Joe Biden is becoming the master of not getting it. Of almost getting it, but not quite, and then explaining that he had gotten it, actually, but he did it when you blinked. He’s the master of being affable enough that some folks are willing to capitulate — you’re right, Uncle Joe, we’re being too sensitive — because the alternative might be to hamper an “electable” candidate right out of the gate.
On Thursday, the same day Biden formally announced his candidacy, news broke that he had telephoned Anita Hill — the woman whose 1992 allegations against Clarence Thomas made “sexual harassment” a water-cooler term — to apologize for his role in her ordeal. Only, it wasn’t an apology, exactly. By his campaign’s own language, he called to express “his regret for what she endured.”
Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1992. He presided over the Thomas confirmation hearings. He controlled the flow of questioning; he decided who would or would not be permitted to testify. So when Biden expresses regret for what Hill endured, he’s leaving out a few crucial words: What she endured partly because of him.
Previously, he’s said that he “wished [he] could have done something” for Hill. Which is a lovely sentiment but sidesteps the fact that he very literally could have done something for her. He could have, for example, allowed the testimony of a witness who supported Hill’s story. He was, perhaps, the only person who could have done something for her. Again, his statement could be repaired with such an easy fix: I wish I had done something and I feel deep remorse that I didn’t.
In a Friday morning appearance on ABC’s “The View,” Joy Behar tried to spoon-feed Biden an appropriate apology: “I think what [Hill] wants you to say is ‘I’m sorry for the way I treated you,’ not ‘I’m sorry for the way you were treated.’ ”
But Biden doubled down: “I’m sorry for the way she got treated . . . I don’t think I treated her badly.”
When confronted earlier this month by women who said his physical contact had made them uncomfortable — shoulder rubs, hugging — Biden issued a video apology. “Social norms are changing,” he said in a statement positioning him as a well-meaning grandpa trapped in an eddy of cultural upheaval. And then the next day he told a group of reporters that he was “not sorry for anything that I have ever done.”
It’s almost impossible to know how to deal with a candidate who almost gets it, but not quite. A different kind of candidate, who not just misses the point but willfully ignores it, is so much easier to dismiss. With a candidate like Biden, though, who has made serious efforts on issues of sexual assault and gender equality — there are conversations to be had, about babies and bathwater, about allowing for human foibles in the middle of systemic progress. One is tempted, at times, to sit a man like Joe Biden down and patiently explain that you’re yelling at him because you think he has the capacity to change. There are other politicians who are beyond that reach.
It feels petty, in some ways, to be cataloguing the sins of Joe Biden, when the other fish to fry right now are actually more like whales.
As I’m working through how to think about Biden, though, what I keep coming back to is that it’s not his previous actions that are disappointing. It’s the way he tries to distance himself from them. As if he were a victim of backward times, rather than a powerful legislator who should have been in charge of defining them.
“We knew a lot less about the extent of harassment back then, over 30 years ago,” Biden said at an event in New York last month. It’s a completely fair statement. But it would have been so much better if, rather than pointing out that times were different, Biden would apologize for not using the Thomas hearings to promote a better understanding of the extent of harassment.
Last year, Biden was deeply critical of how the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh were carried out — in particular, the treatment of Kavanaugh’s accuser Christine Blasey Ford. “In almost 30 years, the institutional culture has not changed,’’ Biden said.
This, also, might be an accurate statement. But it would have been so much better if Biden had gone further: It’s not only that the institutional culture has not changed; it’s that the Thomas hearings set the stage for the Kavanaugh hearings. Seeing how Anita Hill was treated led a generation of women to decide silence was a better option than coming forward to report how they had been harassed. We’re still paying for the failures of 30 years ago.
That’s what Joe Biden needs to apologize for. Not for Anita Hill’s personal anguish. Not for individual women’s personal discomfort with being hugged on the campaign trail. But for being an inaugural digger of the hole we’re still trying to shovel ourselves out of.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.