President Biden, like many politicians, likes to tell stories — stories that attempt to connect his life story with his audiences and make up an essential part of his persona.
Speaking to survivors of the devastating Maui fire on Aug. 21, Biden recalled how lightning had once struck a pond outside his home, sparking a fire. “To make a long story short, I almost lost my wife, my ’67 Corvette and my cat,” he said, adding, “all kidding aside.”
But throughout his career — most famously in his first presidential campaign, in the 1988 election cycle — Biden’s propensity to exaggerate or embellish tales about his life led to doubts about his truthfulness. Contemporary news reports on the house fire do not match his telling of it, fanning criticism that he had lied to a vulnerable audience.
“Joe Biden shared his life — or his version of it — continuously,” wrote Richard Ben Cramer in his 1992 book, “What It Takes,” about the 1988 campaign. “He confided it, displayed it, spread it profligately, even expanded it to connect it with your life. He would settle for nothing less.”
Sometimes the stories turn out to be largely true, such as the one about a confrontation as a 19-year-old lifeguard with a gang leader named Corn Pop. But others fall short. As president, Biden has continued a tradition of embellishing his personal tales in ways that cannot be verified or are directly refuted by contemporary accounts.
“President Biden has brought honesty and integrity back to the Oval Office,” deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates told The Fact Checker. “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 hard-working people relate to. And as Americans know, there are countless moments from every person’s own history that are not covered in local newspapers.”
Here’s an accounting of some of Biden’s favorite tales.
At least six times as president, mostly recently in comments to Hurricane Idalia victims Wednesday, Biden has exaggerated the extent of a fire that occurred at his house in 2004.
“And I know, having had a house burn down with my wife in it — she got out safely, God willing — that having a significant portion of it burn, I can tell: 10 minutes makes a hell of a difference,” Biden said at an infrastructure event in November 2021.
In March this year, speaking to a firefighters conference, Biden said: “Lightning struck in a pond behind my house, went up underneath the conduit, and caught the — caught fire underneath the floorboards of my house. And it was during the summer. Air conditioning was on. Smoke that thick all three stories.” He added: “My fire company was there to go in and save my wife, get her out; the cat; and my ’67 Corvette.”
Speaking to a summit on fire prevention last October, Biden said: “We almost lost a couple firefighters, they tell me, because the kitchen floor was — the — burning between beams in the house, in addition to almost collapsed into the basement.”
The contemporary news accounts in the Wilmington News Journal and the Associated Press are much less dramatic.
“Biden’s house on Barley Mill Road was reported hit by lightning at 8:16 a.m., emergency officials said,” the News Journal reported. “There were no injuries and firefighters kept the fire contained to one room.” The article added that “firefighters from Cranston Heights, Talleyville, Elsmere, Mill Creek and Hockessin fire companies arrived to find heavy smoke coming from the house.”
Cranston Heights Fire Co. Chief George Lamborn told the newspaper the flames did not spread from the kitchen. “Luckily, we got it pretty early,” he said. “The fire was under control in 20 minutes.”
At a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in 2021, Jill Biden offered her own account. “A while back, our house was struck by lightning and caught fire. I’ll never forget standing in the rain, watching the firefighters try to put it out. I was devastated,” she said. “I turned to Joe, who loved that house, and said, ‘Joe, what are we going to do?’ And he looked back at me with a smile and said, ‘Look at it this way — now we can fix all of the things we didn’t like!’”
At least 10 times as president, most recently during an Aug. 15 speech in Milwaukee, Biden has told a heartwarming but implausible story about an Amtrak conductor named Angelo Negri who congratulated him for traveling more on Amtrak than he had on Air Force planes as vice president. Biden often brings up the anecdote when discussing infrastructure projects or speaking to labor groups.
Biden’s tale varies slightly in each retelling. In one version, told at a New Jersey Transit facility in October 2021, Biden recalled: “Ang walks up to me and goes, ‘Joey, baby!’ Grabs my cheek. And I thought the Secret Service was going to blow his head off.” Biden said that Negri had read Biden had flown 1.2 million miles as vice president, but Negri calculated he actually had traveled more than 2 million miles on Amtrak. “So, Joey, I don’t want to hear this about the Air Force anymore,” Negri allegedly said.
Often Biden adds: “True story.”
