In two interviews released Thursday, Biden, the former vice president, was defiant, insisting that the contours of the tale were accurate. His remarks came in response to a Washington Post article that outlined how in relaying an anecdote about a war hero, Biden appeared to combine details from several different events into one inaccurate composite story.
“I was making the point how courageous these people are, how incredible they are, this generation of warriors, these fallen angels we’ve lost,” he told Jonathan Capehart, a Washington Post opinion columnist, in a podcast interview. “And so, I don’t know what the problem is. I mean, what is it that I said wrong?”
It is the case, the report said, that Biden pinned a medal on a military service member who did not think he deserved it — the “essence of the story,” he told The Post and Courier during a campaign swing through South Carolina, adding that he had not read the article. But in the story of military heroism he told, Biden got many of the associated details wrong, the report said, such as the year, the military branch of the service member involved and the actions taken by the medal recipient, appearing to conflate different acts of bravery.
It is Biden’s latest verbal stumble in a month full of them, at a time when many Democratic voters have voiced concerns about Biden’s age and some are worried about his repeated misstatements, inaccurate comments and other unusual remarks.
“If he keeps getting details wrong, it will absolutely add up over time,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist who was a top Iowa staff member on Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign, the first of three White House bids.
“There’s no question about that, especially if you compare him to some of the people that he’s running against,” he added. “Elizabeth Warren is not going to get her facts wrong very often. Kamala Harris, the prosecutor, is not going to get her facts wrong very often. You’ve got some very tough opponents who are really smart and are going to nail it every time in terms of the facts and the sequence, and he may look badly compared to people like that.”
Lux and other Democrats who have known Biden for decades emphasize that his verbal blunders — and exaggerations — are nothing new. And they argue that plenty of voters have come to expect them from Biden, who has himself made light of his propensity for gaffes.
But along with a plagiarism scandal, Biden’s habit of careless speaking played a significant role in dooming his 1988 campaign, a reminder of the risks of his undisciplined style.
Decades later, he enjoys far more goodwill from Democratic voters after having served as vice president, Lux said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with his age,” he said. “I just think that’s him. I don’t think that’s slipping in any sense of the word.”
If elected, Biden, who is 76, would be the oldest president in history at his inauguration, though Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, one of his chief rivals for the Democratic nomination, is older, at 77. President Donald Trump, who has faced questions about his mental fitness, is 73.
“You can definitely tell his age,” said Bryce Smith, the Democratic chairman in Dallas County, Iowa, when asked about Biden’s misstatements, even as he also noted that “no one is perfect” and nodded to the former vice president’s “lifetime of service.”
“As a 27-year-old,” Smith added, “it’s harder for me to relate to how he talks, per se, than it is to relate to someone who’s half his age running for president. It doesn’t mean he’s wrong.”
Biden’s allies note that despite facing questions about his age and his propensity for gaffes all summer, Biden remains the early Democratic favorite, at least in most polls. Reporting on the ground in Iowa, however, suggests signs of an enthusiasm challenge.
“Time and again, the press fixates on supposed Joe Biden ‘gaffes’ — and time and again, voters say they don’t care,” Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden’s campaign, said.
David Axelrod, who served as former President Barack Obama’s chief strategist, said the episode of the fumbled war story “reflects both the lack of discipline and the extraordinary empathy” of Biden.
“In this story you have the risk and the strength of Biden,” Axelrod said. “The risk being that he is a gaffe-prone guy, and we’ve seen that throughout his career. I don’t know whether it’s better or worse now, but it’s a factor, and at his age people are going to pay more attention to each of them. But on the other hand, he projects extraordinary empathy, and that empathy is a huge strength.”
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