it was absolutely accurate what I said," Biden told The Post and Courier newspaper of Charleston, South Carolina, hours after the Post published its story. "He refused the medal. I put it on him, he said: 'Don't do that to me, sir. He died. He died.'"
Indeed, The Post account quoted Staff Sgt. Chad Workman recalling that he received a Bronze Star from Biden at Forward Operating Base Airborne in Wardak province, Afghanistan, on Jan. 11, 2011. Workman confirmed Biden's account, adding that Biden treated him with empathy.
The accounts represent a growing conundrum for Democrats. Their 2020 front-runner is hinging his campaign on the propositions that President Donald Trump is a serial liar and a fundamental threat to the nation and that Biden, a 76-year-old veteran of U.S. politics and world affairs, offers his party the best hope of victory.
But Biden is also repeatedly subjected to media scrutiny, social media derision and quiet grumbling from his rivals over his penchant for verbal missteps, a cacophony that fosters questions about whether he is indeed the best Democrat to send into a general election campaign against Trump.
Biden rejected those questions, telling the Post and Courier they are "ridiculous."
Veteran Democratic strategist David Axelrod said the episode speaks to two well-known attributes of Biden: his liability as undisciplined and his strength as one who empathizes with those in pain.
Axelrod doesn't see it as particularly damaging, but notes such episodes, should they continue, could answer one of the central question facing Biden: Is he up to the intellectual rigors of being president?
"Where it becomes problematical is if It's seen as evidence of some sort of decay," said Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. "That is obviously a danger. Anything that raises those concerns is problematic. I don't think this is the one that could tip the scales."
Biden's supporters this week in South Carolina have been unfazed by any mounting criticism — particularly in comparison to Trump, who regularly misspeaks and has treated truth casually since he first launched his campaign in 2015.
"Look at Trump, a habitual, sinister liar," said Dawn Deboskey, a 57-year-old from Anderson, South Carolina. "The vice president is absolutely on point, discussing every issue in a knowledgeable way. I have zero concerns."
At the campaign town hall where Deboskey came to see Biden, the candidate opted for a humorous defense against those who question whether he's still up for the job. On education, he opted against offering detailed numbers when talking through his usual riff on the need for more social workers.
Offer a number and turn out to be wrong, Biden said, "and the press will say Biden's losing his mind. He can't remember."