As Biden denies assault allegation, Democrats wrestle with hypocrisy charge

Why We Wrote This

A former staffer’s charge that Mr. Biden sexually assaulted her in the mid-’90s seemed to gain some corroboration this week, forcing Democrats to grapple with questions of double standards and what constitutes a fair hearing.  

MSNBC's Morning Joe/AP
Former Vice President Joe Biden appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on May 1, 2020. Speaking out for the first time about a sexual assault allegation made by a former staffer, Tara Reade, Mr. Biden told co-host Mika Brzezinski that the alleged incident “never, never happened.”

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“Believe women” has been the mantra of the #MeToo movement since it launched in 2017. 

Now, no less a figure than Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumed nominee for president, has been ensnared. Weeks after a former Senate aide, Tara Reade, alleged that he sexually assaulted her 27 years ago – and after repeated denials from his campaign – the former vice president has finally addressed the charge himself. 

“I’m saying unequivocally – it never, never happened,” Mr. Biden said Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” 

The controversy has roiled a presidential campaign fully dominated until now by the global pandemic. It has also muddied Mr. Biden’s carefully honed image as a champion of women, as he tries to unseat a president facing at least 17 accusations of sexual misconduct. 

The anguish today among feminists old and young is palpable.  

“I subscribe to the ‘women must be believed’ perspective, unless proven otherwise,” says Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine.

“At the same time, Joe Biden is our candidate; I’m desperate for him to win,” Ms. Pogrebin adds, noting that she never excused President Bill Clinton’s behavior. “The alternative is too terrible.”

“Believe women” has been the mantra of the #MeToo movement – the most aggressive, sustained effort to fight sexual harassment and assault in history – since it launched in 2017. 

Now, no less a figure than Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumed nominee for president, has been ensnared. Weeks after a former Senate aide, Tara Reade, alleged that he sexually assaulted her 27 years ago – and after repeated denials from his campaign – the former vice president has finally addressed the charge himself. 

“I’m saying unequivocally – it never, never happened,” Mr. Biden said Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” 

In a lengthy post on Medium, Mr. Biden also called on the National Archives to release any complaint Ms. Reade may have filed. He portrayed himself as having a strong record advocating for women’s rights, without mentioning past stumbles, such as his handling of the Anita Hill allegations in 1991 against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

But he also called the allegations “complicated,” without explanation. 

“While the details of these allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault are complicated, two things are not complicated,” Mr. Biden wrote. “One is that women deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and when they step forward they should be heard, not silenced. The second is that their stories should be subject to appropriate inquiry and scrutiny.”

Mr. Biden’s denial seemed unlikely to dampen the uproar. Earlier this week, two sources spoke on the record to corroborate some of Ms. Reade’s details. In addition, a 1993 video surfaced of a woman Ms. Reade says was her mother, now deceased, calling in to CNN’s “Larry King Live” and talking about her daughter’s “problems” with a “prominent senator” (though the woman makes no mention of sexual assault).

The controversy has roiled a presidential campaign fully dominated until now by the global pandemic. It has also muddied Mr. Biden’s carefully honed image as a champion of women, as he tries to unseat a president facing at least 17 accusations of sexual misconduct. 

And it revives painful questions surrounding the sexual assault charges that Justice Brett Kavanaugh faced during his 2018 Supreme Court confirmation hearing, a searing experience for both accuser and accused. 

For those strongly defending Mr. Biden or downplaying Ms. Reade’s allegations, as some media outlets have been accused of doing, the imbroglio invites charges of hypocrisy – especially in contrast to the vigorous, immediate attention that was paid to the allegation by Justice Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. Ms. Ford said Mr. Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her at a high school party in the 1980s.

The Biden-Reade uproar has driven a wedge between mainstream Democrats and the party’s left wing, just as party leaders are urging unity heading into November. Supporters and former top staff of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mr. Biden’s last primary rival, have been among those leading the charge, amplifying Ms. Reade’s allegation. 

