Biden allegations spark a generation-dividing debate
As Joe Biden prepares to mount a run for the Democratic presidential nomination, his old-fashioned, flesh-pressing campaign style has careened headlong into the #MeToo movement and a generation of women discomfited by — and unwilling to tolerate — his hands-on approach to politicking.
Over the past week, several women have raised unflattering allegations accusing Biden of inappropriately touching or hugging them. The 76-year-old career politician seemed stunned to discover that for some voters, his boundaries-breaching brand of retail politics was simply too close for comfort.
Biden has long been a “handsy” politician, but that image of him took a pejorative turn following the publication last week of a New York Magazine essay. In that article, former Nevada state legislator Lucy Flores wrote that Biden approached her from behind, touched her shoulders, and kissed the back of her head at a 2014 political event.
Biden issued a response last weekend in which he admitted to being, in so many words, a tactile politician, not unlike many back-slapping, baby-kissing pols from an earlier generation.
“In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort,” Biden wrote in a statement picked up by various news outlets. “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.”
The statement did little to quell the controversy, however, as more women spoke up, recounting similar incidents in which they too had been on the receiving end of Biden’s unsolicited and unwanted kisses and caresses.
Amy Lappos, a former congressional aide, said that, in her case, Biden crossed a line at a 2009 fundraiser for her then-boss Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT). She told the Hartford Courant that the vice president “put his hand around my neck and pulled me in to rub noses with me.”
Two more women — Caitlyn Caruso, 22, a former college student and sexual assault survivor, and D.J. Hill, a 59-year-old writer — told The New York Times that unwanted displays of affection from Biden had made them squeamish as well.
Caruso said Biden rested his hand on her thigh and hugged her “just a little bit too long” at a 2016 event on sexual assault at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Hill said she met Biden at a 2012 fundraising event in Minneapolis when the then-vice president put his hand on her shoulder and started dropping it down her back, which made her “very uncomfortable.”
Despite the attention generated by these accounts, none of the women said they felt Biden’s actions rose to the level of sexual harassment or assault, and no one reported the incidents to authorities. Still, they took note at the time, and they continue today to feel uneasy about what happened.
“It doesn’t even really cross your mind that such a person would dare perpetuate harm like that,” Caruso told The New York Times. “These are supposed to be people you can trust.”
For Biden and his White House aspirations, the women’s stories are the most recent and possibly most trenchant example of how his exuberant personality is not always a political asset. Behavior that once seemed to endear him to voters is now being portrayed as creepy or, worse, a long-standing attitude of disrespect toward women.
Young women, especially millennials, have come of age with a keener sense of outrage about inappropriate male behavior that their parents and grandparents might have endured or overlooked. A new generation of women aren’t going to let bad-boy acts — even if the actor says they were well-intentioned — go without notice or condemnation.
Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, wrote recently that events that in an earlier era might have been interpreted as innocuous, today spur activism and spark outrage.
“The misogyny of the 2016 election campaign, the revelations of the second #MeToo movement, and Trump’s unexpected victory triggered the first bouts of fury many of these women had ever allowed themselves to feel, much less display,” Coontz wrote recently in the Prospect.
Amanda Barroso, an ACLS/Mellon fellow at the National Women’s Law Center, said in an interview with Think Progress that the #MeToo movement represents a big cultural shift that is taking place in the nation, one that is changing the way women understand and talk about how they feel oppressed by male behavior that they consider abusive, something women in previous generations may have felt but didn’t allowed to pass with less of a fuss.
Describing herself as “an old millennial at 34,” Barroso said she has discussed gender issues with her mother, who reluctantly accepted forms of male-directed oppression as just a part of her day.
“It was just a part of what it meant to her to be a woman working among men,” Barroso said. “I grew up in a culture of feminism and I approach things differently. We now have a vocabulary about sexual harassment and assault that our parents didn’t have.“
To be sure, a divergence along generational lines exists. Many older, politically entrenched women have offered a measured defense of Biden’s political style and dealings with them.
Mary Frances Berry, a former chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and currently a professor of social thought and history at the University of Pennsylvania, said changing norms about unwanted touching and protecting personal space extends in varying directions. For example, Berry said, most college campuses today have strict policies regarding how teacher-to-student and student-to-student contact.
“It’s understood [on campus] that people don’t like to have their bodies invaded or touched by anyone, if they don’t want it and haven’t given consent,” Berry said. “Years ago, if I were talking to a crying student about something like a parent dying, I might have patted them on the back or held their hand.”
Berry said she wouldn’t dare do such a thing now. “I would pass them a box of Kleenex and continue talking to them,” she told ThinkProgress. “If they continued to cry, I might ask ‘Would you like me to hold your hand?’”
From her days working in Washington, D.C., Berry said she knew that Biden was always prone to touch, hug, and embrace men and women. “He’s touchy-feely,” she said. “People of an earlier generation might not have even given it a second thought, but younger people grew up in an environment of fragility and it affects their emotional stability, or so I’m told.”
As EJ Dickson noted recently in Rolling Stone, Biden has many defenders among old-line, feminist political activists. “By and large, older establishment liberals, particularly women, have been most vocal in their defense of him,” Dickson wrote. “And their argument seems to be predicated on the idea that Biden’s alleged behavior, while somewhat more demonstrative than that of the average politician, does not constitute sexual harassment, let alone sexual assault; nor is it egregious enough to merit punishment.”
@joebiden is way touchy-feely. Can make some feel uncomfortable. He needs to stop it.
But pls get back to me when +15 women say he sexually harassed them, or he boasts of grabbing a woman’s kitty-cat, or he pays hush-money to a stripper who reminds him of his daughter. I’ll wait.
— Ana Navarro-Cárdenas (@ananavarro) March 30, 2019
In an effort to quell the controversy, Biden took to social media Wednesday to say that he’s aware that times are changing and that he will change with them.
“Politics to me has always been about making connections,” he said in the videotaped message on Twitter. “But I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future.”
Social norms are changing. I understand that, and I’ve heard what these women are saying. Politics to me has always been about making connections, but I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future. That’s my responsibility and I will meet it. pic.twitter.com/Ya2mf5ODts
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) April 3, 2019
Biden may have found an unlikely ally to help him escape the ire of progressive voters. President Donald Trump — who has far more serious allegations of sexual impropriety in his interactions with women — suggested that criticism trained on Biden may be friendly fire from within the Democratic Party.
Unable to resist making a joke of it all, Trump said at a fundraising dinner for House Republicans that Biden is “being taken care of pretty well by the socialists,” darkly hinting at charges competing campaigns may be engaging in a dirty tricks effort to prevent him from entering the race. “Welcome to the world, Joe,” Trump said. “Are you having a good time, Joe?”
All kidding aside, Biden’s old-school, hand-on politics is a relic of another era. How he adapts to the shifting cultural norms will go a long way toward determining his future political success — or failure.