Joe Biden has become problematic. Yes, him too.
In a convergence of the tribalistic crazy that has infected our politics, the former vice president has managed to find himself a target of hungry, outraged opportunists across the spectrum who have had just about enough of his hair sniffing. Defenders of an unapologetic serial sexual assaulter, and the pussy-grabber-in-chief himself, spent last week gleefully pretending that they thought Biden was the real creep.
And certain socialist-curious Democrats were quick to call the Cancel Cops, obviously hoping that the fallout would knock Biden off his perch atop the Democratic primary polls.
But here’s the thing about these critics, left and right: Vanishingly few of them seem to sincerely believe that Biden’s enthusiastic shoulder rubbing would inhibit him from being a successful president.
Their real complaints with him are along much different vectors: That he is a “neoliberal capitalist” (the Bernie bros); or that there are women or people of color who are better options (intersectional progressives); or that he’s a liberal who needs to be owned (Trump supporters).
In a way, this isn’t surprising. Just about every argument these days adheres to any-club-at-hand rules. We’re long past the point where people try to convince others of the rightness of their arguments. These days, people don’t even really believe their own arguments. They’re just trying to score points, or get retweets, or whatever.
The main exception to these bad faith actors are the women who have come forward to say that Biden’s unwanted squeezing or hugging made them uncomfortable. What they are bringing forward are experiences that can lead to constructive learning for men like Biden who, based on all available evidence, are genuinely trying to be affectionate but creating real discomfort.
The problem is that the cesspool that is our public discourse doesn’t really leave much room for a healthy discussion about personal boundaries.
Instead phony rage peddlers are using these stories to try to turn Biden into a memeable, mockable, unserious creepster.
Here’s the deal with Biden. He’s a toucher. And the fact that he has been invasive of people’s personal space has been documented by CSPAN for decades. Those same videos have shown Biden being Biden with men and kids and pretty much anyone who got super soaked at summer gatherings at the Naval Observatory. Mark Bowden wrote in 2010 of his encounter with Biden, that the Vice President “doesn’t just meet you, he engulfs you.”
Does anyone who didn’t feel like their space was violated really care about this? No. If the Democratic pols, Bernie bros, and progressive activists trying to kill Biden 2020 on the launchpad were serious in their concerns about him, they had eight years to make the case. Yet there were never any calls for Biden’s head when he was a sitting vice president or discussion about replacing him on the ticket with someone less handsy in 2012. When confronted about this point, several liberals sent me a link to a single Daily Show take out on Biden in 2015, seven years into his presidency. If a jokey Samantha Bee segment is all the accountability that was needed then, I don’t understand why Biden is being “cancelled” now.
And as for the Trumpy Republicans going after Biden . . . ayfkm? Twenty-three women have accused the current president of sexual misconduct, almost all of them mirroring the sexual assault modus operandi that Trump bragged about on the Access Hollywood tape. Trump had previously boasted to Howard Stern about how he would walk in on teenage girls getting dressed at beauty pageants saying, “I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it. You know, I’m inspecting.” A pro-Trump PAC put out an ad criticizing Biden with the tagline, “our kids are watching.” No kidding. They are watching you and what you are doing is despicable.
It should be easy to set aside the propaganda and distinguish between an unapologetic, sickening cad who “moves on women like a bitch” and a politician who is accused of invading personal space. But again, it’s 2019. There are no trusted referees, and faking outrage has replaced conversation, argument, and debate.
But it isn’t just the actions that we should be able to distinguish between. It’s the motivations. Trump is a narcissist who has—by his own accounting—assaulted women because he believes women exist to build up his ego.
Biden’s public touchiness looks much more rooted in the need for emotional connections—to both find comfort in and give support to others.
If you know anything about his life’s story, this desire is perfectly understandable.
Because if Joe Biden is expert in anything, he is expert in the management of grief. He knows on a deep, personal level the primal human need for connection.
In 2012 Biden gave one of the most wrenching and raw speeches from a politician in the past decade, speaking in front of families of fallen soldiers at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. You should watch it.
Biden spoke about his experience after the death of his first wife and daughter in a car wreck. He talked about the suicidal thoughts he had, and told stories so agonizing and personal that at times he couldn’t bear to finish them and instead trailed off with, “nevermind, nevermind.”
As he spoke about learning to move forward, you could see how the management of his grief took on a physical element. He told the audience that the relationship with their surviving family members will “be like a bond of steel that runs through your chest and theirs and wraps you together,” and that the family members of the deceased loved one is “blood of my blood, bone of my bone.”
“Most of us go through what you are going through totally alone . . .” he said. “After awhile you get tired of relying on your family too much.”
But he said that those people left behind had to “hang on to each other.”
I’ll say it again: You should go watch that speech.
As vice president, Biden was called on to grieve with people more times than most of us could bear. Parents who lost their kids at Sandy Hook. A mother who lost children to meningitis. A man who had lost two children and a grandchild. Five years later, it was Biden was facing unimaginable grief again, as his son Beau passed away. Politico’s Michael Kruse talked to people at Beau’s funeral who were astounded at how the vice president wound up consoling others. “People were just coming up and bawling in his arms, and I can hear him saying, ‘Yes it’s going to be alright, it’s going to be alright’,” said his friend Fred Sears.
Last year in Omaha Biden met Sue Roberts whose child, like Beau, had died of brain cancer. When she told him about her tragedy, Biden took Roberts and her daughter aside to talk. He embraced them. Roberts said that it was “comforting to be able to speak with someone who gets it.”
Stephanie Carter, wife of Ash Carter, was captured in a picture that purported to show creepy Biden behavior. But Carter writes that Biden was giving her support on a tough day and it was the mob that descended on her afterward asking about it that had made her uncomfortable.
This isn’t a man leering at underage girls getting dressed for a beauty pageant. This isn’t a guy doing locker room talk. They’re the actions of someone who cares about people and is trying to make their lives a tiny bit better. In some of those occasions, he was awkward and uncomfortable—clearly. In some instances, he made women less, not more, comfortable. And those women’s discomfort is important.
But you can stipulate to all of that and still insist that in a rational world, intent matters. And if you don’t want our politics to be dominated by repugnant, unapologetic womanizers or robotic professional careerists, then maybe we should try to at least understand when the politician is a normal-ish human being who’s acting in good faith.
Maybe we don’t need to turn everything into kabuki theater.
If you want to oppose Joe Biden because he’s too centrist, or too socialist, or too old school for your taste—that’s fine.
But let’s stop trying to turn Joe Biden into something he isn’t and show a little grace. He deserves better. But more importantly, so does our politics.