The Paradox of Joe Biden
1991: “Can you tell the committee, what was the most embarrassing of all the incidences that you have alleged?”
2011: “Look guys—all you guys in the audience—no matter what a girl does, no matter how she’s dressed, no matter how much she’s had to drink—it’s never, never, never, never okay to touch her without her consent. That doesn’t make you a man—it makes you a coward.”
All of these words—some of which highlight the poison of gender-based violence, others of which publicly and unnecessarily humiliate a sexual assault victim—were spoken by the same man: Joe Biden. Throughout his presidential bid, the former vice president and senator’s relationship to women has been heavily scrutinized. Voters have sought to simultaneously celebrate the gender-related legislation he has passed and genuinely consider the troubling allegations that have emerged about his tendency to, in soft language, violate personal space.
Given that I will undoubtedly be voting for Biden come November and have long thought him the most pragmatic candidate to propel forward through the Democratic primary, I hoped that writing this article would provide me with some clarity on the man for whom I am declaring support. As a self-identified feminist, I did not, and do not, want to give Biden a “free pass” on sexual misconduct simply because he is a Democrat. But even after falling into many rabbit holes of Politico opinion pieces and New York Times investigations, my thoughts are still hazy, muddled by the tragic complexity of Biden’s life. As such, this article is not much of an opinion piece; I fail to reach many grand conclusions. Instead, it is a recounting of my thought process, which is often contradictory and convoluted. Yet despite being maddening and unsatisfying, the task of interpreting our could-be president did lead me to one—yes, only one—solid conviction: many of the men who ardently, consistently advocate for women’s rights still, somehow, feel an entitlement to their bodies. Joe Biden, it seems, is a longtime member of that well-populated fraternity. And, despite the tiresome nature of that annoyingly prominent group, he is a particularly interesting affiliate.
I was first introduced to the “Creepy Joe Biden” trope at the beginning of high school, when a friend played me a video of him touching young girls in questionable ways. He is shown stroking hair, holding onto arms, rubbing shoulders, and bringing his head disconcertingly close to those of the girls. It is evident that the young—often very young—women in these videos feel uncomfortable, as many of them physically move away from Biden. The former vice president surely needs to reexamine how gentleness is subjective and modify his behavior accordingly. However, I don’t think that these clips are indicative of predatory behavior; instead, I believe they speak to Biden’s need to develop close interpersonal relationships.
When considered against the backdrop of his pain-laden life, these videos, problematic as they may be, make more sense when regarded as a misguided display of tenderness than a sinister act. In 1972, Biden’s thirty-year-old wife, Neilala, and one-year-old daughter, Naomi, died in a car accident. His two sons, Hunter and Beau, survived, but were hospitalized; Biden held his Senate swearing-in at the bedside of his injured boys. In 2015, Beau—whose earlier survival, Biden wrote in his memoir Promise Me, Dad, “saved my life…40 years ago,”—later died of a rare brain cancer at the age of 46.
“There is no person in American politics today whose life has been so shaped by loss and grief,” writes Michael Kruse in his Politico article “How Grief Became Joe Biden’s ‘Superpower.’” “The long arc of Biden’s career is all but bracketed by tragedy.” Such hardship, Kruse says, is what has enabled Biden to cultivate unique relationships with constituents and fellow legislators. He has turned his pain into a gift, using it to guide others, such as the parents of Sandy Hook victims, through periods of immeasurable pain. It is this yearning for human connection that, I suspect, is at the core of the inappropriate physical affection he displays in those videos. Biden lost two of his children in horrific, agonizing ways; it is entirely conceivable that he, perhaps subconsciously, is eager to forge relationships with and physically shield young people, particularly young girls given that his daughter died in infancy.
More troubling to me are the allegations that older women have raised against Biden. Last year, eight women came forward to accuse Biden of inappropriate behavior. Generally, the complaints range from back-of-head kisses, to unwanted nose rubs, to prolonged touches and hugs, to unnecessary physical compliments. Though these actions aren’t explicitly sexual, they still elicited profound discomfort from the women involved and deserve recognition.
Ally Coll, who claims Biden held her “for a beat too long” and touched her shoulders in an off-putting way, explained, “There’s been a lack of understanding about the way that power can turn something that might seem innocuous into something that can make somebody feel uncomfortable.” Biden’s obvious inability to grasp this basic fact has, in my estimation, been the driver of these actions which may have been innocent in intention but nonetheless had a profound impact on the women involved. Similarly to the aforementioned videos, these instances don’t necessarily amount to harassment, but still underscore how deeply detached Biden is from the realities of fluctuating boundaries and implications of physical contact.
In a video clip released before he officially announced his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden responded to these allegations, saying, “It’s the way I’ve always been, it’s the way I try to show I care about them and I’m listening… The boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset. I understand it and I’ll be much more mindful.” While I don’t believe that Biden had malicious intentions in the majority of these cases, it is still troubling that he was unable or unwilling to independently understand the considerable issues with his behavior; a president should be at least somewhat attuned to the cultural oscillations of our current era.
