The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden grasped a Cabinet official’s wife, and the photo went viral. Now, she says everyone had it wrong.

Vice President Biden got up close and personal with new defense secretary Ashton Carter’s wife, Stephanie, during the swearing-in ceremony on Feb. 17, 2015. (Video: Reuters)
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The moment was described as “creepy” and “extremely odd.” In today’s parlance, it screamed #MeToo.

Except that, to Stephanie Carter, the wife of the former secretary of defense, Ashton B. Carter, it was anything but.

Four years ago, observers were puzzled to understand what Vice President Joe Biden’s hands were doing on her shoulders during her husband’s swearing-in ceremony on Feb. 17, 2015.

She was troubled, too. But not by her interaction with the vice president, as she affirmed in a Medium essay published on Sunday. Instead, she resented how a tender moment between friends was reduced to a single misleading image, caught in the maw of online punditry. In the essay, titled “The #MeToo Story That Wasn’t Me," she recounted how the vice president had whispered his thanks into her ear and “kept his hands on my shoulders as a means of offering his support.”

The gulf between her new account and the breathless reaction to the 2015 image points to the difficulty of recalibrating expectations of acceptable decorum in the #MeToo era, when virality is easily mistaken for certainty. So, too, the different reactions illuminate the dangers of policing interactions that may fully make sense only to the participants.

Instead of criticizing Biden, Stephanie Carter indicted the ecosystem of online outrage fed by Twitter, political punditry and late-night television.

After a Nevada Democrat accused former vice president Joe Biden of unwanted touching and kissing in 2014, he said he doesn't believe he acted inappropriately. (Video: Reuters)

That takeaway was notable, as the episode came back under the microscope this weekend after a former Nevada assemblywoman, Lucy Flores, published an essay Friday in New York magazine’s the Cut accusing Biden of inappropriately touching her and kissing the back of her head in 2014. Biden, who is leading in early polls of Democratic voters even though he has yet to say whether he will run for president, denied misconduct but said men should “pay attention” when women come forward to recount their experiences.

Joe Biden’s affectionate, physical style with women comes under scrutiny

As the controversy swirled, embroiling Biden, 76, in what Politico declared “the roughest stretch of any candidate in the Democratic presidential primary, and he’s not even a candidate yet,” images of Carter in Biden’s grasp circulated anew on social media.

So did an image of Biden embracing the actress Eva Longoria. And a video of the vice president whispering to Maggie Coons, the daughter of Sen. Christopher A. Coons, at the Delaware Democrat’s swearing-in ceremony in 2015.

The visuals seemed especially dissonant for a politician who has fashioned himself as a champion of women.

“We are changing the attitudes of America about what constitutes appropriate behavior on the part of a man with a woman," Biden said in October 2000, advocating for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which the former Delaware senator first introduced in 1990.

But the new testimony from Carter raises questions about how much those viral visuals capture, and how much they may leave out.

Carter, who works in venture capital marketing, stressed that she wasn’t disputing the experience described by Flores.

“Let me state upfront that I don’t know her, but I absolutely support her right to speak her truth and she should be, like all women, believed,” she affirmed of Flores. “But her story is not mine. The Joe Biden in my picture is a close friend helping someone get through a big day, for which I will always be grateful.”

Her picture was taken more than four years ago, when Carter stood behind her husband as he delivered remarks at his swearing-in ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Behind her stood Biden, his hands placed firmly on her shoulders. “I’m grateful to the president and the vice president,” the freshly minted defense secretary said, glancing back at Biden, “for your trust and confidence, and to the U.S. Senate, as well, for their trust and confidence.”

Biden bent his head, leaning down to whisper into her right ear. For a second, his face drew close to the back of her head. Then, as he straightened himself, he moved his hands briefly from her shoulders to her upper arms, before lifting them and placing them behind his back.

A still image from the scene captured the moment when Biden was close enough that his nose seemed to graze her hair. The photograph, which shows an expression of apparent discomfort on Carter’s face, ricocheted around the Internet in early 2015.

“Not sure why a creep like @VP is not shunned by civil society,” Stuart Stevens, the Republican strategist and architect of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, observed on Twitter. Late-night hosts had a field day. Halloween costumes were modeled on the moment.

The next time Stephanie Carter saw the Bidens, she wrote, she was moved to tell them how awful she felt that “his attempt to support me had become a joke and even more — supposed proof positive that he didn’t understand how to respect women.”

Otherwise, she fell silent about the story, closing her door on tabloid reporters who asked her what she made of the photo. “I thought it would all blow over if I didn’t dignify it with a response,” she judged.

Four years later, she wrote, “it is high time that I reclaim it — from strangers, Twitter, the pundits and the late-night hosts.”

Feb. 17, 2015, was a joyous yet difficult day for her. She was proud of her husband as he prepared for “the crowning achievement of his career.” But as she arrived with him at the Pentagon, she slipped on the ice and fell — a moment that “a few journalists were nice enough to tweet about.” Later, at the White house, she felt “self-conscious and tentative" about her tumble, “and perhaps about how much our life might change.”

“By the time then-Vice President Biden had arrived, he could sense I was uncharacteristically nervous — and quickly gave me a hug,” she wrote.

As her husband was delivering his remarks, Biden leaned in to tell her, “Thank you for letting him do this,” she recalled, and kept his hands on her shoulders to steady her.

She lamented how her exchange with the vice president had been misrepresented, and how it had come to define the momentous occasion: “But a still shot taken from a video — misleadingly extracted from what was a longer moment between close friends — sent out in a snarky tweet — came to be the lasting image of that day.”

It’s not the first time that a clarification has been required following a private moment with the vice president unfolding in the most public of settings.

In January 2015, Coons sought to set the record straight on “Fox News Sunday" about the video of Biden and his daughter. In the clip, Biden holds her arm, whispers into her ear and gives her a kiss on the side of the head. The 13-year-old girl appears uncomfortable.

“I have to ask, because a lot of people have been speculating about it, does she think the vice president is creepy?” inquired Fox’s Chris Wallace.

Coons shook his head.

“No, she doesn’t think the vice president is creepy,” he said. “He’s known my kids their whole life.”

As for Maggie’s opinion, she didn’t return a Facebook message seeking comment on Sunday night. Coons said in the interview that Biden was whispering words of encouragement to her.

The vice president’s advice, he said, drew on his own experience of being sworn in when his daughter Ashley was 13.

“Joe was just being thoughtful," he said.

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