Joe Biden and the Apology That Wasn’t

His video promise to “be much more mindful” of personal space is all too familiar: It is precisely the kind of non-apology he has offered Anita Hill.

Joe Biden greets members of the audience after speaking to the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington, D.C., on March 12—amid speculation that he would soon announce a presidential run. (Andrew Harnik / AP)

On Tuesday of last week, Joe Biden gave a speech in New York City at the Biden Courage Awards. During the talk, the former vice president addressed a nearly 30-year-old matter that remains a raw one for many Americans: the way Biden, as the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, had handled the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas. And the way he had mishandled the testimony, as part of those hearings, of Anita Hill. “A brave lawyer, a really notable woman, Anita Hill, a professor, showed the courage of a lifetime talking about her experience being harassed by Clarence Thomas,” Biden told the crowd, magnanimously. “But she paid a terrible price. She was abused in the hearing. She was taken advantage of. Her reputation was attacked. I wish I could have done something.”

As the statesman and likely 2020 candidate continued with his speech, he moved from the passive voice to the declarative: “There were a bunch of white guys … hearing this testimony in the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Biden reminded the crowd. “So when Anita Hill came to testify, she faced a committee that didn’t fully understand what the hell it was all about. And to this day, I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved, given the courage she showed by reaching out to us.”

I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved. The irony of it all was thick: Joe Biden, chair of the Judiciary Committee, was precisely the person who could have prevented the abuse Hill endured. He could have allowed Angela Wright and Sukari Hardnett—both former employees of Thomas’s, both willing to speak to corroborate Hill’s testimony—to appear before the committee after Hill did. She needn’t have done it alone, under immense pressure and, she would later write, the “hot glare of the lights and cameras,” as a panel composed entirely of 14 white men wondered on national television whether she was perhaps simply an erotomaniac with an unrequited crush on her boss. But: Hill did it alone. Biden did not intervene. And Thomas was confirmed to the Court, in large part because the hearing had amounted to his word against hers—rather than his word against hers, and hers, and hers.

The hearing fomented such rage among women that it inspired a record number of them to seek and win elective office; it led then-22-year-old Rebecca Walker, the daughter of the writer Alice Walker, to take to the pages of Ms. magazine and announce the arrival of a new wave—a third wave—of feminism. (“Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger,” Walker wrote. “Turn that outrage into political power.”)

Biden, in the years since, has expressed regret for it all; he has provided several other passive-voiced explanations about what went wrong and who did the wronging. But he has never offered Hill, directly, that far more foundational thing: a simple apology. He has admitted that he owes her one; he said, when asked about it in 2017, “What I do feel badly about is the bad taste that got left in the mouth of some of the people around Anita Hill, and maybe even Anita, about whether or not the witnesses should have been called who were called and weren’t called, etc.” When reminded that Hill has said she felt the process had been unfair to her—and when asked whether he had a message for her—Biden replied with this: “The message I’ve delivered before is I am so sorry if she believes that. I am so sorry that she had to go through what she went through.”

The conditional tense. The passive voice. If. She had to go through what she went through. Biden is a political celebrity; he is also, these comments remind us, a lawyer. And his non-apology apologies have lingered, phantom-like, for so long that they’ve become a running joke in the Hill family. When an unexpected visitor rings the doorbell, Hill said in 2018, they’ll quip, “Oh, is that Joe Biden coming to apologize?”

It’s a good thing they aren’t holding their breath. Joe Biden, though he might be fond of giving bear hugs and shoulder rubs, is apparently much less fond of giving apologies. On Wednesday, a week after his latest expression of regret about the Hill-Thomas hearings, Biden posted a video to his Twitter feed, responding to another round of testimonies—offered, at that point, by four women who said that Biden had touched them in ways that made them uncomfortable.

The video—the document is ostensibly meant to quell the Creepy Uncle Joe trope that has long been a part of Biden’s story but that has revived in response to the allegations—features Biden, seated on a couch in a sun-drenched room, explaining, in a stream-of-consciousness style, why he’s behaved the way he has over the years. “I’ve always tried to make a human connection,” Biden says.

