Joe Biden misspoke about his coal-mining ancestor. Should we care?

·6-min read
<p>Joe Biden boarding Air Force One on 19 May 2021</p> (AP)

Joe Biden boarding Air Force One on 19 May 2021

(AP)

If Joe Biden tells you his great-grandfather was a coal miner, should you believe him? According to a Washington Post fact-check of the president’s recent remarks in Dearborn, Michigan, you should probably stop and pause.

Investigating claims that Biden was lying about his family’s coal mining history, the Post found that “there is little doubt Biden’s great-grandfather was a politician and a mining engineer, not a mine worker. Biden’s great-great-grandfather appears to have spent more time in the mines” – and also dug up several instances of Biden describing his forefather’s job more accurately last October.

As the Post put it, “this is not a repeat of 1988, when Biden repeatedly lifted lines from a British politician’s speech and falsely said he had ancestors who worked 12 hours underground”.

Biden has never shaken off the story of that Neil Kinnock-related humiliation, which indeed was no one’s fault but his own. Last year, his claims that he was once arrested in South Africa while trying to visit Nelson Mandela in prison drew skepticism – until his then-deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield attempted to clarify, stating Biden had been “separated from his party at the airport”.

Now, the Democratic president’s slip-ups, missteps, fibs, and lies aren’t just up for discussion, but apt to be treated as signs of a deep fault in his character – this after Donald Trump, a president whose faults gaped so wide there were only a few crags of character left.

On the one hand, that’s sort of reassuring. Trump should never have been allowed to lower the bar to the subterranean level it reached even during the 2016 campaign, never mind four years later. People should care when their elected leaders lie to them. Trading on elided and gussied-up (or down) family histories is cynical, and always has been. It won’t do.

But then again, how depressing to always be on alert for another of these Biden moments, another example of the septuagenarian stretching the truth.

Biden is not a dissembler whose minor lies betray a cold, dark soul lurking behind the mirrored aviators. He comes across as avuncular, corny, and overfamiliar not because he’s grasping for something that can’t be obtained by legitimate means, but because that’s who he is. The legendary video footage of him chatting up senators’ mothers and telling their pre-pubescent daughters “no dates till you’re 30” is heartwarming, cringeworthy or enraging depending on your point of view, but one thing it isn’t is inauthentic.

What if Biden’s occasional drift away from the truth is, in fact, a form of authenticity? After an epochal campaign to chase the US’s most malignant manipulator out of the White House, does it matter that his vanquisher has a habit of randomly lying about things that wouldn’t much matter whether they were true or not?

Biden’s slightly-greyer-than-white lies bear little resemblance to the fictions promulgated by Bill Clinton, who earned himself a reputation as the liar-in-chief before he even took office in 1993.

Christopher Hitchens, whose loathing of both Bill and Hillary Clinton was so profound it sometimes verged on psychosis, raked the 42nd president’s falsehoods over the coals in the unsparing No One Left To Lie To. Given that no living adult in the US in the 1990s could have considered Bill Clinton a paragon of honesty, the book’s moral argument didn’t exactly break new ground, nor did it end the debate on whether people should actually care how often the president had lied to them.

In her review of the book upon its 1999 release, author Karen Lehrman found fault not with Hitchens’ accuracy, but his myopia. “Just as liberals didn’t need to defend Clinton robotically to argue against impeachment,” she wrote, “Hitchens didn’t need to make his attack quite so inclusive or abusive. Just because some people – politicians as well as journalists – are opportunistic doesn’t mean they can’t say or do good things.”

Hillary Clinton, for her part, told one particularly Bidenesque lie of her own during her 2008 presidential run, infamously claiming her plane had landed under sniper fire during a visit to Bosnia in the 1990s. It was a ludicrous tale, all the more so because it could be proven false almost immediately.

At the time, she and Barack Obama were duking it out in the Pennsylvania primary. Clinton was leaning into a new persona as the candidate of “left behind” white working-class voters. Making much of her familial connection to working-class Scranton – that is, Biden country – she was slated by much of the Obama-leaning Democratic left for supposedly pandering to a bigoted, racist class.

She went on to defeat Obama in West Virginia and Kentucky, the core coal-mining states. Eight years later, Clinton was condemned for not pandering to those same voters hard enough. She shouldered the blame for saying “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” at a televised Democratic town hall event – but got no credit for what she said next: “We’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce energy that we relied on.”

She was, in short, telling the truth, but the media ran with the “put them out of work” excerpt – recirculating the right-wing lie that ultimately, Democrats would happily throw coal-mining communities away altogether.

The truth about the future of the coal industry is plain to see for anyone who wants to look, but the cynical Republican canonisation of all things fossil fuel-related forces any Democrat on the national stage to endlessly recommit themselves to coal-adjacent communities, places, and things – however disingenuously – if they want to retain enough political capital to shift US climate policy forward.

And so, five years later, Joe Biden is in a mild spot of trouble for lying, just slightly, about his connection to coal country. Some people claim to be shocked he would do such a thing, apparently far more shocked than they are regretful about the perverse political logic created by decades of institutionalised dishonesty about the energy industry, its impact, and its long-term survival. It shouldn’t be hard to tell which of the many lies at work counts for more.

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