Joe Biden has always had a ready handshake for the men or warm hug for the women in his constituency. Like a 20th Century matinee star, he carries his own old-fashioned movie-hero image of what a people’s president looks like, and a tragic narrative that shaped his life. In 1972, just a few weeks after he was first elected to the U.S. Senate at age 29, a heartbreaking car accident killed his young wife and baby daughter. For decades the widower dutifully commuted to Congress on Amtrak and returned to his small sons in Delaware after work.
Over his long career, Biden always thought he had a shot to be president, but each time he tried, something went a little wrong.
This time, as the former vice president weighs a 2020 presidential run, it’s Nevada Democrat Lucy Flores’ accusation that Biden touched her inappropriately at a 2014 rally. Biden says he doesn’t recall the incident and that even if it happened, he was innocent in intent — “never did I believe I acted inappropriately.”
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The first time Biden ran for president, in 1987, he fell victim to an early example of opposition research: Rival Michael Dukakis accused Biden of “plagiarizing” his stump speeches for borrowing phrasing without attribution from British Labor Party orator Neil Kinnock. Biden had been citing Kinnock regularly in public forums but as his primary campaign heated up he dropped the reference and kept the oratory. Dukakis won the nomination but went onto lose in the general election to George H.W. Bush.
Biden helped Republicans humiliate Anita Hill
Later, in 1991, as chairman of the all-male, all-white,Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden was a model of bipartisan comity presiding over confirmation hearings for Bush’s Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas — even after the committee’s carefully choreographed nationally televised testimony went off the rails. Before the Senate voted on the Thomas nomination, a young law professor swore in an affidavit about humiliating harassment she had endured from Thomas while under his supervision at the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. Chairman Biden was forced to reopen the hearings.
That weekend, I watched from a chair directly behind Democratic Sen. Howard Metzenbaum — my boss — as Chairman Biden compelled Anita Hill to relive her humiliation and allowed her to be excoriated by committee Republicans. For eight hours, GOP members including Orrin Hatch, Alan Simpson and Arlen Specter relentlessly badgered Hill and attacked her character, as Biden’s fellow Democrats on the committee listlessly and halfheartedly defended her (including Metzenbaum, who had reluctantly brought Hill’s uncomfortable allegations to the chairman’s attention).
Biden went on in 2001 to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he burnished his international policy credentials — helpful qualities for one who would be president. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, Biden voted to support not just the American war in Afghanistan but the American invasion of Iraq. That was not helpful during a short-lived presidential run in 2008, when he, Hillary Clinton and many others lost the nomination to a young senator who had opposed the Iraq war from the start.
A #MeToo wake-up call for Biden’s generation
When Barack Obama chose him as vice president, the pair’s chemistry was everything their party could hope for, and Biden proved himself an able and enthusiastic political wingman. Sadly, when Obama’s tenure ended and it might have been his turn, Biden was fresh from another family tragedy — his son Beau’s death from cancer — and a different former White House regular became the 2016 nominee.
In the election business, timing is like quicksilver, but maybe this time it could happen. After so many false starts and sad losses, ousting Donald Trump could be the epic Hollywood ending of Biden’s dreams.
This campaign, if he runs, will be Biden’s moment of truth. He’s finally admitted his long-ago ago failure to advocate for Professor Hill against “some of my Republican friends” and begun a baby-step apology approach. Admitting to his personal limitations could be a wake-up call to other similarly habituated relics of a bygone era. I have never quite forgiven Biden for those Anita Hill hearings, but I’d be willing to start now if he could strike a blow against handsy-ness by an entire seemingly ineducable generation of entitled old white guys.
I feel certain all the reports of Biden touching women are not sexual, but maybe this outcry will finally teach him that uninvited touching, however well-meaning, is paternalistic and patronizing. In the interest of overthrowing a despot, I hope he can persuade us all he’s been schooled, he’s sorry, and he will, at last, cut it out.
Bonnie Goldstein, a former U.S. Senate investigator and network TV producer, is a writer in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @kickedbyanangel