Four years ago this month, Barack Obama delivered some funny remarks at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, and the Democratic president led with a good-natured jab at his vice president.
“The fact is, I feel more loose and relaxed than ever,” Obama said. “Those Joe Biden shoulder massages – they’re like magic.” As part of a faux conversation, the president’s routine quickly added, “You should try one. Oh, you have?”
People laughed at the time for a reason: Biden earned a reputation for showing physical affection with many of the people he interacted with. Four years later, however, it’s hard not to see Obama’s joke in a new light.
Lucy Flores wrote a piece for New York magazine about what she says transpired when Biden appeared in Nevada in 2014 in support of her bid for statewide office.
I found my way to the holding room for the speakers, where everyone was chatting, taking photos, and getting ready to speak to the hundreds of voters in the audience. Just before the speeches, we were ushered to the side of the stage where we were lined up by order of introduction. As I was taking deep breaths and preparing myself to make my case to the crowd, I felt two hands on my shoulders. I froze. “Why is the vice-president of the United States touching me?”
I felt him get closer to me from behind. He leaned further in and inhaled my hair. I was mortified. I thought to myself, “I didn’t wash my hair today and the vice-president of the United States is smelling it. And also, what in the actual f**k? Why is the vice-president of the United States smelling my hair?” He proceeded to plant a big slow kiss on the back of my head. My brain couldn’t process what was happening. I was embarrassed. I was shocked. I was confused.
Flores went on to note that after the interaction with Biden, she was made to feel “uneasy, gross, and confused.” She added, “The vice-president of the United States of America had just touched me in an intimate way reserved for close friends, family, or romantic partners – and I felt powerless to do anything about it.”
Yesterday, Biden addressed the allegation, saying in a statement that “not once – never – did I believe I acted inappropriately.”
“In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort,” Biden said. “And not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention. I may not recall these moments the same way, and I may be surprised at what I hear.”
“But we have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention,” he said. “And I will. I will also remain the strongest advocate I can be for the rights of women. I will fight to build on the work I’ve done in my career to end violence against women and ensure women are treated with the equality they deserve. I will continue to surround myself with trusted women advisers who challenge me to see different perspectives than my own. And I will continue to speak out on these vitally-important issues where there is much more progress to be made and crucial fights that must be waged and won.”
As best as I can tell, at least as of this morning, there is no video of the interaction, so it’s difficult, if not impossible, to independently assess exactly what transpired between Biden and Flores.
That said, the former vice president’s reputation is rooted in unambiguous fact. The Washington Post noted overnight, “In some of the photos, Joe Biden is behind the women, his hands on their shoulders, as he whispers in their ears. He embraces Hillary Clinton, his hands around her torso. He kisses a young girl’s head, his fingers framing her face, as she looks blankly toward the camera. This affectionate and sometimes intimate physical style is one of the former vice president’s trademarks, a defining feature of the warm and upbeat persona he has built during more than four decades in the national spotlight.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s always appropriate, and it also doesn’t mean that those on the receiving end of Biden’s physical style are always comfortable with his physicality.
The Atlantic ran a piece on Biden nearly a decade ago that seems relevant anew. “Joe Biden doesn’t just meet you, he engulfs you,” the piece noted. “There’s the direct contact with his blue eyes, the firm handshake while his other hand grasps your arm, the flash of those famously perfect white teeth, and an immediate frontal assault on your personal space.”
Because the details matter, it’s probably worth emphasizing that, to my knowledge, Biden hasn’t been accused by anyone of making unwanted sexual advances or actions that constitute harassment. But that doesn’t change the fact that his displays of physical affection, that may have gone overlooked in an earlier era, haven’t always been welcome.
Even if Biden’s intentions were friendly, it doesn’t make perspectives such as Flores’ unimportant.
The political impact of this is, at least for now, difficult to discern. It’s no secret that the former vice president is weighing a 2020 campaign, and while it’s easy to imagine a story like this forcing the Delaware Democrat to pause and reconsider, it’s also possible Biden and his team will move forward with their plans, confident in the ability to overcome the concerns.
If so, Biden should expect a lot of questions about his gregariousness, and the proper level of affection people should show.
Other 2020 presidential hopefuls have already taken note of Flores’ article, and should Biden launch a campaign, others would likely do the same.
Postscript: Republican efforts to exploit this story may be more difficult than they realize. Kellyanne Conway was on Fox News yesterday, for example, and said, “If anybody just types in ‘Creepy Uncle Joe videos’ you come up with a treasure trove.”
Perhaps. But unless Conway is also prepared to comment on what happens when someone searches online for information about Donald Trump and sexual misconduct toward women, perhaps the White House should sit this one out.