Joe Biden’s campaign trail story that he was arrested in the 1970s in South Africa as he tried to visit Nelson Mandela in prison continues to unravel.
The Daily Wire reported on the incident on Saturday, but new details have come to light: Biden says he was arrested in Soweto, a suburb of Johannesburg, a city in the northeast of the country. But at the time, Mandela was being held on Robben Island, near Cape Town in the southwest part of the country.
The two sites are some 900 miles apart.
What’s more, since The New York Times on Friday called Biden’s tale into question, journalists have been unable to find any news reports or contemporaneous accounts mentioning an arrest. Biden was a U.S. senator at the time of his claimed arrest, which certainly would have made news.
“In at least three campaign appearances over the past two weeks, Joseph R. Biden Jr. has told a similar story as he tries to revive his campaign in states with more diverse voters. On a trip to South Africa years ago, he has said, he was arrested as he sought to visit Nelson Mandela in prison,” the Times reported in its piece.
“This day, 30 years ago, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and entered into discussions about apartheid,” Mr. Biden said at a campaign event in South Carolina last week. “I had the great honor of meeting him. I had the great honor of being arrested with our U.N. ambassador on the streets of Soweto trying to get to see him on Robbens Island.”
Mr. Biden referred to his own arrest twice more in the next seven days, including at a campaign stop here on Tuesday where he spoke of getting arrested in South Africa between efforts to coax his wife to marry him. That proposal occurred in 1977, both Bidens have said.
But Biden never mentioned the arrest in his memoir. the Times also said, “A check of available news accounts by The New York Times turned up no references to an arrest. South African arrest records are not readily available in the United States.”
Since then, no other journalist has found a contemporaneous account.
And the Times said Biden has never mentioned the story on the campaign trail until last week. The Democratic primary approaches in South Carolina, where support from black voters will be key.
The Times reached out to Andrew Young, a former congressman and mayor of Atlanta who was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1977 to 1979. Young said he traveled with Biden on a trip to South Africa.
“No, I was never arrested and I don’t think he was, either,” Young, 87, told the Times.
Biden is adding new twists to the story each time he tells it, too. Last Sunday, he added more details about Mandela.
“After he got free and became president, he came to Washington and came to my office,” Biden said at a black history awards lunch in Las Vegas. “He threw his arms around me and said, ‘I want to say thank you.’ I said, ‘What are you thanking me for, Mr. President?’ He said, ‘You tried to see me. You got arrested trying to see me.’”
Biden appears to have trouble remembering. In August, The Washington Post ran a story headlined, “As he campaigns for president, Joe Biden tells a moving but false war story.”
On the campaign trail in New Hampshire, The Post said, Biden told a story about a four-star general he said had asked him to travel to Kunar province in Afghanistan back when he was vice president to award a heroic Navy captain with a medal. Biden said the captain had rappelled into 60-foot ravine to recover the body of a slain U.S. soldier, and as he went to pin the medal on him, “He said, ‘Sir, I don’t want the damn thing!’” Biden said.
But The Post said: “Except almost every detail in the story appears to be incorrect. Based on interviews with more than a dozen U.S. troops, their commanders and Biden campaign officials, it appears as though the former vice president has jumbled elements of at least three actual events into one story of bravery, compassion and regret that never happened.”
Biden visited Kunar province in 2008 as a U.S. senator, not as vice president. The service member who performed the celebrated rescue that Biden described was a 20-year-old Army specialist, not a much older Navy captain. And that soldier, Kyle J. White, never had a Silver Star, or any other medal, pinned on him by Biden. At a White House ceremony six years after Biden’s visit, White stood at attention as President Barack Obama placed a Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor, around his neck.
The upshot: In the space of three minutes, Biden got the time period, the location, the heroic act, the type of medal, the military branch and the rank of the recipient wrong, as well as his own role in the ceremony.