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By Alexander Lane October 28, 2008

Campaigns volley over Biden's warning

Sen. Barack Obama plays defense in a new television ad , alleging that in a previous ad Sen. John McCain's campaign "selectively edits" the words of Obama's running mate, Sen. Joe Biden.

The only problem is the Obama ad – which the campaign released Oct. 27, 2008, in the Northern Virginia market – at a minimum employs, um, selective editing.

Let's unravel this tangled web of selectivity to see who's being dishonest, beginning with the McCain ad that started the volley.

"Listen to Joe Biden talking about what electing Barack Obama will mean," the narrator says.

Then we hear an audio recording of Biden at a recent fundraiser: "Mark my words: It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama," we hear Biden say, as sinister music plays over images of hooded gunmen, and hostile foreign leaders. "The world is looking. We're going to have an international crisis to test the mettle of this guy. I guarantee you it's gonna happen."

"It doesn't have to happen," the narrator continues. "Vote McCain."

Those comments by Biden are lifted from a talk he gave to campaign contributors at Seattle's Sheraton Hotel on Oct. 19, 2008.

Are they a fair representation of Biden's point of view? To find out we have to look at Biden's remarks in more context – a good deal of context, in fact.

"Barack is the right guy at the right moment for this job," he said.

He riffed on foreign affairs a bit, then continued:

"Barack gets it...And I'll tell you why I'm telling you this: because we're going to find ourselves in real trouble when we get elected...We're gonna have the largest systemic deficit in modern – not modern – in the history of the world...So there are going to be a lot of tough decisions Barack's gonna have to make, a lot of very tough decisions, including on foreign policy. And here's the point I want to make: mark my words. Mark my words. It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We're about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old president of the United States of America. Remember I said it standing here if you don't remember anything else I said. Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy...we're gonna need you to use your influence, your influence in the community, to stand with him. Because it's not gonna be apparent initially, it's not gonna be apparent that we're right. Because all these decisions, all these decisions, once they're made if they work, then they weren't viewed as a crisis. If they don't work, it's viewed as you didn't make the right decision, a little bit like how we hesitated so long dealing with Bosnia and with Kosovo, and as a consequence 200,000 people lost their lives that maybe didn't have to lose lives. It's how we made a mistake in Iraq. We made a mistake in Somalia. So there's gonna be some tough decisions."

Did McCain's ad distort Biden's point?  

It omitted Biden's implication that Obama is up to whatever challenges he'll face. But by raising the interventions in Bosnia, Iraq and Somalia – decisions by Republican and Democratic presidents that Biden framed as flawed – he also left room for the possibility that Obama will make mistakes in grappling with international challenges.

So the McCain campaign omitted crucial context, but didn't exactly turn Biden's meaning on its head either.

Now let's look more closely at Obama's response ad.

"An economic meltdown, two wars," it says. "And John McCain's playing with audio tapes, selectively editing Joe Biden's words."

So far, that's more or less accurate, as we've seen. It goes on to say:

"The next president will be tested. But here's what Biden actually said about Barack Obama: 'They're gonna find out this guy's got steel in his spine.'"

Well yes, Biden did say that. But not at the appearance the McCain campaign highlighted in its ad. The "steel in his spine clip," a phrase Biden has used frequently, came from an appearance a day earlier at a fundraiser in San Francisco .

So the Obama campaign took Biden's words out of context even as they accused the McCain campaign of that very sin. But was that a distortion?

Not really. It was more of a misdemeanor. At the Seattle fundraiser Biden did indeed praise Obama emphatically, just perhaps not as concisely as he had in San Francisco. (We should note that several news organizations erroneously reported that Biden made the "steel in his spine" comment at the Seattle fundraiser, so the Obama campaign's mistake may have been inadvertant.)

Did the McCain campaign "selectively edit" Biden? Yes, but editing generally is selective, and this editing didn't really distort Biden's meaning. Did Biden actually say Obama had steel in his spine? Yes, but a day earlier than he made the comments the McCain ad highlighted, not immediately afterward as the Obama ad claimed. The Obama ad suggests there was some outrageous lapse here, but we don't see it. We find the Obama ad Barely True.

Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.

Our Sources, Tested , Oct. 27, 2008, accessed Oct. 28, 2008, Ladies and Gentlemen , Oct. 24, 2008, accessed Oct. 28, 2008

Chicago Sun-Times, Joe Biden at Seattle Fundraiser Transcript Says Obama Will Be Tested , Oct. 21, 2008, accessed Oct. 28, 2008

Politico, Obama: 'Steel in his spine' , Oct. 27, 2008, accessed Oct. 28, 2008

Joe Biden, Remarks in Seattle, Wash. , Oct. 19, 2008, accessed Oct. 28, 2008

National Journal, Biden Turns Another Page In His Open Book , Oct. 20, 2008, NBC News Censors Real Biden Comments On Testing Obama , Oct. 21, 2008, accessed Oct. 28, 2008

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