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Joe Biden's Biggest Gaffes: Quotes, Blunders That Could Hurt a 2020 Presidential Campaign

Joe Biden admits it: “I am a gaffe machine,” he said in December 2018. He turned his confession into a dig at Donald Trump—“But my God, what a wonderful thing compared to a guy who can’t tell the truth”—but now the former vice president has entered the 2020 presidential race, he might regret some of his stumbles. 

President Trump said he's eager to battle Biden for the White House.

“I hope it’s Biden,” he told a group of television anchors before his State of the Union address.

“Biden was never very smart. He was a terrible student. His gaffes are unbelievable. When I say something that you might think is a gaffe, it’s on purpose; it’s not a gaffe. When Biden says something dumb, it’s because he’s dumb.”

That's a matter of opinion—but it's impossible to deny that Biden, who was elected to the U.S. Senate from Delaware in 1973, has a pattern of odd, ill-judged, plagiarized or politically problematic comments and actions. Here's a look at some of the standouts.

'Wait—your mom's still alive'

At a St. Patrick’s Day reception for the then Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen in 2010, Biden noted that the visitor’s mother had lived in America. 

“His mom lived in Long Island for 10 years or so, god rest her soul, and, er, although she's, wait—your mom's still alive. It was your dad [who] passed. God bless her soul. I gotta get this straight,” Biden said.

'Stand up'

During a 2008 campaign rally in Missouri, Biden asked the audience to applaud State Senator Chuck Graham.

“Stand up, Chuck, let 'em see you,” Biden said, gesturing for Graham to stand.

Graham, a paraplegic following a car accident, is confined to a wheelchair.  

“Oh, god love ya, what am I talking about,” Biden said, realizing his mistake. “I tell you what, you're making everybody else stand up though, pal. Thank you very, very much...You can tell I'm new.”

'Black awareness'

As a senator in 1975, Biden opposed “busing,” an effort to achieve racial desegregation in schools by moving children around. White children went to inner city schools and black children to schools in the suburbs.

Biden argued that the policy would undermine black identity.

It was, he said, “a rejection of the entire black awareness concept, where black is beautiful, black culture should be studied; and the cultural awareness of the importance of their own identity, their own individuality.”

How do you spell 'jobs'?

During a 2008 campaign rally, Biden said: “Look, John's last-minute economic plan does nothing to tackle the number one job facing the middle class, and it happens to be, as Barack says, a three-letter word: Jobs. J-O-B-S."

Plagiarized a law school paper

At Syracuse University College of Law, Biden “used five pages from a published law review article without quotation or attribution,” according to a faculty report. He cited the source in only a single footnote.

In a letter to law school faculty pleading not to be dismissed, Biden wrote, “if I had intended to cheat, would I have been so stupid? ... I value my word above all else.”

Plagiarized Neil Kinnock

Biden dropped out of the 1988 presidential race after reports that he'd copied a speech delivered months earlier by British Labour Party politician Neil Kinnock. 

Kinnock said: “Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? [Pointing to his wife in the audience:] Why is Glenys the first woman in her family in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Was it because all our predecessors were thick?”

Biden said:

“I started thinking as I was coming over here, why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university? [Pointing to his wife in the audience:] Why is it that my wife who is sitting out there in the audience is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright? Is it because I’m the first Biden in a thousand generations to get a college and a graduate degree that I was smarter than the rest?”

In earlier speeches Biden had credited Kinnock—but in any case, he misrepresented his backround. Several months after ending his campaign, Biden was treated for two brain aneurysms; there was speculation that the then-undiagnosed illness might have contributed to his plagiarism.

 

Plagiarized Bobby Kennedy

Biden's campaign manager Pat Caddell took responsibility for mixing up pages of a planned Biden speech for the 1987 California Democratic Convention with papers quoting an inspirational speech by the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy. 

'Were you uncomfortable?'

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, Biden took a leading role in questioning Anita Hill, who had accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harrassment. Biden asked her to describe her most embarrassing encounter with Thomas—“Can you tell us how you felt at the time? Were you uncomfortable, were you embarrassed, did it not concern you? How did you feel about it?”—and pushed an obviously reluctant Hill to say the name of a pornographic film star whom Thomas had alluded to. 

Biden: “Do you recall what it was?” 

Hill: “Yes, I do. The name that was referred to was Long Dong Silver.”

The rise of the #MeToo movement, including accusations against Harvey Weinstein and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, reopened the issue of Biden's conduct of the Senate hearings. Biden said he had believed Anita Hill at the time, and that he owed her an apology. She told the Washington Post that she appreciated “some parts” of his apologies but “I still don't think it takes ownership of his role in what happened.”

‘Mainstream African American’

During a conference call with reporters in 2007, Biden assessed the strengths of fellow presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

“I mean you've got the first sort of mainstream African American, who is articulate and bright, and clean and [a] nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man,” Biden said.

After Biden apologized, Obama said, "I didn't take Sen. Biden's comments personally, but obviously they were historically inaccurate. African-American presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton gave a voice to many important issues through their campaigns, and no one would call them inarticulate." 

'Barack America'

At an Illinois campaign rally in 2008, Biden said: “This election year, the choice is clear. One man stands to deliver change we desperately need. A man I'm proud to call my friend. A man who will be the next president of the United States—Barack America!”

Indian accents

In 2006, Biden commented on the growing population of Indian Americans in Delaware.

“You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking," he told a voter.

A gift for the GOP

Biden said during a 2008 fundraiser with Democratic donors that within six months of becoming president, Obama would face “an international crisis to test the mettle of this guy.”

The comment was seized on by Republican John McCain's campaign, which turned it into an attack ad.

Franklin Delano Hoover

In an interview with CBS Evening News, Biden criticized the George W. Bush administration's handling of the financial crisis.