That’s my responsibility, I think. I shake hands, I hug people, I grab men and women by the shoulders and say, ‘You can do this.’ And whether they’re women, men, young, old, it’s just the way I’ve always been. It’s the way I try to show them I care about them and I’m listening. And over the years, knowing what I’ve been through—the things that I’ve faced—I’ve found that scores, if not hundreds, of people have come up to me and reached out for solace and comfort: something, anything, that might help them get through the tragedy they’re going through. And so—it’s just who I am.

And yet: “Social norms have begun to change,” Biden allows later in the video. “They’ve shifted, and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset, and I get it, I get it. I hear what they’re saying. I understand it. And I’ll be much more mindful―that’s my responsibility. That’s my responsibility, and I’ll meet it.”

There is more in this vein. For more than two minutes, Biden explains and insists and reminds and acknowledges and anthropologizes and promises to evolve with the times. He does not, however, apologize.

Instead, Biden defends himself. He repeatedly reverts to the idea of connection—eliding the fact that the women have come forward specifically to describe the ways his alleged behavior has precluded, rather than encouraged, true connection—and talks, with a note of pride, about his refusal to accept a form of politics that is “cold and antiseptic.” The video echoes, in its tone, the statement Biden issued on Sunday, through a spokesperson—the one in which he promised to listen “if it is suggested” he acted inappropriately,” via a statement that was itself responding to precisely such a suggestion. (It’s sad—so sad—it’s a sad, sad situation / And it’s getting more and more absurd … / That sorry seems to be the hardest word.) Both statements suggest the letter of the law without the spirit, apologia without a true apology: Here is Biden claiming, effectively, just as he has done with Anita Hill, that he wishes things could have gone differently. Here he is—the victim of his own desire for connection, the victim of changing norms—offering apology in a phantom form.

The video is set, seemingly, in Biden’s living room; it is vertically oriented, in the rough manner of an Instagram live-stream; its video and sound quality are notably poor. The whole thing has a distinctly first-take feel. The DIY sensibility could be an attempt to foster the thing Biden claims to want above all: to connect with people through shared authenticity—a live-streamed teeth-cleaning by another means.

The low-fi stylings, however, could also be an attempt to telegraph something else: the notion that the women’s claims aren’t as significant as many in the media have made them out to be—that those claims deserve, indeed, no more vaunted response than an unscripted video shot on an assistant’s smartphone. (Biden himself seems notably listless in the video; perhaps he is merely tired—he has had a long week—or perhaps, as my colleague Robinson Meyer put it, he is engaged in a kind of “weaponized boredom.”) The low production values, which make the video inhospitable for replay on cable and radio, might be a feature rather than a bug—a video embracing the aesthetics of Snapchat because it, too, was meant to live for a moment and then disappear into the ether.

It would be ideal for Biden: an “apology” that does its work, then goes away. A concession that obviates the politically inconvenient “creepy Joe” stories, but in the end concedes very little. Apologies themselves certainly can be weaponized (norms are changing within American politics as well)—it is all too easy, in the current environment, for a sincere apology to be translated as an admission of weakness. The Christine Blasey Ford–Brett Kavanaugh hearings of last year not only echoed the grotesqueries of the Hill-Thomas testimonies; the fist-pounding indignations of the man who denied it all and rode it out and was rewarded with a seat on the Supreme Court also exposed the norms that have refused to change.

But it is a hollow thing, to talk about being better without fully acknowledging why the need for improvement arose in the first place. It is absurd to talk about the need for listening when one is, it would seem, not yet fully ready to hear. And it is insulting to suggest that a new day has dawned when the old ones have not yet been fully accounted for. Early on Thursday morning, three more women shared stories, in The Washington Post, detailing how uncomfortable Biden had made them during their brief interactions with him. All three objected to the video, telling the Post that Biden’s message, as the paper summarized their comments, “didn’t fully address their concerns.” One of the women, Ally Coll, emphasized the problem of the phantom apology: The video reflected, she said, “a continued lack of understanding about why these stories are being told and their relevance in the #MeToo era.”