Earlier this week, Senator Sanders’ former national organizing director, Claire Sandberg, called on Mr. Biden to quit the race, “out of respect for survivors and for the good of the country.” 

Today, the essence of “Believe women” – sometimes rendered as an absolute, “Believe all women” – raises questions for women’s rights advocates. The idea, they say, is not to automatically accept as fact everything an accuser says. It’s to make sure she is given the space to tell her story, and to approach it with an assumption she’s telling the truth.

The latest imbroglio also recalls the 1990s, when some feminists seemed to look the other way when candidate and then President Bill Clinton faced numerous accusations of sexual impropriety (including rape), and was ultimately impeached for lying under oath about an affair with an intern. Mr. Clinton, many argued at the time, stood for progressive policies on women’s rights, and so they stood by him. 

“There does seem to be this idea of political pragmatism and feminist values, and how they slide on a spectrum,” says Margaret Johnson, co-director of the University of Baltimore’s Center on Applied Feminism. “That has never made sense to me. I think it’s all holistic.”

The anguish today among feminists old and young is palpable.  

“I subscribe to the ‘women must be believed’ perspective, unless proven otherwise,” says Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine.

“At the same time, Joe Biden is our candidate; I’m desperate for him to win,” Ms. Pogrebin adds, noting that she never excused President Clinton’s behavior. “The alternative is too terrible – four more years of this man.”

Tarana Burke, who launched the #MeToo movement, showed her own conflicted views on the matter Tuesday in a Twitter thread. 

“The inconvenient truth is that this story is impacting us differently because it hits at the heart of one of the most important elections of our lifetime,” she wrote. “And I hate to disappoint you but I don’t really have easy answers.”

The alleged incident took place in 1993. In an interview with pro-Sanders podcaster Katie Halper on March 25, Ms. Reade said then-Senator Biden pinned her against a wall and violated her sexually with his fingers. 

Back in April 2019, Ms. Reade was one of several women who accused the former vice president of inappropriate touching, but she said nothing about sexual abuse. Mr. Biden has since apologized for engaging in behavior that he now acknowledges made women uncomfortable. 

“I get it,” he said in a video that same month, promising to change his behavior. 

Despite being famously “handsy,” Mr. Biden has never been accused of sexual impropriety or assault until now. He’s known as a family man, married 43 years to Jill Biden, after losing his first wife and a baby daughter in a car accident. 

But over the decades, the education of Mr. Biden on female empowerment hasn’t been easy. In 1991, as chairman of the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, he crossed swords with feminists when Ms. Hill alleged sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Mr. Biden faced criticism for preventing other witnesses from testifying on Ms. Hill’s behalf, and eventually apologized for his handling of the hearings.  

Mr. Biden later crafted the Violence Against Women Act, aimed at fighting domestic abuse. He calls it his most significant legislative achievement. Now, as the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, Mr. Biden has pledged to name a woman as his running mate. 

Feminists have long supported politicians who promote their causes, including reproductive rights, equal pay, paid family leave, and legal protections, despite private behavior that they believe falls short. The question in recent years, for voters of both parties, has been how (or whether) to address a politician’s private behavior. 

Most religious conservatives back President Donald Trump, despite his well-documented personal history of marital infidelity, accusations of sexual harassment and assault, and crude talk about women. Some religious supporters say they believe he has reformed. But it’s clear many Trump supporters are willing to overlook his past in favor of today’s policies and judicial appointments.  

“Democrats have put themselves on higher moral ground than Republicans” on the issue of personal conduct, says Dianne Bystrom, director emeritus of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. “There’s a danger in that.”  

When asked to comment on the allegations against Mr. Biden, feminist leader Gloria Steinem offered a written statement.  

“I only know what I’ve read about this, but I support women who come forward because their honest testimony is right now the only brake on private male behavior,” Ms. Steinem wrote. “Women know the polar differences between Biden and Trump, who brags about assaulting women in his private life, and whose public policies endanger our health and safety. I agree with Tarana Burke that Biden can be ‘both accountable and electable.’ ”

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