WASHINGTON – When Joe Biden tells voters he understands the threat posed by Afghan extremists, he dramatically illustrates one reason why: His helicopter was "forced down" on "the superhighway of terror." Actually, snow, not the enemy, persuaded the helicopter pilot to land and wait out a storm.
The Democratic vice presidential candidate has repeatedly left that part out, in an episode that Republicans hope will become an echo of Hillary Rodham Clinton's errant tale during the primaries of landing in Bosnia under sniper fire.
Biden has made a number of questionable statements recently that, viewed in isolation, might not amount to much. But this is a man whose first presidential campaign collapsed 20 years ago after he told a story about coal miners in his family that he lifted without credit from a British politician.
In a recent speech in Virginia coal country, Biden seemed to embellish his background once again. He declared, "I am a hard coal miner," which he's not and never has been. His spokesman, David Wade, said Biden was joking.
And looking back on his 1972 Senate campaign, he told Pennsylvania delegates at the Democratic convention that people from his hometown of Scranton, Pa., piled in up to 10 buses and drove to Wilmington, Del., to show him support. "Literally," he said, "there were hundreds of thousands of people."
THE HELICOPTER SPIN
In a Baltimore speech last week, Biden said: "If you want to know where Al Qaeda lives, you want to know where (Usama) bin Laden is, come back to Afghanistan with me. Come back to the area where my helicopter was forced down with a three-star general and three senators at 10,500 feet in the middle of those mountains. I can tell you where they are."
Two days later, in Cincinnati, he said Al Qaeda has re-established a safe haven and it's not in Baghdad. "It's in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said, "where my helicopter was recently forced down."
At a Sept. 9, fundraiser, Biden addressed his national security credentials by talking about "the superhighway of terror between Pakistan and Afghanistan where my helicopter was forced down. John McCain wants to know where bin Laden and the gates of Hell are? I can tell him where. That's where Al Qaida is. That's where bin Laden is."
THE FACTS: In February, Biden and fellow senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel were flying in a helicopter over Afghanistan in a fact-finding trip when a snowstorm closed in.
"It went pretty blind, pretty fast and we were around some pretty dangerous ridges," Kerry told The Associated Press afterward. "So the pilot exercised his judgment that we were better off putting down there, and we all agreed."
He said the group waited for about three hours until a convoy with U.S. troops took them to Bagram Air Base.
"We sat up there and traded stories," Kerry joked. "We were going to send Biden out to fight the Taliban with snowballs, but we didn't have to do it."
He added: "Other than getting a little cold, it was fine."
The area was reported as not being under Taliban control. But Wade noted "it's the wild west out there" and the senators were transported under guard and with air cover from an F-16.
Though Biden never said his helicopter was shot at in Afghanistan, last year he asserted that he was "shot at" in Iraq. He amended that later, saying the quarters he was staying in while visiting Baghdad's protected Green Zone shook from a nearby blast, and "I was near where a shot landed."
The McCain campaign jumped on the Biden stories Wednesday, putting out a statement from a retired Black Hawk pilot saying there is no mistaking being shot at or forced down by the enemy.
But if Biden was not literally in the sights of the enemy in Iraq, he unquestionably went through several dicey situations verified by other lawmakers there, including the explosion of a mortar near the compound and his plane's evasive maneuvers while taking off, in response to a possible missile attack.
THE COAL SPIN: In a speech at a United Mine Workers fish fry in Castlewood, Va., on Sept. 21, Biden told the miners he is one of them. "Hope you won't hold it against me, but I am a hard coal miner — anthracite coal, Scranton, Pennsylvania, that's where I was born and raised," he said.
Biden mentioned his great-grandfather, a mining engineer who became a state senator in the early 1900s.
THE FACTS: Biden was born in Scranton, moved to Delaware at age 10 and has never had experience in the mines. His father worked in the oil business and ran a Delaware car dealership.
Biden's comment was reported at face value in press accounts from the event. Wade said it wasn't meant to be taken literally.
"Judging by the laughter and applause, I think it was clear to everyone under the sun that they got the joke from this son of Scranton's coal country," Wade said. An AP reporter who covered the speech said Biden's claim came across as a genial if awkwardly self-deprecating effort to establish a bond with the miners — not a joke.
In his 2007 memoirs, Biden put his roots in a more modest context: "I had ancestors from the coal mining town of Scranton."
In 1987 at the Iowa State Fair, Biden both borrowed and slightly adapted lines from Neil Kinnock, then British Labor Party leader, in portraying himself as the descendant of coal miners. In one of the lifted lines, Biden talked about: "My ancestors, who worked in the coal mines of Northeast Pennsylvania and would come up after 12 hours and play football for four hours."
(Kinnock had talked about Welsh ancestors "who could work eight hours underground and then come up and play football.")
Biden also was found to have exaggerated his academic record during that campaign and a plagiarism episode from his school days emerged. The revelations crippled his Democratic primary campaign and he pulled out of the presidential race.
Years later, the matter leaves him little room to take license with his biography or experiences.