The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Joe Biden can turn his biggest crisis into an opportunity

Former vice president Joe Biden in Philadelphia on March 10.
Former vice president Joe Biden in Philadelphia on March 10. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

It may happen sooner, or it may happen later. But make no mistake: It will happen. At some point, Joe Biden is going to have to personally address the allegations of former Senate staffer Tara Reade that he sexually assaulted her nearly 30 years ago.

Though it is doubtful there is anything he could say that would make the accusations disappear in this white-hot political season, the way he handles this will be a test of whether he is up to dealing with all the other things that will be thrown at him between now and November.

This is also an important opportunity for Biden to cut a path for others to follow in the #MeToo era. The former vice president has a chance to offer a model of how someone who is accused can responsibly defend himself against what he insists are false accusations while still honoring the principle that women who speak up should be treated with fairness and respect.

This is a conundrum that has always existed in cases of sexual abuse and harassment, where there are rarely eyewitnesses or airtight documentation.

In Biden’s case, there is also a unique opportunity to demonstrate good faith. He should open up the records of his 36-year Senate career that he donated to the University of Delaware in 2012 and that are under seal until two years after he leaves public life.

Follow Karen Tumulty's opinionsFollow

What might be in there? No one really knows until they look. The Senate does not operate under any equivalent of the 1978 Presidential Records Act, under which presidents and vice presidents are required to manage and preserve their records carefully. Then an archivist judges which should be made available to the public, which have information too sensitive to be disclosed and which are purely private.

Democratic Party lawyer Marc Elias says states and Congress need to act now to ensure all votes count during the general election. These changes are overdue. (Video: The Washington Post)

Individual members of Congress, on the other hand, are left pretty much to their own discretion in deciding how to curate their records and what to do with them.

Biden’s might or might not include memos or other documents discussing Reade’s stint in his office as a staff assistant in 1993. The records might also show whether she ever lodged a complaint about his behavior — she says she did; Biden’s campaign says she didn’t — either to her superiors on the senator’s staff, or under procedures then available to take her grievances outside the office.

It would be challenging to submit his records to an examination. There are nearly 2,000 boxes of documents, presumably most of them still to be catalogued, so it would be infeasible to allow journalists unfettered access. Nor should his adversaries be offered the opportunity to embark on a fishing expedition for all sorts of potentially damaging information to use to their own advantage.

But finding another way to search would be worthwhile. Over the past three years, I have spent more hours than I can count doing research at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and other repositories of records for a biography I am writing on Nancy Reagan.

In the course of doing this, I have become a big believer in the precept espoused by Robert A. Caro, the legendary chronicler of the life of Lyndon B. Johnson: “Turn every page. Never assume anything.” Some of my most fascinating discoveries have been found in papers that have been misfiled or randomly grouped with things that seem unrelated.

What Biden should do is name a small group of well-respected, impartial researchers — historians, academics, archivists. Then, he should ask the University of Delaware to give them access to his papers as soon as the precautions put in place as a result of the novel coronavirus are loosened. My own experience with the solitary endeavor of digging through boxes of documents suggests it would not be all that hard to practice rudimentary social distancing.

A team of independent researchers could probably get through the material in a matter of weeks or a couple of months at the most. They could then issue a report on whether they found anything that was relevant to what Reade claimed happened to her. It would then be incumbent upon Biden to make those records public.

If Biden were to do something like this, it would be an extraordinary gesture of faith in his own innocence and the starkest contrast imaginable with how President Trump has handled the allegations of more than a dozen women who have accused him of sexual assault. Just as important, it would provide a badly needed example for others who find themselves in a situation like the one he is in.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Biden himself should address the Tara Reade allegations and release relevant records

Ruth Marcus: The new Tara Reade revelations make it imperative that Biden address the allegations directly

Megan McArdle: On Biden and the Tara Reade allegation, do our normal standards apply?

Marc A. Theissen: Biden gave Christine Blasey Ford the ‘benefit of the doubt.’ Why not Tara Reade?

Ruth Marcus: Assessing Tara Reade’s allegations

Loading...