But it’s not possible this conversation took place as Biden describes. Negri and Biden were friends, according to a CNN interview with Negri’s stepdaughter in 2021, and she said Negri “adored” Biden. But Biden did not pass the 1.2 million-mile mark until 2016; Negri retired from Amtrak in 1993, 16 years before Biden became vice president. Negri died in 2014, two years before Biden claims they had this conversation.
In 2009, after Biden became vice president, Esquire described a “Heeeey, Joey baby!” conversation with an unnamed conductor, suggesting Biden may be mixing up Negri with another person.
Three times this year — and at least seven times since 2014 — Biden has told a version, most recently on Aug. 10, of a story about words his father supposedly spoke after a teenage Biden saw two well-dressed men in suits kiss each other in downtown Wilmington in the early 1960s.
“Joey, it’s simple. They love each other,” Biden’s father is said to have remarked.
Biden usually mentions this story when discussing gay issues but there are reasons to be skeptical. Biden depicts a scene that would have been unusual six decades ago. He describes this exchange with his father usually as taking place in 1961. But back then, gay men generally did not kiss in public. Many people regarded homosexuality as deviant. Delaware’s Rehoboth Beach had some bars regarded then as gay-friendly, but that’s not the same as the strait-laced business community in downtown Wilmington.
Moreover, Biden’s story has evolved over time. In 2014, in a New York Times article on his evolution on same-sex marriage, he was the father in the story, speaking to one of his sons. In the article, Biden’s father figures in a different story on a similar theme — forcing a friend to apologize after insulting a gay couple at a Delaware beach. But in 1987, Biden told the Los Angeles Times yet another version — that his father had lectured him after he tried to put off a visit to a gay couple who were strong supporters of the senator and shared an apartment at a Delaware beach.
Biden had a tangential role in the civil rights movement — The Fact Checker determined that he participated in one walkout at a restaurant and picketed a segregated movie theater — and yet sometimes he has suggested he was arrested for advocating on behalf of Black people.
Four times, including once as president, Biden has suggested he was arrested for standing on the porch with a Black couple who were subject to demonstrations. Sometimes he says that his mother warned him not to go to the protests. “Remember when I told you not to go down there, Honey, because everybody is protesting and you got arrested standing with the family on the porch,” he said his mother told him, in a version he recounted in 2017. (Twice Biden said the police merely brought him back home from the protest after he stood on the porch.)
But when we investigated, the story did not add up. There was a protest of a Black couple who had purchased a house in an all-White area, but it was a neighborhood many miles from the Biden home. Biden instead appears to be referring to a protest that took place outside the home of the real estate agent who was involved in the sale. That was near where he lived as a teenager at the time.
Campaigning for president in 2020, Biden three times claimed he was arrested in South Africa for trying to see Nelson Mandela, who at the time was imprisoned on Robben Island, near Cape Town. When we determined that was false, he amended his statement to say he was “stopped” at the airport while traveling with a congressional delegation — though others on the delegation said that did not happen.
As president, Biden usually just comments that he tried to see Mandela while visiting South Africa. But once he said he almost was arrested. “Only time I almost got arrested was I was trying to go see Nelson Mandela in South Africa and when I was at a civil rights march,” he said at a Democratic National Committee event in September 2022. “That was the only two times. But I didn’t get arrested. They didn’t think I was worth it.”
Besides his father, Biden’s grandfather, uncle and other family members appear as regular characters in his speeches. But some of the stories he tells are not plausible.
Speaking to veterans in December, Biden recalled how his Uncle Frank fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II and was awarded the Purple Heart but never received it. He said that after he became vice president in 2009, he arranged to present the medal to his uncle with the rest of the family in attendance. But his uncle, Frank H. Biden, died in 1999, a decade before Biden became vice president. Neither his obituary nor tombstone mentions a Purple Heart, awarded when a soldier is killed or wounded while serving.
Biden had another uncle, Ambrose J. Finnegan Jr., who is listed as missing in action during the war. Biden has described him as being shot down during a reconnaissance flight.
Twice this year, most recently in the Milwaukee speech, Biden has claimed his grandfather, an oil company executive, “died in the same hospital” just before Biden himself was born there. (In April it was two weeks before, in August it was six days.)
But Biden’s paternal grandfather, Joseph H. Biden, died at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Sept. 26, 1941, according to an obituary. Biden was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in Scranton, Pa., on Nov. 20, 1942, 14 months later. His maternal grandfather, Ambrose Finnegan, did die at St. Mary’s — but in 1957, nearly 15 years later.
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