Joe Biden’s Deviant Decency

The former vice president isn’t like other Washington power brokers. That’s what makes him great.

Joe Biden
Andreas Gebert / Reuters

“Is Joe Biden a bad man?” asks the headline of a Washington Post piece about his interactions with women. Anyone who has seen former Vice President Joseph Biden in private settings knows that his attention strays in un-Washingtonian ways. I sure do—but in my experience, that’s all to the good.

Decorum seemed far from Biden’s mind when he went off-schedule to stop by the Cabinet Room on June 10, 2013. He slung an arm around my husband, who was about to be nominated by President Barack Obama as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers; he hugged my in-laws, whom he had never met; and then he homed in on my kindergartner. The vice president sat down and whispered to my anxious kid about the small Schleich knight he was clutching. My son relaxed, and slumped back into Biden’s lap. At that point, an aide interrupted to say that Biden was overdue for a meeting with Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi. Still, he refused to rush. He called over my daughter and his photographer for this photo:

White House Press Office

Why am I telling another “Biden being Biden” story? Because I believe that the character of the person who occupies the Oval Office is of the utmost importance, and because I believe that Biden, far from a bad man, is an unusually good one.

On the single occasion when my family was invited to a gathering on the grounds of the Naval Observatory, the vice president crossed a patio to greet my kids, introduced them to similarly aged guests, showed them where to find towels, hauled floats out of a shed, and cajoled them into the pool. This story shows me the same thing I see any time any host stops mingling to meet the needs of his least important guests—here’s someone who cares for the meekest among us.

Eve Gerber

The new narrative about Biden suggests that he is exploitative and solipsistic in his encounters with women. Although I did not witness what the women who have come forward to criticize Biden experienced, and only they can say how these encounters felt to them, it seems relevant that Biden is touchy-feely with everyone—not just women, but children and men, too. My kids fought to be plus-ones for Biden events because of the type of behavior that is being called into question. He habitually nuzzled, hugged, and kidded around with them. But he wasn’t just physical. He tuned in emotionally. In the below photo, while a long line of influentials wait for his attention, Biden is listening to my 7-year-old’s concerns about Syrian kids.

White House Press Office

After these encounters, I asked the question of the moment: Why does the guy act this way? Those who cite power dynamics are both exactly wrong and onto something. In Washington, warm welcomes are generally reserved for the most influential or the highest-dollar campaign donors. Sometimes that policy is explicit: You get a faux-intimate photo in exchange for a large PAC contribution. Biden’s disregard of this protocol is telling. He enters a room, just as he enters a debate about union rights or domestic violence, with a predisposition to lend an ear to the least powerful.

White House Press Office

Judging from the reaction to the recent spate of Biden stories, time is up on avuncular attention, now interpreted as at best pernicious paternalism and at worst septuagenarian sexual harassment. In the cultural revolution under way in America, men like Biden are invited to offer their head if their prior actions deviated from the new norms.

No doubt, character counts. I, for one, admire Biden’s deviant decency.