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Politico Should Name Source of Their Joe Biden Smear Job

The latest in a long line of blind items about Vice President Joe Biden‘s potential bid for the presidency has a decidedly ugly cast to it, one which has Biden’s office coming out swinging. At issue is the Maureen Dowd column that really heated up the speculation, and which contained a detailed description of a private conversation between the VP and his terminally-ill son, Beau Biden:

When Beau realized he was not going to make it, he asked his father if he had a minute to sit down and talk.

“Of course, honey,” the vice president replied.

At the table, Beau told his dad he was worried about him.

My kid’s dying, an anguished Joe Biden thought to himself, and he’s making sure I’m O.K.

“Dad, I know you don’t give a damn about money,” Beau told him, dismissing the idea that his father would take some sort of cushy job after the vice presidency to cash in.

Beau was losing his nouns and the right side of his face was partially paralyzed. But he had a mission: He tried to make his father promise to run, arguing that the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.

That column was published two months ago, but suddenly it’s news again, ostensibly because the source of the anecdote has reportedly been revealed to be Joe Biden. That Dowd quoted Biden’s inner thoughts during the conversation made this rather obvious at the time, but now, “multiple sources” are saying so, so it’s news again. It’s a thin story with even thinner attribution, leaving the reader to wonder why bring this up now?

There’s a subtle clue in that Politico piece’s headline and sub-hed: “Exclusive: Biden himself leaked word of his son’s dying wish; The vice president is mourning. He’s also calculating.”

There are lots of ways to say that Biden was the source of the anecdote, but there’s nothing in the Politico piece that would qualify this as a “leak,” given that the reporter even acknowledges that “Before that moment and since, Biden has told the Beau story to others,” and that Dowd made no effort to conceal the source of the anecdote. It’s a characterization that paints Biden as a cold opportunist who was capitalizing on his son’s dying wish in order to gain political advantage:

It was no coincidence that the preliminary pieces around a prospective campaign started moving right after that column. People read Dowd and started reaching out, those around the vice president would say by way of defensive explanation. He was just answering the phone and listening.

But in truth, Biden had effectively placed an ad in The New York Times, asking them to call.

That’s one way to look at it. Another equally reasonable way to look at it would be that Joe Biden didn’t want to trade on his son’s memory, but did want people to understand just how deeply-felt his desire for breathing room was. An objective report would be silent on that point.

Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere explains that the Dowd version of the story is significant because it contains an attack on Hillary Clinton from beyond the grave:

According to multiple sources, it was Biden himself who talked to her, painting a tragic portrait of a dying son, Beau’s face partially paralyzed, sitting his father down and trying to make him promise to run for president because “the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.”

…The version he gave Dowd delivered the strongest punch to the gut, making the clearest swipe at Clinton by enshrining the idea of a campaign against her in the words of a son so beloved nationally that his advice is now beyond politics. This campaign wouldn’t be about her or her email controversy, the story suggests, but connected to righteousness on some higher plane.

There’s just one problem with that: while Dovere uses quotation marks for that attack on Hillary, it isn’t actually a quote that was attributed to Beau Biden in Dowd’s column. Those were Dowd’s words, and given her history of Hillary Derangement Syndrome, I’d be willing to bet that she sweetened that paraphrase up significantly.

So Politico’s entire story is about the significance of sourcing, and noticing a coincidence. Well, here’s another coincidence: someone just fed Politico a smear-job on Joe Biden right before Biden is about to announce his decision on a presidential run. If the obvious fact that Joe Biden told his story to Maureen Dowd is news, then surely, the source of this attack is news as well.

“Multiple sources” is about as weak as an attribution can get, and the list of suspects is long. Among Mid-Atlantic Democrats, there is a lot of overlap between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden (and even Barack Obama, by virtue of the still-influential Kennedy faction). Politico doesn’t need to give up the names of their sources, but attribution is about giving the reader enough of a hint to evaluate the reliability of the information. “Multiple sources” could be anyone at all, and says nothing about how they would know this, or why they would feed it to Politico now.

Wherever it came from, you can be sure there’s lots more in the pipeline. Joe Biden has enjoyed a long honeymoon with the media, but things like this ought to be a warning to Biden that if he runs, it will get ugly fast. That certainly appears to have been the purpose here.

Vice President Biden’s office came out swinging against the Politico story Tuesday afternoon, and Dovere’s characterization in particular:

“The bottom line on the POLITICO story is that it is categorically false and the characterization is offensive,” said a spokesperson for Biden.

That doesn’t mean Biden didn’t tell his story to Maureen Dowd, necessarily, but that’s likely where Politico will hang their hat. They can stand by their “multiple sources,” but there’s no excuse for the way they presented this smear.

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