‘Anybody who’s ever been around Joe Biden has been touched by him – literally’

Why We Wrote This

Back slapping and baby kissing are part of a politician’s job, but rules governing human interactions are evolving post #MeToo. Debate over former Vice President Joe Biden’s “handsy” approach sparked a memory for our Washington bureau chief.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Former Vice President Joe Biden takes a photograph with members of the audience after speaking to the International Association of Firefighters at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, amid growing expectations he'll soon announce he's running for president.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

It was a campaign moment I will never forget. I was in Connecticut covering the 2006 Democratic primary between then-Sen. Joe Lieberman and liberal challenger Ned Lamont. We were at an outdoor event in Glastonbury, the sun blazing overhead, when I noticed then-Sen Joe Biden of Delaware. I walked over and introduced myself. Senator Biden greeted me warmly – and then threw a sweaty arm over my shoulder and gave me a squeeze. I cringed a little internally; I had never met Mr. Biden before. But I chalked the overly friendly gesture up to his personal style, and maybe a generational difference.

Now the former vice president, likely about to launch another presidential campaign, is under fire for a way of interacting that to some women has come across as “handsy.” It bears noting that the charges pale in comparison with the actual cases of sexual misconduct by both President Donald Trump and President Bill Clinton. Mr. Biden has never faced allegations of marital infidelity and has a strong image as a family man.

But the space-invading critique points to a broader stylistic challenge Mr. Biden may face if he does run – a generational gap that could hurt him, particularly with millennials.

It was a campaign moment I will never forget.

I was in Connecticut covering the August 2006 Democratic primary between then-Sen. Joe Lieberman and his insurgent liberal challenger, Ned Lamont. Then-Sen. Joe Biden, of Delaware, and a few other Senate colleagues were visiting from Washington to buck up their friend.

We were at an outdoor event in Glastonbury, the sun blazing overhead, and I noticed the senators standing around chatting. I walked over and introduced myself. Senator Biden greeted me warmly – and then threw a sweaty arm over my shoulder, and gave me a squeeze. I cringed a little internally; I had never met Mr. Biden before. But I chalked the overly friendly gesture up to his personal style, and maybe a generational difference. I proceeded to interview the senators, but the thing I remember most vividly is Mr. Biden’s sweaty arm.

As Gail Russell Chaddock, a longtime congressional reporter for the Monitor put it, “Anybody who’s ever been around Joe Biden has been touched by him – literally.”

Now the former vice president, likely about to launch another presidential campaign, is under fire for his physical style of interacting with others, a style that to some women comes across as “handsy.” Most seriously, he faces an allegation by a Nevada politician named Lucy Flores, who wrote Friday that Mr. Biden kissed and nuzzled her on the back of the head before a campaign event in 2014.

That was before #MeToo and today’s stricter societal standards for appropriate behavior, but by just a few years. Mr. Biden’s avuncular style long ago earned him the nickname “Uncle Joe.” Now, to some, he’s “Creepy Uncle Joe.” And his still-unannounced presidential campaign is facing its first crisis.

On Sunday, Mr. Biden issued a statement: “In my 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.”

Mr. Biden also put forth former female aides who defended his actions with Ms. Flores and, more generally, as a boss. And in one widely publicized example of allegedly creepy behavior, the woman involved has come forward on the side of the former vice president. In a post on Medium, Stephanie Carter, the wife of former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, says that the image of Mr. Biden with her at her husband’s swearing-in – his hands on Ms. Carter’s shoulders and his head leaning in to whisper in her ear – is not a #MeToo moment, it’s a moment of support.

“The Joe Biden in my picture is a close friend helping someone get through a big day, for which I will always be grateful,” Ms. Carter writes, while making clear she is not passing judgment on Ms. Flores’ story.

In another photo, Mr. Biden is seen whispering in the ear of Delaware Sen. Chris Coons’ 13-year-old daughter, who appears uncomfortable when he kisses the side of her head. “She did not think of it as anything,” Senator Coons, a Democrat, told the Washington Post.

The Flores episode has quickly become fodder for Democrats already in the 2020 race. Biden defenders point out that Ms. Flores backed Bernie Sanders for president in 2016. Today, Senator Sanders says he believes Ms. Flores. (Women who worked on Senator Sanders’ 2016 campaign claimed unequal pay and sexual harassment by male campaign workers. Senator Sanders has apologized for the harassment and promised 2020 will be different.)

Mr. Biden’s relatively slow response may demonstrate the pitfalls of not having a campaign apparatus that’s fully up and running. But the former V.P. may face a bigger challenge over his handling of the 1991 Anita Hill hearings. During that episode, when then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas faced charges of sexual harassment by his former subordinate, Mr. Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He recently said he “wished he could have done something” – a response critics found weak, given the position he held.

Just as important, the attacks on Mr. Biden’s personal interactions may point to a stylistic challenge he faces if he does run – and a generational gap that could hurt him, particularly with millennials.

Mr. Biden is in his late 70s, not much older than President Donald Trump, but clearly from an era when alpha-male behavior was the norm in politics.

“It would be good if, every now and then, women just said, ‘You know, don’t do that. Keep your hands to yourself,’ ” says Deborah Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

It also bears noting that Ms. Flores’ charge against Mr. Biden pales in comparison with the actual cases of sexual misconduct by both President Donald Trump and President Bill Clinton. Unlike the two presidents, both of whom have reputations as womanizers, Mr. Biden has never faced allegations of marital infidelity. In fact, he has a strong image as a family man.

My own little story about Mr. Biden in 2006 is not a #MeToo moment. Far from it. Having been a reporter in the old Soviet Union, I know what inappropriate male behavior toward a female reporter looks and feels like. I just thought Mr. Biden was a character, and yes, a bit too touchy-feely for my taste.

Now, in the year 2019, we may be about to learn if Uncle Joe can bring his style up to date – and still hold on to his essential political quality as a “people person.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.