Joe Biden’s whole presidential candidacy would be a bet that the country hasn’t changed too much for a 76-year-old man who’s been in politics for nearly half a century. But the crisis rocking him for the past few days is a test of how much the culture has shifted.
The former vice president was very close to getting into the race before Lucy Flores’s essay was published on Friday, and he’s just as close now, people who’ve talked to him say. He was not surprised that his touching would be used as a political issue against him, but he was surprised and dismayed to hear he had made Flores uncomfortable.
But Biden is telling people that as seriously as he is taking the situation, if he decides not to run, it won’t be because of Flores’s interpretation of a kiss on the back of her head or similar situations involving others who might step forward—which he doesn’t deny happened but which he says never had demeaning intent, sexual or otherwise. Beyond a written statement, though, he hasn’t spoken publicly, even as allies have been telling people that they believe what he’s facing is part of a concerted, coordinated attack.
“He’s a presumed front-runner if he decides to get in—there are going to be a lot of attacks coming at him left and right,” said a person close to Biden. “There’s nothing about this that is giving him second thoughts if he decides to.”
For Biden, 45 years in public life is 45 years of hugs, kisses, foreheads leaned against foreheads, shoulder touches, and gripping hands. It’s been right out in the open in photos and videos, goes the argument. But that conviction can obscure how much the sensibilities have changed.
For many, this is not enough to excuse the behavior. “It’s important for the vice president and others to understand is, it isn’t what was intended—it’s how it was received,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Biden friend and the most prominent female Democratic official, said on Tuesday morning, speaking at an event hosted by Politico. “To say, ‘I’m sorry that you were offended’ is not an apology. ‘I’m sorry I invaded your space,’ not ‘I’m sorry you were offended’—because that’s not accepting of the fact that people think differently about communication.”
Reflecting the changing sensibilities, Pelosi added that she is a member of the “straight-arm club” of only shaking hands—though in the past, she’s often greeted people with kisses, including Biden and President Barack Obama.
“He’s handsy—and some women are okay with it, and some are not,” said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic consultant. “The defense isn’t ‘Some women were okay with it.’”
Demonstrating the difficulty people are having in discussing Biden is Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. A leader in combatting sexual assault long before launching her own presidential campaign, she said in 2017, after calling for the resignation of then-Senator Al Franken: “I think when we start having to talk about the differences between sexual assault and sexual harassment and unwanted groping, you are having the wrong conversation. You need to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘None of it is okay. None of it is acceptable.’”
Asked about the current allegation against Biden, she told reporters in Washington, D.C., on Monday afternoon, “Based on what I read, Lucy Flores felt demeaned. It’s not okay.” But when I asked whether the senator felt Flores’s allegations had been over her line in the sand and whether she felt they should disqualify Biden, a campaign spokeswoman wouldn’t say, despite several requests.
And Alyssa Milano, the actress and vocal women’s-rights advocate, rose to Biden’s defense on Monday. “I respect Lucy Flores’ decision to share her story and agree with Biden that we all must pay attention to it. But, just as we must believe women that decide to come forward, we cannot assume all women’s experiences are the same,” she wrote on Twitter. “I believe that Joe Biden’s intent has never been to make anyone uncomfortable, and that his kind, empathetic leadership is what our country needs. Especially now.”
The Flores allegations and any others that could come out will be problems, Biden and his team know. They think, though, that he’ll benefit from being seen as caring and endearing for behavior that Flores and others might have found uncomfortable or paternalistic.
“People know him. He is an empathetic person, he is a caring person, he is a physical person with men and women, he grabs your hands, he hugs you,” the person close to Biden said. “That’s an asset; that’s not a liability. People connect to him in a unique way. That’s a good thing. That’s a powerful thing. That’s why people love him so much.”
The former vice president and his allies say the proof that Flores and the people who’ve backed her up have misunderstood Biden is in his statement on Sunday morning. In it, he acknowledged that he never considered he was making people uncomfortable before last week. But now that he knows, he thinks every woman should speak out, and he’ll listen. He pointed to years of work against bullying sexual dynamics—on the Violence Against Women Act—and against campus sexual assault. And he said he’d promoted the careers of dozens of women who worked for him.
To anyone who wants to put him anywhere near the same category as Donald Trump—a contrast Flores said she feared would play out in a general election—Biden will take that comparison. There’s no likening a few cringeworthy moments to two dozen claims of sexual assault against a man who’s bragged about forcing himself on women and then has mocked them and disputed their claims that he did. “He’s a fundamentally different person. He would never want to make somebody uncomfortable,” the person close to Biden said.
