April 8, 2019
Uncle Joe and the Perils of Good Intentions
Americans have been on a long road trip with Joe Biden. The former Vice-President’s hot mikes, his “handsiness,” “gaffes,” and “loose-lipped and emotive manner” are all a matter of family lore. Everybody knows a story or two or ten of Uncle Joe whispering in a woman’s ear, clasping her waist, or smelling her hair.
As Biden, now seventy-six, prepares to enter the 2020 Presidential race, several women have come forward to describe deeply uncomfortable situations involving his incursions into their personal space.
What’s changed is not the severity or nature of the offenses—no one has accused Biden of sexual misconduct. It’s just that the voices narrating the scenes have switched, so that we’re looking at the same gestures through a different lens. We’re looking through the lens of Lucy Flores, who wrote in The Cut that her encounter with Biden before a campaign event in 2014 left her feeling “uneasy, gross, and confused.” Or the lens of Amy Lappos, who said that, at a 2009 fund-raiser, Biden grabbed her around the neck and rubbed noses with her. “It’s not affection,” Lappos told the Hartford Courant. “It’s sexism or misogyny.”
On Wednesday, Biden tweeted a video acknowledging the accusations. “The boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset, and I get it. . . . I’ll be much more mindful,” he said. But he stopped short of apologizing. “I’ve always tried to make a human connection,” he said. “Life is about connecting to people,” he also said. The statement gently implied that Biden’s critics were fundamentally untethered—misunderstanding not only him but also the higher purpose of their time on earth. On Friday, Biden appeared more defiant. “I’m not sorry for anything that I have ever done,” he said. “I’ve never been disrespectful intentionally to a man or a woman—that’s not the reputation I’ve had since I was in high school, for God’s sake.” The same day, at a conference of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, in Washington, D.C., Biden joked about getting permission from the union’s president, Lonnie Stephenson, before putting his arm around Stephenson’s shoulder; then he made a similar joke about a child who joined him onstage.
What Biden perceives as intimacy, as empathic connection, may be, in fact, polite forbearance. Every woman knows men who remind her of Joe Biden. (If familiarity is his brand, then women are all too familiar.) These men radiate physicality and friendly exuberance, like messy Labradors—and who wants to seem uptight to a Labrador? Biden’s charisma, for those who see it as such, depends on him being slightly naughty, and then on us discerning his good (or at least harmless) intentions and giving him a pass. It might feel small and cruel not to give him a pass. On some level, a politician as intuitive and personable as Biden must realize that people dislike feeling small and cruel.
Although Biden has been in the public eye for nearly fifty years, his portrayal in the press as a well-meaning rogue is only about a decade old. He has always been a fundamentally sympathetic character, owing to the terrible family tragedies he has endured: the death of his first wife and baby daughter in a car accident, in 1972, and, in 2015, the death, from cancer, of his forty-six-year-old son, Beau. Still, Biden was long seen as a standard politico: slippery, telegenic, vaguely compromised. His first Presidential campaign flamed out, in 1987, owing to his plagiarism both on the stump and back in law school. In 1991, he oversaw Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, where Anita Hill faced an all-white, all-male panel of interrogators, and where he declined to subpoena at least three witnesses who could have corroborated Thomas’s pattern of harassing behavior. “Biden was oily and unctuous throughout,” Howard Rosenberg wrote in the Los Angeles Times. (“I’ve worked my whole life to empower women,” Biden said in the video on Wednesday.)
Only in 2007, as he considered entering the Presidential race (“I’m a tactile politician and I trust my feel, and I’m telling you I think there’s some pace on the ball”), did the word “blundering” start to appear in coverage of Biden, partly because of a remark Biden made about the then candidate Barack Obama. “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” Biden said. As similar anecdotes began to surface—Biden also referred to Obama as “Barack America,” and encouraged a man in a wheelchair to “stand up” and let the crowd see him—the main cliché about Biden became that he was infelicitously blurty. Media narratives coalesced around words like “quirky,” “anachronistic,” “effusive,” “undisciplined,” “garrulous,” and “folksy.” Wolf Blitzer highlighted the senator’s penchant for “off-the-cuff comments”; Politico called him “a reliable fount of gaffes, awkward statements, and hyperbole.”
