Editorial: Running for president in the #MeToo era
The first #MeToo allegations of the 2020 presidential race hit over the weekend, letting the general public in on a secret that apparently was already known in political circles: that former Vice President Joe Biden can be a bit too “handsy” with women and girls.
In fact, there’s plenty of photographic documentation of this. But Biden’s behavior didn’t draw much scrutiny until an essay appeared in New York Magazine’s “The Cut” on Friday in which Lucy Flores, a state assemblywoman in Nevada, described an encounter when she was running for lieutenant governor in 2014. During a political rally, she said, Biden came up behind her, put both hands on her shoulders and gave her a long, slow kiss on the back of her head just before she headed to the stage. If it was meant, as some have suggested, as a show of avuncular encouragement, it didn’t work. Flores said she felt embarrassed, shocked and confused. Since then, several other people have recounted similar experiences.
With more than a year and a half to go before election day, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be more such unsavory disclosures involving the large field of presidential candidates. So perhaps we as a society can use this time to think about how we respond to such allegations. As this page has noted many times, the #MeToo movement is a healthy one for a society that has for far too long ignored these serious issues. Women’s complaints should not be ignored or pooh-poohed or dismissed out of hand; sexual harassment should be taken seriously and addressed on a case-by-case basis.
There is, of course, a spectrum of bad behavior; not every offense should be career-ending; not all transgressions are equally unforgivable. Some require a reprimand while at the other extreme, some require criminal charges. Meanwhile, the useful and important discussion about how men should, and should not, treat female colleagues, co-workers, subordinates and service workers should continue.
It’s important to note the incident Flores reported was in 2014. This is not to offer an excuse for Biden, but to acknowledge that since then there has been a seismic cultural shift that has recalibrated societal norms and colored past behavior in new shades of gray. Men of all ages have been confronted with the reality that behavior they might have seen as inoffensive might instead have been taken as patronizing, offensive or creepy.
Biden seems bewildered by the outcry over what he called “expressions of affection.” After all, he says, he’s been an advocate for the rights of women and authored the Violence Against Women Act.
But he also said wisely that he will pay better attention in the future. That’s a good idea. Check your behavior before you get checked, because the days in which a president or a presidential candidate could blithely massage the shoulders of another world leader or rub noses with a volunteer or kiss a state assemblywoman on the back of her head are happily gone.
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