Opinion writer

On Nov. 20, 2017, before a sold-out crowd at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, N.Y., I conducted a one-on-one conversation with Joe Biden about his new book, “Promise Me, Dad.” You could feel the “Run, Joe! Run!” energy in the theater. Then, as now, many in the audience wanted President Barack Obama’s constitutional wingman to make a run for the Oval Office himself in 2020.

Thrilled with how the event went, I asked Biden what he thought after we went backstage. It was there that our close-talking former vice president stepped deep into my personal space, rested his hands on my shoulders, touched his head to mine and said, “You got it, man! You got it, man!” Was I uncomfortable? Sure. Not many people get in my personal space or do so with such gusto. Did I mind? Truth be told, no. This was a person I respected, and I appreciated the gesture, especially since the last time I saw Biden was at his annual summer party for the media and their families at the vice president’s residence and he took aim at me with a water gun.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden shoots a water gun at The Post's Jonathan Capehart during the "Boardwalk Bash" at the Naval Observatory on June 4, 2016. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)

But I’m not a woman.

Memories of my close encounter with Biden have come back now that former Nevada state legislator Lucy Flores has written how “an awkward kiss changed how I saw Joe Biden.”

Just before the speeches, we were ushered to the side of the stage where we were lined up by order of introduction. As I was taking deep breaths and preparing myself to make my case to the crowd, I felt two hands on my shoulders. I froze. “Why is the vice-president of the United States touching me?”

I felt him get closer to me from behind. He leaned further in and inhaled my hair. I was mortified. I thought to myself, “I didn’t wash my hair today and the vice-president of the United States is smelling it. And also, what in the actual [f---]? Why is the vice-president of the United States smelling my hair?” He proceeded to plant a big slow kiss on the back of my head. My brain couldn’t process what was happening. I was embarrassed. I was shocked. I was confused.

“In many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort. And not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention,” Biden responded in a statement. “I may not recall these moments the same way, and I may be surprised at what I hear. But we have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention. And I will.”

One of the welcome changes ushered in by the #MeToo era is that accusations such as those leveled by Flores are taken seriously, not summarily dismissed. And the accused must respond. But the movement that toppled Harvey Weinstein and knocked Bill Cosby off his pedestal has marched into a gray area where the action is not in question, but the perception of it is. Where the very real perception of the person offended clashes with the perception and intention of the person accused.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, right, speaks beside his wife, Stephanie Carter, and Vice President Biden during a swearing-in ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in 2015. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Said clash is seen in the opposing reminiscences of Stephanie Carter and Amy Lappos. And they highlight why our national conversation has to get a point where we can talk about perceptions and intentions with as much care and concern as we are so quick to knee-jerk reactions to allegations of bad behavior.

The Post reported that during an interview on Saturday, Flores noted "she did not feel a sexual overtone in Biden’s alleged behavior toward her.” But the story also points out that she believes this should not lead people to discount its seriousness. Agreed.

Where I part company with so many criticizing the front-runner of a presidential field he has yet to join is that the accusations should preclude him from running at all. Such a demand — in Biden’s case and in the accusation by Flores — seems several steps too far. As Karen Tumulty writes, “To lose that sense of proportion is to dishonor the victims of the worst kinds of sexual abuse, and to abandon any hope that there can be a path to redemption for those who commit lesser ones and grow to understand the hurt they have caused.”

Let Biden get into the race for the Democratic nomination for president. Let the primary voters decide whether decades of “Biden being Biden” are disqualifying.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj. Subscribe to Cape Up, Jonathan Capehart’s weekly podcast

Read more:

Karen Tumulty: Joe Biden needs to cut it out. So does the mob.

Molly Roberts: It doesn’t matter what Joe Biden meant to do

Paul Waldman: Joe Biden doesn’t get it