In December 2021, critics of U.S. President Joe Biden seized upon a moment during his tribute to the recently-deceased former Sen. Bob Dole, where Biden appeared to read aloud instructions written on his script, saying "End of message."
For example, the right-wing website Breitbart posted a video clip to Twitter, adding "Biden reads 'End of message' off his notes during Bob Dole eulogy":
In the 37-second clip, Biden can be heard saying:
He went on to say, a beacon of hope, a source of comfort in crisis, a shield against those who threaten freedom. Our nation has certainly faced periods of division. But at the end of the day, we have always found ways to come together. We can find that unity again.” And then the message said, "End of message."
Such attributions were accurate. Biden did indeed improperly read out loud a note or instruction from his written speech ("End of message"). As a result, we are issuing a rating of "Correct Attribution." However, several other commentators and social media users incorrectly claimed that Biden had made this mistake at the very end of his speech.
For example, the right-wing website Post Millennial posted a video clip to Twitter, adding "Biden reads a script and says 'end of message' out loud at the end."
Various other observers and social media users posted similar claims and video clips, creating the impression that Biden was so detached and absent-minded during his tribute to Dole that he did not even realize his own speech had come to an end. In fact, there was a specific context for Biden's mistake — one not shown in many short video clips — which would likely change many viewers' overall impression of the incident.
Biden made the remarks in question on Dec. 9, during a congressional tribute ceremony for Dole, who represented Kansas in the U.S. Senate from 1969 to 1996, when he was the unsuccessful Republican nominee for president. Dole died on Dec. 5, aged 98.
Biden's speech struck a tone of bipartisanship, respect, and civility, and towards the end, he included a sizeable direct quotation from an op-ed column, written by Dole in early 2021 and published after his death in December — which Biden described as Dole's "final message." The following is a transcript of that section of Biden's speech, which can be watched further below:
Well, you know, Bob and I — like many of us here — we disagreed on a number of things, but not on any of the fundamental things. We still found a way to work together. We genuinely, we genuinely respected one another as colleagues, as fellow Americans. It was real. It wasn't fake.
And we became great friends. And because Bob deserves the final word, I'd like to read a portion of his final message, that he left to the country, that I hope we all listen to in the days and weeks and months to come. And I quote Bob Dole:
“I cannot pretend that I have not been a loyal champion of my party, but I’ve always served my country best when I did it so first and foremost as an American... When we prioritize principles over party and humanity over personal legacy” — when we do that, we “accomplish far more as a nation. By leading with shared faith in each other, we become America at its best.” He went on to say, “a beacon of hope, a source of comfort in crisis, a shield against those who threaten freedom.”
"...Our nation has certainly faced periods of division. But at the end of the day, we have always found ways to come together. We can find that unity again.”
And then the message said, "End of message." My fellow Americans, America has lost one of our greatest patriots...
So in saying "End of message," Biden was referring specifically to the extensive quote from Dole's posthumous opinion column, which he had already described as Dole's "final message." It's not clear why Biden said "And the message said, 'End of message,'" because Dole's column did not contain any instance of the word "message." The president appears to have been improvising at that point, having seen a note on his typed-up speech which read "End of message."
That note was visible in a blown-up version of a photograph taken by the Washington Post staff photographer Jabin Botsford, which showed the final page of Biden's speech. Below is a magnified section of that picture, followed by a representation of what it contained:
End of message
My fellow Americans,
America has lost one of our greatest patriots...
It's therefore clear that Biden got tripped up during that section of the speech, and read aloud a note that was clearly intended only as oratorical guidance for him, as Breitbart correctly stated.
That mistake may have taken place because: "End of message" was not placed in parentheses, italicized, or otherwise made typographically distinct from the actual text of his speech; or because the phrase appeared not underneath the quotation from Dole's column, but rather at the top of the next page; or because Biden suffered a momentary lapse in concentration — or all three reasons.
However, it's also clear that Biden did not conclude his entire speech by saying "End of message," as many critics claimed. This is not a trivial distinction. Getting tripped up while transitioning between direct quotations and your own remarks, in the context of a speech, is one thing. Requiring a special note to signify when your own speech has ended, and then failing to recognize that signal, would suggest that a significantly higher level of confusion was at work. It was not.