Joe Biden just does not get it.
Unless a woman is your wife or daughter, you may not put your hands on her shoulders, sniff her hair or plant a kiss on the top of her head. And even then, she has the right to push you away.
Why is this so hard to grasp?
Joe Biden can be a charming man. I once flew around Iowa with him in a plane so small our knees touched the whole time I interviewed him. He was perfectly appropriate, perfectly engaging and perfectly self-involved. And why shouldn’t he have been? He was on a quest for the presidency, the ultimate expression of self regard.
Over his many decades of public service, Biden, 76, has constructed an image for himself as a man of the people and a champion of women. He has suffered through great personal tragedy and redemption. A handful of women who have worked for him have attested to his unwavering support for their careers and advancement. I’m certainly glad he has no public history of sexually harassing his staff.
Biden is the kind of man — and there are so many like him — who believes he is so lovable and well-meaning that everyone, including strangers, will welcome his touch. His self-love blinds him to his own shortcomings.
Has it never occurred to a man who prides himself on empathy that touching people can raise their anxiety levels? And that this kind of body space invasion by one of the world’s most powerful men puts women and teenage girls in an impossible bind. (Not all of them, obviously. Stephanie Carter, the wife of former Defense Secy. Ash Carter, has forcefully defended Biden after a photo of him with his hands on her shoulders became, for many, Exhibit A of his handsy tendencies.)
Biden touchy feeliness became the topic du jour on Friday, after Nevada politician Lucy Flores published an essay in The Cut, recounting a moment in 2014 when the vice president touched her in a way that stunned and unsettled her just before she took the stage to give a campaign speech.
“As I was taking deep breaths and preparing myself to make my case to the crowd,” wrote Flores, a state assemblywoman who was the Democratic nominee for Nevada lieutenant governor, “I felt two hands on my shoulders. I froze. ‘Why is the vice-president of the United States touching me?’”
And then it got worse. “I felt him get closer to me from behind. He leaned further in and inhaled my hair. I was mortified … He proceeded to plant a big slow kiss on the back of my head. My brain couldn’t process what was happening. I was embarrassed. I was shocked. I was confused.”
Inevitably, some Biden supporters have attacked Flores: She’s a failed politician, she was a Bernie Sanders surrogate, etc. None of that is relevant to the charge that the vice president planted an unwanted, unbidden kiss on her head.
Instead of a heartfelt apology, Biden offered an inadequate explanation, which demonstrated that the perks of male privilege are so deeply ingrained in him that he can’t even see them.
“In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life,” he wrote, “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.”
Good heavens, Joe.
All you needed to say was, “I touched some women in ways they did not want or appreciate. I now understand that my intentions are irrelevant. I will remain open to learning about how my actions affect other people. And I will keep my hands to myself.”
This morning, a long email from Biden’s spokesman landed in my inbox, taking issue with some of the photos that have circulated about Biden — “smears and forgeries” that have given rise to “ugly urban legends” and a “cottage industry of lies.”
A few hours later, the Hartford Courant reported that a Connecticut woman has accused Biden of touching her in a creepy way in 2009.
“It wasn’t sexual, but he did grab me by the head,” Amy Lappos told the paper. “He put his hand around my neck and pulled me in to rub noses with me. When he was pulling me in, I thought he was going to kiss me on the mouth.”
Later Monday, NBC reported a new statement from Lappos: “Uninvited affection is not OK …. Referring to this type of behavior as ‘simply affection’ or ‘grandpa-like’ or ‘friendly’ is ridiculously dismissive and part of the problem. Saying ‘But Trump….’ is dangerous and sets the bar for [D]emocratic men far below where it should be.”
When I spent time with Biden during the 2008 presidential campaign, I watched Biden squeeze the shoulder of an Iowa mother who had lost her son in Iraq. Tears of appreciation and grief welled in her eyes. I watched him kiss the hands of many women, who appreciated the gallant gesture.
After so many years in politics, he told me at the time, he believed he was scandal-proof. Everything about him — the accusations of plagiarism, the Anita Hill hearings, you name it — had already been dissected to death.
On the campaign trail, he would often quote the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Haney about why, finally, America was ready to elect its first black president:
“History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.”
Biden’s history hasn’t changed. The times have. For women, it seems, the longed for tidal wave of justice has finally landed on our shores. Hope and history are finally in sync.
The new reality does not bode well for Joe Biden.