“When the stock market crashed, Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television and didn’t just talk about the, you know, the princes of greed,” Biden said.

But as FactCheck pointed out, Herbert Hoover was president during the 1929 Wall Street Crash and television didn't exist.

Vice President Hillary Clinton 

At a New Hampshire rally, Biden second-guessed Obama’s choice for vice president.

"Hillary Clinton is as qualified or more qualified than I am to be vice-president of the United States of America. Let's get that straight," Biden said, The Telegraph reported.

"She's a truly close personal friend... quite frankly, it might have been a better pick than me. But she's first rate, I mean that sincerely, she's first rate."

Dot what?

While promoting a federal government website for the The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Biden couldn't remember the simple web address, which was Recovery.gov, referring to it at first as "website number." It suddenly came to him during the interview.

Big deal

After Obama signed into law his health care reforms in 2010, Biden was caught by a mic at a news conference telling the president that it was a “big fucking deal.”

...and a 70 percent chance we're right

At a meeting with House Democrats in 2009, with the party facing criticism over the $787 billion economic stimulus package, Biden suggested the White House might be handling the financial crisis “wrong.”

“Every once in a while, a generation of leaders gets a set of problems that are configured in a way that there's no historical precedent to look back on—other than our grit, other than some courage and determination—to know how to deal with it,” Biden said.

“The president and I were talking about something yesterday in the Oval Office which, with the press here I'll not suggest what it was, but the response to the folks who were in the office was, if we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, we stand up there and we make really tough decisions, there's still a 30 percent chance we're going to get it wrong.”

Dr. Biden

During the swine flu pandemic in 2009, the White House attempted to offer advice while calming public fears.

But Biden's comments helped fuel the panic instead of easing it.

“I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now,” Biden told NBC News’s Today show. “It's not that it's going to Mexico, it's you're in a confined aircraft when one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft. That's me. I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway.”

Beautiful women

In 2009, Politico reported that Biden was overheard making this comment to the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko: "I cannot believe that a French man visiting Kiev went back home and told his colleagues he discovered something and didn't say he discovered the most beautiful women in the world. That's my observation."

Smartass 

When Biden stopped off at a frozen custard shop in Milwaukee back in 2010, the manager offered him a dessert for free if the veep cut taxes, Fox News reported.

Biden replied, "Why don’t you say something nice instead of being a smartass all the time?" 

'Put y'all back in chains' 

On the 2012 campaign trail, when talking about Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s plans for Wall Street, Biden told an audience that included many African Americans, “They’re going to put y’all back in chains.”

After criticism from the Romney campaign, Obama’s team called the complaints “faux outrage,” but also had to clarify that Biden’s comments were a reference to Republican remarks about unshackling the private sector and his own about unshackling the middle class, CBS News reported.

Obama's big stick

In a 2012 speech on foreign policy, Biden praised President Obama’s approach to diplomacy.

“Now is the time to heed the timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick.’ End of quote,” Biden said. “I promise you, the president has a big stick.”

As the audience laughed, Biden repeated: “I promise you.”

Blindsided his boss

On NBC's Meet The Press in 2012, Biden wrong-footed the White House by saying he supported gay marriage, pre-empting months of work behind the scenes in the Obama administration assessing the political risks of endorsing same-sex marriage.

Politico reported that Biden’s interview created chaos in the White House. It pushed President Barack Obama to make a call on gay marriage sooner than he had wanted.

Grandpa Finnegan

At another reception for an Irish Prime Minister, this time Enda Kenny in 2012, Biden said, “You know there's an old Irish saying, there's all kinds of old Irish sayings.

“My grandfather Finnegan, I think he made them up. But uh, it says, may the hinges of our friendship never go rusty.

“Well, with these two folks that you're about to meet if you haven't already, there's no doubt about them staying oiled and lubricated here, ladies and gentlemen.”

As the audience laughed, Biden said: "Now for you who are not full Irish in this room, lubricated has a different meaning for us all."

2020 vision

Biden accidentally gave us a glimpse into the future by putting himself in the 2020 running at a Delaware fundraising dinner. "I have the most progressive record of anybody running for the United St—of anybody who would run," Biden said, quickly correcting himself as the crowd cheered. "I didn't mean..." he added, trailing off and crossing himself. He has since formally announced his candidacy for 2020.

Touching joke

Having offered sincere and conciliatory words about the inappropriate touching controversy, Biden went on to make light of the whole affair in a speech to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, joking that he had permission to hug the organization's president.

Multiple women had accused Biden of making them feel uncomfortable by touching them and violating their personal space. One of those women was Lucy Flores, a former Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in Nevada. 

After Biden's joke, Flores told Fox News he had been "so incredibly disrespectful," adding: "The basis of the behavior that I talked about was something much more serious than just a hug."

Anita Hill

Biden took the best part of two decades to apologize to Professor Anita Hill for the notorious hearing at the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, which he chaired at the time. Hill, a lawyer and academic, testified about the grotesque sexual harassment she faced when working for Clarence Thomas, who was nominated to the Supreme Court. 

Thomas denied Hill's allegations and she faced a brutal hearing for which Biden has long been criticized—an old wound reopened by his 2020 intentions and one into which he has rubbed salt by making remarks that drew condemnation. Biden said he wished he could have done something, even though he arranged Hill's hearing and oversaw it as chairman of the committee.

“We knew a lot less about the extent of harassment back then, over 30 years ago,” he said at the 2019 Biden Courage Awards. “But she paid a terrible price. She was abused through the hearing. She was taken advantage of. Her reputation was attacked. I wish I could have done something—I opposed Clarence Thomas’ nomination, and I voted against him."

He added: "To this day, I regret that I couldn't come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved, given the courage she showed by reaching out to us."

This article was updated with more background information.

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