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What is it like to be a pol?


I confess I’m fascinated by Joe Biden’s claim that he got arrested in South Africa when trying to see an imprisoned Nelson Mandela:

As Katie Glueck and Thomas Kaplan reported, Biden had claimed three times in seven days to have been arrested for attempting to meet Mandela. He had not made that claim before, not even in a 2007 memoir that touched on the Africa trip. But the story he is telling now is dramatic.

In one telling, shared in South Carolina, Biden said he was arrested alongside then-U. N. Ambassador Andrew Young “on the streets of Soweto trying to get to see him” on Robben Island, which he mistakenly called Robbens Island. In another, Biden recalled a freed Mandela making a diplomatic visit to Washington and thanking Biden, who had “got arrested trying to see” him.

The story is head-scratching, and the Biden campaign has not responded to questions about its veracity. There’s the reference to Soweto, a township hundreds of miles away from the prison at which Mandela was held; there’s the fact that the arrest of a U.S. senator on a delegation visit would have made international news; there’s the prior Biden record on the trip, which did not mention an arrest. 

“We went to meet with some anti-apartheid supporters in South Africa, mostly the English business community at the time,” Biden said in 2013, after signing a condolence book for the late Mandela. “Obviously, no one [was] able to see him on Robbens Island, but making our case. And after he became president, he came to see me, and thanked me, along with everyone else on that trip, for supporting sanctions against apartheid.”

Did the visit happen? Again, the campaign has not explained the remark, and Biden has not taken questions about it. A sit-down interview for Sunday’s “Face the Nation” did not bring up the Mandela stories, and a Sunday gaggle with reporters focused on local media, which did not ask about the stories.

I mean this story is obviously false: if it had actually happened, there’s zero probability that Biden wouldn’t have mentioned it previously.

What’s interesting to me is the question of Biden’s mental state.

Is he consciously lying? That is, does he think the story is false?

Is he bullshitting? That is, does he not care whether the story is true or not, and he’s telling it without bothering to do any checking as to whether or not it’s true? (This is not as outrageous as it sounds. I’m well aware that I did things in 1977 that were extremely memorable to other people at the time that I have no memory of whatsoever today).

Is he confabulating? That is, is his mind making up a story to fill in gaps in memory, without him being consciously aware that his “memory” is a false one?

Is any of this, whatever it is, a sign of cognitive decline? Note that Biden has a long history of making up stories about his purported past.

Would this be a bigger deal if Biden’s candidacy was doing better? Note that a couple of far less egregious lies (if that’s what this is) destroyed Biden’s candidacy in 1987 — a mere 33 years ago.

But we’ve come a long way since then I guess.

He’s a terrible presidential candidate, he’s always been a terrible presidential candidate, and it’s a tribute to the power of wishful thinking that people didn’t think he’d be terrible this time. Or maybe they thought we’re now OK with somebody who just makes stuff up about his past all the time. Although I suspect that if Biden’s candidacy were anywhere close to succeeding the principle of IOKIYAR (now modified to IOKIYAF) would come back in full force.

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