The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Joe Biden needs to cut it out. So does the mob.

Vice President Joe Biden and Stephanie Carter, wife of Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter during Carter's swearing-in ceremony in 2015.
Vice President Joe Biden and Stephanie Carter, wife of Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter during Carter's swearing-in ceremony in 2015. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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Joe Biden needs to cut it out. And so does the mob that is after him.

The former vice president — and presumed front-runner-to-be in the 2020 Democratic primary — has a long history of putting his hands all over pretty much anyone who comes within reach. Women. Men. Children. Longtime friends. Perfect strangers.

He calls it the trait of a “tactile politician.” Longtime aides say it is simply “Biden being Biden.” But a quick Google search of “creepy Uncle Joe” finds an avalanche of video proof that his space-invading overtures are not always received with delight.

All of this is rightly being looked at in a different light amid the #MeToo movement. Over the weekend, in an essay for New York magazine’s The Cut, former Nevada state legislator Lucy Flores claimed that Biden put his hands on her shoulders, sniffed her hair and kissed her on the back of the head at a 2014 rally for her lieutenant gubernatorial campaign. She wrote that the episode left her feeling shocked, confused and humiliated.

From wearing blackface to having inappropriate physical contact, people who serve in public office must meet a higher standard of repentance. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

In the ensuing uproar, Biden’s rivals for the nomination expressed support for Flores, and there was speculation that all of this might disqualify him from running. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway pronounced on Fox News Sunday that Biden has a “big problem,” which was more than a little ironic coming from someone whose boss was elected president amid multiple accusations of sexual assault and after declaring he liked to grab women by their genitals.

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On Monday, another woman, former congressional aide Amy Lappos, told the Hartford Courant that Biden rubbed noses with her at a 2009 fundraiser in Connecticut.

What we all are learning, we should hope, is that we should respect women who have the courage to come forward about their experiences with unwanted physical contact. They deserve the benefit of the doubt both about their versions of events and about how they were made to feel.

But it is also important — and a sign that a social movement is maturing into a social norm — to recognize that not every offense is of equal severity.

Also worth factoring in is whether an alleged perpetrator was acting with malevolence or just cluelessness. Flores indicated that she believed Biden’s actions were demeaning and disrespectful, but not violent or sexual. Nor does it sound like a power move on Biden’s part.

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.

For politicians, these issues can be particularly fraught. “Pressing the flesh” is a vital part of the campaign ritual. Nearly every public appearance by a candidate ends with eager supporters lining up for handshakes and hugs and faux intimate photos wrapping arms with someone who just might be making history.

Indeed, Flores’s essay brought a rebuttal from Stephanie Carter, the wife of former defense secretary Ashton B. Carter. A photo of Biden with his hands cradling her shoulders became a viral sensation four years ago, striking many as overly familiar or downright weird. The truth, she wrote, was that the vice president was offering her a bit of badly needed emotional support at her husband’s swearing-in.

In a statement, Biden promised to “listen respectfully” to those who say he acted inappropriately. Part of that process should be recognizing that others might have life experiences or cultural backgrounds that do not predispose them to unsolicited physical contact with people they do not know well. Flores, for instance, suggested that Biden’s touch evoked familiar feelings of being discounted as a young Latina in a field dominated by white men.

Biden also cited his record as a champion of women’s rights. But that may in fact turn out to be a far bigger vulnerability, starting with his inept excuses for how shabbily the Senate Judiciary Committee treated Anita Hill during the 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

“To this day, I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved,” Biden said — a jaw-dropping dodge, given that as chairman of the committee, he decided not to call additional witnesses who could have supported Hill’s claim that she had been sexually harassed by Thomas.

Americans deserve a far better explanation, not only of why he failed back then, but whether and how he is different because of it. If Biden does indeed run for president, the question will not be whether his hands are in the right place, but whether his heart is.

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