Last week the US President Joe Biden seemed to forget the Defence Secretary’s name and even his job title in a speech -– calling Lloyd Austin the “guy who runs that outfit over there”. The President was announcing two women were to be promoted to elite, four-star general commands at a ceremony at the White House on International Women’s Day. Mr Biden said: “I want to thank Sec-, the former general, I keep calling him ‘General’.
“My – the guy who runs that outfit over there.”
He then quickly added: “I want to make sure we thank the Secretary for all he’s done.”
The 78-year-old self-confessed “gaffe machine” has made verbal fumbles a hallmark of his career.
On St Patrick’s Day six years ago, the then vice president infamously had another foot-in-mouth moment as he greeted Irish politicians.
Sporting a green tie and noticing that everyone else was also wearing one, or clad in green, he suddenly blurted: “Anyone wearing orange is not welcome in here.”
The purported joke was a reference to Ireland’s religious and political divide which was at the heart of the Troubles, the violence which killed 3,000 from the late Sixties until the start of the millennium.
Orange is the colour associated with the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, and overcoming sectarian tensions has been a major part of the effort to bring peace to the once-deeply troubled province.
Enda Kenny, the former Irish prime minister and his wife Fionnuala Kenny, the guests of honour, both laughed nervously.
They said nothing, but continued to smile for the cameras.
After a brief pause, Mr Biden said: “Only joking.”
He then welcomed the Kennys, former Irish ambassador Anne Anderson and the Irish entourage into the Naval Observatory in Washington, his official residence.
The then vice president made no further reference to his blurted-out bad joke, but at one point in his breakfast remarks appeared to refer to the former taoiseach’s wife as “Fiona”, although he subsequently corrected it to Fionnuala.
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Northern Irish Protestants traditionally wear orange during their annual summer parades, while green is used as a symbol by mostly Catholic Irish nationalists and is a theme of St Patrick’s Day celebrations around the world.
In Northern Ireland, there was an immediate demand from a senior Unionist for an apology.
Rev William McCrea, a member of the British parliament for the Democratic Unionist Party said at the time: “Whether they were intended as a joke or not, the comments are a slur on those who would be known as ‘orange’ i.e. Protestants.
“When Northern Ireland is making such an effort to make St Patrick’s Day an inclusive celebration, Joe Biden’s comments were disgraceful and careless.”
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Asked about the request for an apology, an official in Mr Biden’s office said the vice president had made clear that he was joking.
Mr Biden’s mother, Catherine Finnegan, was of Irish origin.
Her ancestors had moved to Ireland in the wake of the potato famine.
Mr Biden has a long list of previous gaffes – he once asked a wheelchair-bound local politician to stand up and acknowledge the crowd’s applause, and after being chosen as vice president he even suggested that Hillary Clinton would have been a better choice.
Five years before, Mr Biden incorrectly suggested at another St Patrick’s Day reception that the mother of former Irish prime minister Brian Cowen was dead, saying “God rest her soul”, before correcting himself to say “God bless her soul”.