Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden claimed he attended Delaware State University, a historically Black college in his home state. He did not say that. The story has been updated to correct the error and detail the context of the initial reporting. The Times regrets the error.
Joseph R. Biden declared last year on the campaign trail that he “started out of” Delaware State University, a historically Black college, but the school says he was not referring to his academic career.
Carlos Holmes, director of news service for Delaware State, said when Mr. Biden made the statement last year at a historic high school founded for Black students in Florence, South Carolina, he meant that he launched his first Senate campaign at Delaware State in 1972.
“Joe Biden never meant to imply that he attended Delaware State,” Mr. Holmes told The Washington Times. “If he had, he would have been proud of it, but he didn’t, and that’s not what he meant.”
The Washington Times erroneously reported Sept. 26 that Mr. Biden said he began his academic career at Delaware State in a story headlined “Biden’s claim about attending historically Black Delaware State refuted by university.”
“I got started out of an HBCU, Delaware State. Now I don’t want to hear anything negative about Delaware State,” Mr. Biden told the audience, drawing laughter, at the Oct. 26 town hall.
Mr. Holmes says the Democratic presidential nominee never went to Delaware State — and wasn’t trying to claim he did. He was instead pointing to the start of his 1972 Senate run.
“He used the campus to announce that he was running for Congress,” Mr. Holmes said. “When a campaign decides to announce it to the world, they usually do it from some place, they usually do it at a media event. Well, that was his event: from the campus of Delaware State College. We weren’t a university yet.”
Mr. Holmes, who said he did not talk with the Biden campaign, told a Delaware newspaper that the meaning was clear from the context of Mr. Biden’s remarks in South Carolina.
“Watched in full context, it is clear that Biden was discussing his long association with historically Black colleges and universities, not making a claim that he attended Delaware State University,” Mr. Holmes said in The Delaware News Journal.
The Sept. 29 article on Delaware Online, “No, Joe Biden did not say he attended Delaware State University,” was followed the next day by a Reuters fact-check that concluded “Joe Biden did not say he attended Delaware State University.”
“In his speech, Biden did not say that he attended Delaware State University,” said Reuters. “At a speech he made in South Carolina in 2019 when he said that he ‘got started’ out of DSU, he was likely referring to the support he received when he launched his U.S. Senate bid at the campus there in 1972.”
At the town hall, Mr. Biden was talking about inheritance taxes when he switched to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, saying the following: “HBCUs — I got started out of an HBCU, Delaware State. Now I don’t want to hear anything negative about Delaware State here, OK? They’re my folks. But all kidding aside, the fact is that HBCUs are in trouble financially.” He then moved on to the topic of student loan debt.
Facebook responded by dinging the Sept. 26 Washington Times story with the tag “False Rating on Information Published by washingtontimes.com” and linked to the fact-check by Reuters, one of the platform’s fact-checking partners.
Among conservatives, though, Mr. Biden’s comment has been regarded from the day he made it as an example of the Democrat’s long history of reimagining his biography.
The same day Mr. Biden made the remark, the Republican National Committee tweeted out the video with the caption “Biden claims he ‘got started out of an HBCU, Delaware State,’ when he did not attend the university.” The tweet was followed two days later by an article in The Federalist headlined “Biden Claims He Started Out at a Historically Black College. He Didn’t.”
“While Biden’s comments make it unclear what the former vice president was exactly referring to during Saturday’s town hall, it is likely Biden was claiming to have gone to school there given his own history of exaggerating his record on civil rights and his summer of gaffes,” said The Federalist’s Tristan Justice.
This year, President Trump drew attention to the comment at the Sept. 29 debate, saying, “You said you went to Delaware State but you forgot the name of your college.” Mr. Biden graduated from the University of Delaware.
Dan Gainor, vice president of business and culture for the conservative Media Research Center, took issue with the idea that Mr. Biden’s statement was fact-checkable.
“What they’re checking is not fact. What they’re arguing is narrative,” Mr. Gainor said. “They’re arguing, that’s not what he meant, so they’re basically arguing for Biden. They’re basically taking on the part of PR agents for Joe Biden.”
