In an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired on Sunday night, Vice President Joe Biden attacked one of the flashpoints of media coverage surrounding his mulling of a 2016 presidential bid. “[P]eople have written that, you know, Beau on his death bed said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to run,’ and, there was this sort of Hollywood moment that, you know, nothing like that ever, ever happened,” said Biden in an interview alongside his wife, Jill Biden, conducted by CBS News’s Norah O’Donnell.
Though the vice president didn’t single out any reporter by name, it’s a common omission among politicians who bash the media.
On Aug. 1, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd commandeered Beltway conversation with a piece titled, “Joe Biden in 2016: What Would Beau Do?” It told the story of Beau Biden, dying of brain cancer, delivering a message to his father. ” ‘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.”
Does that sound like a Hollywood moment? Biden explained to O’Donnell that Beau Biden, who died at age 46, had been a steadfast adviser since he was in his late 20s. “Beau all along thought that I should run and I could win. But there was not what was sort of made out as kind of this Hollywood-esque thing that at the last minute Beau grabbed my hand and said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to run, like, win one for the Gipper.’ It wasn’t anything like that.”
The record left behind by Dowd is almost nonexistent. Like a celebrated, longtime, above-the-fray literary columnist, she didn’t deign to leave sourcing details in her piece, instead preferring her vast sense of authority. “Joe Biden is also talking to friends, family and donors about jumping in. The 72-year-old vice president has been having meetings at his Washington residence to explore the idea of taking on Hillary in Iowa and New Hampshire,” wrote Dowd in a passage that dropped directly from the heavens into the content management system of the New York Times.
That was good enough for the news side of the New York Times, which cited the Dowd piece in a story on a possible Biden run that ran the same day. The lack of transparency in Dowd’s reporting opened itself up to further reporting, as Politico alleged early this month that Biden himself divulged his son’s wish to Dowd. That story, in turn, was based on “multiple sources.”
In fairness to Dowd, she never did report that Beau Biden was on his “death bed” when he communicated his wishes, as Biden told “60 Minutes.” Dowd reported only that Beau Biden issued his challenge when he “realized he was not going to make it.” And Dowd reported that the conversation took place at a table, not a bed. So perhaps the vice president is batting down an exaggerated retelling of Dowd’s column. Out there in the world of Internet and television aggregation, there were plenty of commentators who ran with the “death bed” formulation. In a Sept. 14 edition of his MSNBC show “Last Word,” host Lawrence O’Donnell mentioned “Beau Biden literally on his death bed asking his father to run for president.” Reporter John Heilemann responded, in part, “He always wanted his father to run for president again, that meant a lot to Joe Biden back then, it meant a lot to him in that death bed moment which is true and did happen.” By October, when Politico published its much-trafficked story on Joe Biden’s “leak,” the dramatic scenario had hardened, as there were many headlines of this sort: “Politico: Joe Biden Leaked Beau’s Deathbed Quote To Maureen Dowd.”
Last night, this blog asked the New York Times for comment about all this. We didn’t get any. We also asked the vice president’s office whether his comment pertained to Dowd. No comment, though we’d encourage the vice president to include greater specificity in his media criticism.