Joe Biden’s tale last week about being at Ground Zero the day after September 11 put an understandable focus on his endless false and exaggerated stories about himself.
The best piece I’ve seen on Biden’s lies is this excellent Noah Rothman piece on how to know Biden is lying.
But I wanted to take a different tack.
I was on Megyn Kelly’s podcast the other day, and we discussed briefly the question of why Joe Biden lies so much, which got me considering the question more carefully.
First, as a technical matter, he’s not a liar so much as a bullshitter, at least in much of what he says about himself. For most purposes, this is a distinction without a difference. Still, to understand the source of Biden’s flagrant departures from reality, it’s worth reverting to the late philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt’s analysis in his classic short book On Bullshit.
“It is impossible,” Frankfurt writes,
for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false.
For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: He is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
He adds that the bullshitter “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
So what is Biden’s purpose? Self-valorization, of course — literally from the moment of his birth.
His stories are almost always supposed to be dramatic, moving, and pointed, with Biden himself the center of the action — overcoming adversity, fighting injustice, righting wrongs, witnessing great events and acts of courage.
The psychologist might have trouble disentangling Biden’s chip-on-his-shoulder and sense of inadequacy from his excessive self-regard, with the latter certainly compensating for, to some extent, the former.
For instance, Biden’s classic, falsehood-laden fusillade at a New Hampshire campaign event in 1987 about his own brilliance and accomplishment as a student was disturbing, hilarious, and, at the end of the day, simply pathetic.
Biden is a talker, and of the worst sort. It’s one thing to be a talented conversationalist, brimming with interesting and funny things to say. Or a gifted speaker, whose after-dinner remarks never leave anyone dissatisfied. Someone like our own John O’Sullivan covers both these bases — he’s not just a brilliant writer, but a brilliant talker.
Biden, on the other hand, is notable only for the amount of his talking, not its quality. This kind of talker tends to be undisciplined — so he’s not particularly careful about anything he says — and tends to be self-obsessed, otherwise he wouldn’t be so willing to subject people to his verbal barrages.
Biden easily could be that guy who never shuts up at the end of the bar who says that he had tickets on the 50-yard line of the Eagles game when he really was in the upper deck behind one of the end zones, and that he’s friends with Jalen Hurts because he saw him from a distance once at the gym.
Biden wasn’t particularly careful when he was in his prime as a U.S. senator, obviously. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have blown himself up in 1987 cribbing from British politician Neil Kinnock to say false things about his own family background.
Now, he’s older. That means some of these stories have been related over and over, and stories never get worse in the retelling, only better.
On top of this, he’s in decline, and certainly more genuinely confused about timelines and facts than he was in his prime as a bullshitter.
Now, his malarkey, to use his term from his vice-presidential debate with Paul Ryan, is even more obvious and discrediting than it was 40 years, a function of a doddering and weak president most everyone thinks shouldn’t be running for a second term.
If Biden ever does retire, what’s certain is that the stories will be as insufferable as ever, and complete bullshit.