“When women accuse Trump of something, he calls them liars & degrades them. Biden’s saying, I didn’t intend to make anyone uncomfortable but I’ll listen & learn. If respectful statements like that aren’t welcomed, we’re just encouraging the Trump double down & smear approach,” tweeted Mimi Rocah, a former federal prosecutor and an NBC News analyst.
Frustration and exasperation are surging in the Biden orbit. People close to him say the allegations don’t represent an honest conversation about interactions between men and women, or how he’d fit into the Democratic race. Rather, they think what’s coming out is about trying to cut the legs out from a popular politician who the women coming forward don’t want to be president anyway. Flores, they say, was still writing about proudly supporting Bernie Sanders when she posted an Instagram photo of the Vermont senator with his hands on her shoulders eight weeks ago.
And then they point to Amy Lappos, who told the Hartford Courant on Monday about Biden grabbing her by the head and putting “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.” She also wrote that she doesn’t think any man should be running, and has a picture from a black-and-white photo shoot of all five female presidential candidates standing together.
Flores’s account, and one by Stephanie Carter, the wife of former Obama administration Defense Secretary Ash Carter, are not being received equally.
Flores’s piece is of a previously missed moment at a public event, and an uncomfortable kiss on the back of the head and the smelling of hair, that had never been told publicly before Friday. It ran on Friday afternoon as a first-person New York magazine essay and has since been challenged in part by a person she mentions telling about the incident (though who, notably, given the circumstances, quietly signed on to work for Biden last month).
Carter’s essay ran on Sunday evening on Medium, about the day her husband was sworn in as Barack Obama’s secretary of defense in 2015. Flores describes the moment as “nuzzling the neck of the defense secretary’s wife” and proof of a pattern. Carter recalls, “He leaned in to tell me ‘thank you for letting him do this’ and kept his hands on my shoulders as a means of offering his support.”
Of Flores, Carter writes, “I don’t know her, but I absolutely support her right to speak her truth and she should be, like all women, believed. But her story is not mine. The Joe Biden in my picture is a close friend helping someone get through a big day, for which I will always be grateful.” Biden’s aides say they did not ask Carter to write the essay in response to Flores.
Even beyond the presidential election, the conversation has tipped into very difficult territory for the Democratic Party, and the country overall, which is less than two years into rethinking what is acceptable about men’s approach to women and what level of accountability there should be for behavior that had long gone unchallenged. And it’s all going on in the swirl of rethinking political coverage and a media environment where the distinctions between opinion and reporting have gotten hazy.
Flores’s allegations have been covered extensively. Potential presidential-campaign opponents have said they believe her, but have said nothing about Carter. A narrative has taken hold. Secondary stories have been written—“Joe Biden’s Affectionate, Physical Style With Women Comes Under Scrutiny” was the headline in The Washington Post. “Lucy Flores Isn’t Alone. Joe Biden’s Got a Long History of Touching Women Inappropriately” read the headline on Vox, which declared over the weekend, “The media gave Biden a pass for years. It won’t in 2020.”
Biden’s spokesman Bill Russo, meanwhile, issued a long “Note on Recent Coverage” to reporters on Monday afternoon, highlighting the Carter essay and comments from Delaware Senator Chris Coons, a Biden ally whose teenage daughter is another star of a viral photo of Biden as she appears to pull away from him with a pained expression, his hand on her arms. Coons says that Biden was offering friendly advice and that the photo was misread.
“The important conversation about these issues are not advanced, nor are any criticisms of Vice President Biden validated, by the continued misrepresentation of the Carter and Coons moments, or a failure to be vigilant about a cottage industry of lies,” Russo wrote.
Women who’ve worked with and for Biden have been stepping forward, on Twitter and in op-eds, amazed by what they say has been twisted here.
“In my experience, he is warm and affectionate with women (and men). But never have I found his actions inappropriate or uncomfortable,” former Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice tweeted on Monday evening.
“Lucy Flores has told her story and I am proud that the VP has said that she should be listened to. I also believe he did not mean to make her or anyone uncomfortable and while she was uncomfortable that doesn’t mean every woman he has hugged was uncomfortable,” one woman in her 30s, who is a former Biden aide, wrote in a text.
How damaging this proves might depend on what Biden does in response to the controversy in the next few days. “I think that he’s actually someone that can have this conversation in a real and serious way, and that’s important, because women often are in these situations where we feel like we’ve been physically violated or somebody’s encroached upon our physical space,” Zerlina Maxwell said Monday on MSNBC. Maxwell, the progressive radio host who is also on the Ending Violence Against Women advisory council for the Biden Foundation, called the Flores story “bad” for the former vice president. But he can redeem himself, she said, if he uses the moment to start a real conversation around the issue.