On January 20, 2009, a new narrative twist arrived, with an article in The Onion titled “Joe Biden Shows Up to Inauguration with Ponytail.” The piece marked the début of the comedy Web site’s Diamond Joe character: a muscle-car-loving, Pearl Jam–singing playboy prone to causing trouble at Dave & Buster’s. (Sample headlines: “Biden to Cool His Heels in Mexico for Awhile,” “White House Infested with Bedbugs After Biden Brings in Recliner Off the Curb.”) The Onion’s fictional Biden made hypermasculine tropes look not only unthreatening but delightful. They were the satirical equivalent of petting the Labrador on the head. A slick, womanizing Biden, a shirtless Biden who soaped up his Trans Am on the White House driveway and starred in Hennessy ads (“Sensual, Powerful, Biden”), was, oddly, a familiar Biden—which is partly why the joke worked so well for so long. (It also worked because of the strong contrast with the impeccably statesmanlike Obama, a deft comedian who was, unlike Biden, always in on his own joke.)
By 2010, the “wacky uncle” meme was in full flower. “Joe Biden,” a reporter wrote for the Washington Times, “has acquired . . . immunity. He regularly says things ranging from goofy to merely silly to outrageous, but the passage of the years has made him a lovable old uncle that nobody any longer takes seriously.” In Marie Claire, Alexandra Jacobs described Biden as glad-handing “every politico, getting in close, squeezing their shoulders.” Of the candidate and his second wife, Jacobs wrote, “Joe and Jill Biden exude a marital heat uncommon in buttoned-up Beltway circles.” Jacobs also quoted the Obama aide Valerie Jarrett: “They’re very, very outwardly demonstrative.” (Even Jill Biden, in her forthcoming memoir, admits that, early in their relationship,
Joe’s ebullient courtship left her feeling “strange and uncomfortable,” and that she “sometimes found all that affection draining.”) “Affectionate and freewheeling,” the Times called Uncle Joe, in 2013. The reporter Amy Chozick revealed that, when speaking to his colleague Hillary Clinton on the phone, during President Obama’s first term, Biden sometimes signed off with the words “I love you, darling.”
The next significant update to the Biden mythology came in 2015. A viral photo of the Vice-President massaging the shoulders of Stephanie Carter, the wife of Defense Secretary Ash Carter, during Carter’s swearing-in, caused pundits to snarkily invoke the “ick factor” and the “yuck factor.” (In a Medium post, Carter defended Biden’s “attempt to support me.”) The hosts of the “Today” show pulled together a slide show of images of Biden cozying up to women. “Joe Biden is the most entertaining Vice-President ever,” Carson Daly said, while Willie Geist observed that “he’s getting a little handsy,” and Al Roker smirked at the “Vice-Presidential magic fingers.” (These types of segments are what Flores is invoking when she writes, “Despite the steady stream of pictures and the occasional article, Biden retained his title of America’s Favorite Uncle. On occasion, that title was downgraded to America’s Creepy Uncle, but that in and of itself implied a certain level of acceptance.”)
If Biden is not sorry for anything he has ever done, it’s in part because most men and some women have been telling him for a long time that he has nothing to be sorry for, or, if he does, that it is mitigated by its entertainment value. And it’s conceivable that there is nothing inherently wrong with a kiss on the back of the head. But it’s irrefutable that there is nothing sacrosanct about it, either. A nose rub is a curious hill to die on. Biden’s identity is predicated on harmlessness, and he must cling to that identity even after harm has been demonstrated. Biden may believe that Lucy Flores, Amy Lappos, and other women felt demeaned by their encounters with him, but he also believes that their misunderstanding of his good intentions forfeits their claims to our sympathy. His brand is empathic connection, and to maintain it he must resist empathically connecting with the discomfort and embarrassment of the women he attempted to empathically connect with, using his hands and mouth.
If some Democratic women still have reservoirs of affection for Uncle Joe, they may be sourced in part from one of his greatest political performances: when he faced off against Sarah Palin in the Vice-Presidential debate in October, 2008. In her preview of the event, the Slate writer Dahlia Lithwick offered Biden some prescient advice. Palin “will attack, and you will smile,” Lithwick wrote. “She will make jokes, and you will laugh. Do whatever you need to do—take four Percocet, deploy Zen breathing techniques—to prevent yourself from attacking this woman.” That is exactly how Biden proceeded. The beaming and genial man who showed up onstage deflected Palin’s offensives with such pleasantness that one would have thought he’d spent a lifetime learning to prioritize and reflect back other people’s feelings. It was the first Vice-Presidential debate since 1984 to feature a woman, and Biden flipped the gender script. He was deferential, ever-smiling, on point. He performed polite forbearance. He played the girl. One wonders if he remembers what that felt like.