Our nation is dangerously divided. A house cannot stand when some people are totally into being hugged by strangers and others, who are normal, hate it.
Long ago — before the Age of Hugging — I lived in New York City, a place known for its firm handshakes and disdain for all human emotion other than anger. When I came to L.A. for vacation, my high school friend Ross greeted me at LAX with a hug. I did not know why Ross did this. Was Ross telling me he was gay? Had I disrespected Ross’ gang and he’d put a hit on me? Was there some giant insect on my back?
Joe Biden is like Ross, not me. Because of this, he has been castigated by several women he hugged, nose-rubbed, head-kissed, hair-smelled and shoulder-rubbed in public. He’s also been lauded by women he’s done these things to. When I polled my Facebook friends, those who had been Bidened — two female, one male — all said they enjoyed it. Lisa Cohen, a documentary filmmaker, sent me a photo in which Biden was not touching her. “I was disappointed,” she told me. “It was even Valentine’s Day!” These people are clearly huggers.
As a non-hugger, I was surprised by Joe Biden when I spent two days following him around Iowa as he ran for president in 2007, which is a thing he really did and you can look up if you don’t believe me. The first words in my notebook from that trip are “a little slimy.” It’s not that he was lecherous. It’s that he was a used car salesman. He winked and said things such as, “I did it with my own little paw,” and “Why don’t I just hush up?” Iowans of every gender, every age, got a touch, a bright smile, a deep glance, a wink and their first name used several times.
The first thing I saw Biden do was cheerfully sit for an interview with a kid reporter from Scholastic magazine. This is how it started:
“Honey — I shouldn’t have said ‘honey,’” he said, turning to the adult reporters in the room. Then he asked the girl, “How old are you?” When she told him he was 10, Biden said, loudly, “I want to show I was addressing a lovely 10-year-old reporter.” I was surprised he didn’t then apologize for using the word “lovely” before proclaiming the loveliness of all children. If it was that exhausting being Joe Biden in 2007, I can’t imagine how impossible it is today.
On Wednesday, Biden acknowledged he needs to be “more mindful about respecting personal space in the future.” So I called Julia Cook, who has written 90 children’s books, including “Personal Space Camp.” She offered to read me the entire book over the phone, so I sat on my rug criss-cross applesauce and tried to soak up wisdom for Biden.
In the book, Louis, a kid who is really into space exploration, likes to pretend he’s a lunar lander, by banging into another kid’s leg. He also likes to pretend he’s a comet who sits on another kid. Luckily, Louis never pretends he’s a space alien who subsists on the odors released by women’s hair. Principal Goodkid gives Louis a hula hoop for a rocket and says there’s only room for one person per spacecraft, which is a good tactic so long as Louis never sees a movie about Apollo 11.
Cook explained that everyone’s bubble space is different, which is one of the things she travels to schools around the world to talk about. Also, sex abuse. I’m sure I’ll be calling back before this election is over.
But for now, I asked about the Biden hugs. She sighed empathetically about Biden’s situation, in much the same way Biden might sigh empathetically about his situation. “I feel bad, because what used to be OK might not be OK anymore and it’s hard for us old geezers to figure out,” said Cook, who is 54, and therefore one Bella Hadid younger than Biden. If Cook were brought on as Biden’s Campaign Advisor for Non-Creepy Communications, she says she’d tell him, “People are weird now. Don’t assume anything when it comes to human touch.” Then she’d make him sit in a hula hoop.
She’d also teach him acceptable forms of modern touch. “There are ways to hug a person that are absolutely not sexual at all. There’s front-versus-back. There’s a pinky hug. There’s a shoulder nudge,” she explained. I was not at all familiar with these hug options. “Front-versus-back” seemed particularly problematic. But Cook explained that “front-versus-back” does not involve sneaking up behind a woman and draping your arms around her. “I stand next to you, but I’m facing one direction and you’re facing another. My right hip is touching your right hip,” she said. This did not clear things up at all and frankly, sounded terrifying. I wasn’t even great with the idea of doing pinky stuff.
In the end, Cook suggested Biden ask for hug consent. And stop entirely with the other attempts at affection. “There are certain things you don’t do in public. You don’t smell your pits, you don’t pick your nose and you don’t smell other people’s hair,” she explained. Clearly she has material for her 91st children’s book.
“If he wants to be our president, he has to change,” she explained. I agreed and thanked Cook for her help. “Love you lots,” she said.
“Did you say, ‘Love you lots?’” I asked.
She asked if that was inappropriate and I told her it was not. It made me feel great. But I wouldn’t try it on the campaign trail.
Joel Stein is the author of the forthcoming book “In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You’re Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book.”
1:41 p.m.: This article was updated to include Joe Biden’s statement.