One of the women who accused Biden of misconduct—or, in this case, assault—is Tara Reade. For a detailed recounting of Reade’s allegations, I suggest you read the New York Times’ investigation “Examining Tara Reade’s Sexual Assault Allegation Against Joe Biden.” In essence, Reade worked as a staff assistant for Biden in 1993, when he was a senator. After accusing him of “inappropriate touching” last year, she recently alleged that he “pinned her to a wall in a Senate building, reached under her clothing, and penetrated her with his fingers” (New York Times). Reade says that Biden asked, “Do you want to go somewhere else?” and appeared confused when she pulled away, saying “Come one, man, I heard you liked me.”
Reade cannot remember the exact time, date, or location of the assault, but claims that it happened in a “semi-private” place in the Senate office complex. Two friends, both of whom have chosen to remain anonymous, say Reade told them of the event; one was purportedly informed in 1993, the other in 2008. Additionally, Reade’s brother has said he was informed of the event, but his recounting is somewhat suspect, as his account of what he was told has changed, as was reported by the Washington Post.
Alternatively, Reade claims that she approached three high-ranking members of Biden’s senate office about the incident, all of whom say they do not remember having such a conversation and are confident it did not happen. Several people who worked in the office at the time and knew Reade said they do not remember that incident or any similar behavior from Biden.
Reade’s allegation against Biden is, by a wide margin, the most concerning; it is also largely uncorroborated. However, many allegations of sexual assault are “unproven,” as they are contingent on, in heterosexual cases, a “he said versus she said” dynamic. Additionally, some survivors choose not to come forward until years after the attack, or share only portions of their story before eventually recounting the entire event for fear of backlash from the accused. According to Resilience, a non-profit that works to end sexual violence, only 2-8% of rapes are falsely reported; while Biden is not accused of rape, a similar percentage is applicable to other sexual felonies.
There is not enough information to make anything more than a semi-educated guess about what occurred between Reade and Biden, as there is no reason to trust Biden’s staffers over Reade’s friends, or the converse. A part of me is inclined to believe her, as I wonder why anyone would subject themselves to the public shaming that accompanies stepping forward about assault. Another part of me questions whether she has political motivations, as she has publicly praised Russia on multiple media platforms and has told a somewhat inconsistent story. It is clear that the allegation must be genuinely, rigorously investigated and treated no differently than those of similarly debatable credibility that have come out against Republicans. Yet it is also clear that feminists should not be abashed for expressing skepticism about an allegation that is objectively somewhat skeptical.
If one is eager to find indisputable and permanent evidence of Biden being sexist, one needn’t look any further than the 1991 hearings held during Justice Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court. Biden was the chairman of the all-white, all-male committee tasked with questioning Anita Hill, an African American law professor who accused Thomas of sexual harassment. There have been countless articles written about Biden’s conduct as chairman which detail his many failures in that role: his unwillingness to call other witnesses who had stories about Thomas, reluctance to reign in the blatantly offensive questioning of his Republican counterparts, backpedaling out of a promise he made to Hill that she would testify before Thomas, and personal contributions to the sexism potent throughout the entire ordeal.
Biden has expressed regret over the Hill hearings, but many, including Hill herself, do not believe he has taken full responsibility for the gravity of his actions. Keen on remaining unflinchingly fair, Biden often attributes his behavior to the difficult political situation he was in at the time and emphasizes that he had to remain fair to his Republican colleagues.
I have a visceral reaction when watching clips of Biden’s line of questioning during the hearings; it is physically difficult to witness someone that I support tear into and humiliate a survivor of assault.
Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor and Hill’s attorney at the time, said, “I was shocked and dismayed that Joe Biden was asking questions that didn’t seem appropriate and was not in her corner as a Democrat. The point is that he’s supposed to be neutral, but his questions to Anita Hill were as piercing as anyone’s.”
I struggle to find nuance when considering Biden’s actions toward Hill. Yes, he has acknowledged his shortcomings—in a 2019 Good Morning America interview, he said, “As the committee chairman, I take responsibility that she did not get treated well”—but was blind to them during a critical moment. The event is, in my mind, a permanent stain not only on his record, but on his character.
And yet, I still follow Biden on Instagram. I still defend him to my “I would have voted for Bernie” sister. I still believe, deeply and unwaveringly, that he should be our president. I think that he hopes to expand the Violence Against Women Act (an immensely important piece of legislation that he championed in the late 1990s), protect a woman’s right to choose, and create more gender equity, particularly as it pertains to people of color. I also think that he has disrespected women and their bodies.
It is difficult, even painful, to simultaneously believe in those two seemingly incongruous realities. And it is more difficult still to acknowledge that the phenomenon of Joe Biden—the ability to advocate for women’s rights and still revel in asserting power over women—is not a phenomenon at all, for it is nearly ubiquitous throughout American life. If nothing else, I have learned that in order to understand Biden, we must understand the perplexing ills of the country whence he came.