The Washington Times reached out to the Biden campaign before its original story but did not get a response.
Mr. Biden does have ties to Delaware State. He has delivered commencement addresses at DSU twice — in 2003 and 2016 — and was awarded an honorary doctorate.
DSU President Tony Allen is a former Biden speechwriter and a member of the Biden transition team.
For its part the school has been active in recent weeks in asserting the former vice president was talking about his 1972 campaign launch.
There are, however, questions surrounding that claim.
In his 2007 memoir, “Promises to Keep,” Mr. Biden said he launched his challenge to Sen. Caleb Boggs, Delaware Republican, in March 1972 at the Hotel du Pont and then flew on a Piper Cub with his family for an event in Georgetown, located in Sussex County. He never mentioned Delaware State.
“The plan for the announcement was to start at the Hotel du Pont in downtown Wilmington, then go downstate to Sussex County, do a second event there, and then on to Kent County,” Mr. Biden said. “No one had ever done that before. We still didn’t have much money, but we had an organization and we had a message.”
Kent County includes Dover, home of Delaware State. Archived newspaper articles offer details about Mr. Biden’s March 20 appearances in Wilmington and Georgetown but nothing about Dover until a few days later, when he spoke at the Delaware Young Democrats convention at the Holiday Inn.
That doesn’t mean Mr. Biden didn’t make a stop on campus. Mr. Holmes said he did. He explained that Wilma Mishoe, daughter of then-Delaware State President Luna Mishoe, remembered her father’s appearance at the school with Mr. Biden on the day of his Senate launch. Yet Mr. Biden did not consider it significant enough to include in his memoir.
Wooing South Carolina voters
More important than any interpretation of what he meant is the message Mr. Biden conveyed to the audience at Wilson High School last year, said Rick Manning, president of the free market Americans for Limited Government and a longtime political public affairs hand.
“Biden was attempting to give the impression to Black people in South Carolina, whom he desperately needed to win the primary, that he was one of them and that he started his academic career at an HBCU,” said Mr. Manning, who worked in the George W. Bush administration. “That’s the impression he was attempting to leave.”
At the time of the speech, Mr. Biden was losing traction in a growing field of Democratic presidential contenders and was looking for South Carolina to be his firewall when the primaries began. Black voters make up more than half of Democratic primary voters in the state.
The strategy worked. After failing to win the Iowa Caucuses, the New Hampshire primary and the Nevada Caucuses, Mr. Biden won easily South Carolina, which kept his campaign alive and propelled him to the nomination.
Mr. Holmes said there was “no reason for him to lie about his undergraduate education.” He called the idea “laughable.”
“Why would you guys assume that somebody of Joe Biden’s stature who’s running for the president would lie about his college background?” asked Mr. Holmes. “That really bothered a lot of us over here.”
Yet Mr. Biden has a well-documented background of less-than-accurate statements about his school days.
The Democrat dropped out of the presidential primary race in 1987 after he was accused of lifting portions of a speech from British leader Neil Kinnock that included a line about being the first in his family to attend college.
He later acknowledged that he wasn’t the first — his grandfather and great-grandfather on his mother’s side were college men — yet he said it again last month at a CNN town hall, prompting The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway to ask why he “resurrected one of the false claims that got him in so much trouble 33 years ago.”
Contributing to his 1987 campaign exit was a lengthy defense in New Hampshire of his academic record in which he made multiple false claims, including receiving a full academic scholarship to law school, graduating in the top half of his class and graduating from college with three degrees.
“Biden misled on a variety of claims about his academic career,” PolitiFact said in a May 7 fact-check.
Mr. Manning said the skepticism about Mr. Biden’s Delaware State comment is deserved, given his history.
“What we know is what he didn’t say is this: I launched my first campaign at an HBCU. I’m with you. That’s not what he said,” Mr. Manning said. “He could have. He chose not to. So if there’s any ambiguity on this, it’s on him. And somebody who has his record of lying about his own resume does not get the benefit of the doubt.”