At the start of our societal reckoning over the bad behavior of men, the red lines were clear. The bad guys were easy to identify, the toxic behavior obvious. The question was never whether Harvey Weinstein’s actions were wrong, but why people who might have stopped him did nothing.
But as with any broad social movement, things quickly became more complicated. It is simple to condemn things that even the perpetrator knew were wrong when he did them. Trading movie roles for sex? Wrong. Installing remote-controlled locks on office doors? Drugging unwitting sex partners? Sexual relationships with minors? Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Less clear is how to hold men to account for things that raise eyebrows today but might not have even a few years ago. Sexist jokes? Tone-deaf passes? Hugging everyone within arm’s reach at fundraising dinners?
Which brings us to Joe Biden.
The 76-year-old former vice president and prospective presidential candidate is embroiled in controversy after two women came forward in the past few days accusing him of being too handsy and affectionate. Neither Nevada legislator Lucy Flores nor former political aide Amy Lappos says that Biden’s behavior toward her was threatening or overtly sexual, but both say it made them decidedly uncomfortable.
“It was demeaning and disrespectful,” said Flores of the time in 2014 when, she says, Biden put his hands on her shoulders, “inhaled my hair” and “plant[ed] a big slow kiss on the back of my head.”
“It wasn’t sexual, but he did grab me by the head. He put his hand around my neck and pulled me in to rub noses with me,” Lappos said of the 2009 incident at a Connecticut fundraiser. “It’s an incredibly uncomfortable situation and not at all acceptable.”
The conversation in the days since has essentially been about the spectrum from Weinstein to Biden. Does it matter that Biden did what he did — these two incidents and the countless other times he hugged and touched people — openly, often in front of cameras, exhibiting a public persona more like an exuberant puppy than a predator?
The stories of Biden being Biden go back years. In 2014 NPR referred to his “trademark embraces” when describing how he enthusiastically kissed and hugged a 102-year-old woman who had come to see him during a visit to a job-training program. After a kiss that barely missed her mouth, he said, “I need a hug” and leaned on in for one, wrote reporter Tamara Keith.
In fact, all this touching and feeling has long been part of Biden’s appeal. As he has said of himself, “I am a tactile politician.”
After his son Beau died three years ago, social media was filled with stories of the support Biden had given people when they were grieving. And over the past few days others have stepped forward to describe how his literal and virtual hugs were welcome in their lives.
“Joe Biden is one of the truly decent and compassionate men in all of American politics,” wrote Meghan McCain on Twitter. “He has helped me through my fathers diagnosis, treatment and ultimate passing more than anyone of my fathers friends combined. I wish there was more empathy from our politicians not less.”
And in an essay on Medium, Stephanie Carter, the wife of former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, defended Biden against commenters who called a photo of Biden with his hands on her shoulders during her husband’s swearing-in “creepy.”
“The Joe Biden in my picture is a close friend helping someone get through a big day, for which I will always be grateful,” she wrote. She had taken a spill on some ice in front of cameras earlier in the day, she explained, and was still feeling “uncharacteristically nervous ... as Ash was giving remarks.” That was when Biden “leaned in to tell me ‘thank you for letting him do this’ and kept his hands on my shoulders as a means of offering his support.”
The fact that the latest Biden accusations have traction, however, shows that there is more than one way to view that image. And like a 1980s hairstyle, something that looked normal and even flattering in one era comes to look completely different with time.
And that — the passage of time, the fact that this is a new moment — is far more likely the takeaway of this current Biden brouhaha.
Biden “has to understand that in the world we are in now, people’s space is important to them and what’s important is how they receive it, not necessarily how you intended it,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who, while three years older than Biden, has avoided coming across as a throwback to an earlier era.
She even had some stage instructions.
“Join the straight-arm club,” Pelosi said, advising her fellow Democrat to stick to arm’s-length handshakes with men and women alike. “Just pretend you have a cold and I have a cold.”
Biden himself stopped short of apologizing, but in a statement he did suggest that he knew times had changed and he had to change with them. “In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort,” he said in a statement. “And not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately. But we have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention. And I will.”
Still, even if Biden can and does change, the allegations themselves contain a reminder to voters that at this stage of the reckoning — the part near the end where hairs are being split as well as sniffed — the way to end the chapter might be to simply move on to leaders who did not appear as characters in that chapter at all. In fact, that seems to be much of the point of bringing this up now.
Lappos hinted at this when she made her original allegation on Sunday, on a Facebook page for Connecticut Women in Politics that was picked up by the Hartford Courant.
“If Biden truly supports women and gender equality he would step aside and support one of the many talented and qualified women running,” she wrote. “The same goes for the other men who have thrown their hat in the ring. Women are 52 percent of the population. We are not a minority, we are the majority. It is time we are represented as such. After 45 male presidents it is time we elect a woman.”
The women already in the race have more than hinted at the same.
“If we spend our whole time talking about what men had done and what they didn’t do, we are never going to talk about what women can do,” said presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar when asked about the allegations about Biden in a television interview.
In short, Biden proudly, but also problematically, represents an old era at a time when many voters want a new one. If these allegations dent his prospective candidacy, it will not be because they show the man to be different than anyone thought he was, but because it is time for the country to be different than it used to be.
As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote yesterday: “He’s the product of his time, and his time is up.”
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