Then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden withdrew from the 1988 presidential race after admitting to plagiarism and exaggeration of his academic record.
When former U.S. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware announced his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, it did not mark not his first attempt to gain election to the highest office in the U.S. He also sought the Democratic nomination in 2008 but dropped out well before the convention after a poor showing in the Iowa Caucus. He was then chosen to be nominee Barack Obama’s running mate and went on to serve two terms as vice president.
Biden also sought the U.S. presidency in 1988, although his candidacy was cut short by accusations he had plagiarized material and exaggerated his academic record. These “character issues” re-surfaced in partisan social media posts that proliferated after Biden launched his 2020 presidential bid in April 2019. Facebook pages with names such as “Elect Trump 2020,” “Breitbart’s Bunker,” and “Being Libertarian” shared a video clip they maintained showed Biden announcing in 1988 that he was bowing out of the presidential campaign:
This TV news snippet does, in fact, show Biden at a press conference announcing his withdrawal from the 1988 presidential race, although it actually took place on 23 September 1987 and not in 1988, as stated in the Facebook post. (A full video of the press conference is available on C-SPAN.org.)
The lede of the Chicago Tribune‘s report on Biden’s withdrawal read as follows:
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, whose campaign for president has been damaged by admissions of plagiarism and embellishing his academic record, withdrew from the race for the 1988 Democratic nomination, saying the “exaggerated shadow” of his mistakes had begun “to obscure the essence of my candidacy.”
Biden, 44, called a news conference to say he was ending his campaign with “incredible reluctance” and that he was “angry at myself for having to make this choice” between running for president and leading the fight against the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Biden pulled out of the race because his campaign was “overwhelmed” (in Biden’s words) by allegations that “he had used extensive quotes from other politicians without attributing them, had failed a law school course after failing to attribute a long quotation in a paper he wrote, and had inaccurately and angrily boasted about his academic record during a campaign appearance in New Hampshire,” the Tribune reported.
The announcement came 10 days after the New York Times‘ Maureen Dowd reported that Biden had “lifted” parts of a speech by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, “with phrases, gestures and lyrical Welsh syntax intact,” for use in a 23 August 1987 debate at the Iowa State Fair. It wasn’t the first time Biden had used elements of Kinnock’s speech, Dowd noted, but on other occasions he had cited Kinnock as their source:
“At various campaign appearances, the Senator talked admiringly about Mr. Kinnock’s themes and incorporated phrases and concepts after first crediting the Briton. But, in his closing remarks at the Iowa State Fair forum, he did not mention the Labor leader, nor did he some days later in an interview when he recounted the positive response.”
Biden’s aides said the omission was “an oversight” and sought to squelch the controversy, but it only worsened as other alleged instances of plagiarism came to light. On 16 September, Knight-Ridder reported that Biden had peppered a speech to the California Democratic Party with “verbatim” passages borrowed from a 1968 speech by the late Robert F. Kennedy. The next day, reports emerged that Biden had plagiarized a law review article in a paper he wrote during his first year in law school. The incident resulted in his receiving a failing grade in the class, which he had to retake the following year to have the “F” expunged from his record.
Biden called a press conference on 17 September in which he acknowledged the law-school incident but said it was simply a mistake, and that he had misunderstood the school’s citation requirements. “I was wrong, but I was not malevolent in any way,” he said. “I did not intentionally move to mislead anybody. And I didn’t. To this day I didn’t.”
However, he maintained that the accusations about plagiarizing the words of other politicians were “much ado about nothing,” saying it’s commonplace for politicians to borrow from each other’s speeches, and that it’s “ludicrous” to expect otherwise. “I’m in the race to stay, I’m in the race to win, and here I come,” Biden added.
In a gesture of transparency, Biden handed the media a 65-page file containing all of his academic records from the Syracuse University College of Law. Ironically, it was a move that only made matters worse. A comparison of the records to Biden’s public statements revealed that he had exaggerated his academic accomplishments. “In a videotape aired by the public service cable network C-SPAN several months ago,” the Associated Press reported (citing original reporting from Newsweek), “the Delaware Democrat was asked at a campaign stop in Claremont, N.H., on April 3 about what law school he attended and how well he did”:
On the videotape, a clearly angered Biden told the questioner: “I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do.
“The first year in law school I decided I didn’t want to be in law school and ended up in the bottom two-thirds of my class and then decided I wanted to stay and went back to law school and in fact ended up in the top half of my class,” he went on.
But last week Biden released his law school records showing he had graduated 76th in a law school class of 85. The law school transcript also showed he made little progress in class standing through the three-year course, ranking 80 out of 100 in the first semester of the first year, and 79th out of 87 the second semester of his second year.
Biden also claimed in the New Hampshire speech that he had attended law school “on a full academic scholarship,” but the records show his scholarship only covered about half of his tuition.
Biden said he was “frustrated” and “angry as hell” about the media reports. “I exaggerate when I’m angry, but I’ve never gone around telling people things that aren’t true about me,” he told the New York Times. “It’s so easy to make things look like there’s something sinister about them.”
But the damage was done. On 23 September 1987, two days after the discrepancies between his public statements and the academic record were reported, Biden announced his withdrawal from the race. He admitted making mistakes — unintentional mistakes, he said — but insisted that the public’s perception of his character had been skewed by the “exaggerated shadow” of his mistakes as portrayed in the press and by his political opponents.
He would later write in his memoir, Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics (Random House, 2007), that he only had himself to blame:
When I stopped trying to explain to everybody and thought it through, the blame fell totally on me. Maybe the reporters traveling with me had seen me credit Kinnock over and over, but it was Joe Biden who forgot to credit Kinnock at the State Fair debate. I had been immature and skipped class and blown the Legal Methods paper. I was the one who thought it was good enough to just get by in law school. I lost my temper in New Hampshire. What I’d said about my academic achievements was just faulty memory or lack of knowledge. I hadn’t remembered where I finished in my law school class. I hadn’t cared. But to say “Wanna compare IQs?” was so stupid. All of it was my fault, and I didn’t want to compound the mistakes.