Joe Biden has some cleaning up to do from his days in the Senate, and he brought a bucket and mop to the Biden Courage Awards dinner Tuesday night in New York.
It was a speech carefully calculated to once and for all answer for his craven treatment of Anita Hill at the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991, when he presided over the nastiest questioning imaginable. Conservative Democrat Sen. Howell Heflin made a statement in the form of a question without fear of being called on it: “Are you a scorned woman? Do you have a martyr complex?”
All was fair in the cause of elevating Thomas, the conservative Republican head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a tiny agency with a poor record of carrying out its mission, to the Supreme Court. Even Democrats weren’t much interested in setting the precedent of having some woman crying harassment impede a man’s career. If you were watching—it was the Kavanaugh of its day—Biden’s conduct isn’t baggage he’s had to carry for 28 years, it’s a Louis Vuitton trunk.
Biden unpacked nothing with his speech this week, more than three decades too late. The former chair of the Judiciary Committee began honestly enough. “She was abused through the hearing. She was taken advantage of… She paid a terrible price.”
All painfully true: she was demeaned as a slut and a perjurer.
But then came this, “I wish I could have done something.”
That’s so painfully false it’s nearly disqualifying.
He had the singular ability to do something. You don’t have to be a charter member of #MeToo to want to scream when he said, “I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved.” The way was handed to him on a silver platter. Three credible witnesses with similar stories who could corroborate Hill’s testimony were vetted and waiting in the wings. It would have taken a few more hours to hear from them about an appointment that would last a lifetime.
Biden wasn’t answering a question on the fly. The prepared speech was a station of the cross on his way to announcing a run for president. The dumbest clunk can see that women just aren’t going to take it anymore, and by that I mean Democratic clunks. The path to the nomination runs through African Americans and women, in particular African-American women.
Yet his passive expression of regret—not for what he did to Hill, but only for what happened to her and has stuck to him—was wordy and flabby, with no recognition that while giving out his namesake Biden Courage Awards he was showing none.
The hearings revealed a weakness in Biden that leads him astray periodically: a cloying need to be liked, more by his enemies than his own tribe. His pals Sens. Alan Simpson and Arlen Specter wanted to be done with the spectacle, by which they meant Hill and the other women with their inconvenient accusations. Biden told New York magazine that he’d given his word to then Sen. John Danforth in the gym that he’d use his gavel to make it a very quick hearing.
Biden’s not alone. Many politicians have a hole the size of the Grand Canyon to fill. Bill Clinton’s aides told him to stop wasting time converting the last person in the room to his side but he couldn’t, especially if it was a potential donor. Which is another problem, wanting to be liked more by some—guys in suits with PACs—than others. It’s why Biden couldn’t see that the financial industry was asking for, and getting, too much deregulation. It’s how we end up with Boeing appearing before Congress today after it effectively self-certified that the 737 Max was safe. Two crashes later, maybe not.
There are minor manifestations. Biden’s the eulogist of choice for Republicans. It was right that he spoke at Sen. John McCain’s funeral, but longtime segregationist Strom Thurmond? Biden recently went out of his way to call Vice President Mike Pence “a decent guy,” unaware or unconcerned that he’s not at all that way to women, gays, the poor, or anyone who doesn’t think that God made Donald Trump president. Biden spoke so highly of of his friend Republican Rep. Fred Upton at a speech in Michigan before the 2018 midterms that the Democrat running lost any chance of winning.
That’s Uncle Joe being Uncle Joe to a point. But he also made it reasonable for long-standing liberals to seek shelter behind his anti-busing amendment in 1975 that, while less onerous than the one Thurmond acolyte Sen. Jesse Helms had introduced, still crippled equal education. Similarly, he supported a crime bill that was only recently ameliorated by a bill to relieve the mass incarceration he helped create.
Biden likes to believe the Violence Against Women Act and his support for Title IX make up for Hill. They don’t.
Like Monica Lewinsky, Hill recovered from her nationally televised nightmare. If only Biden had treated her like the “brave lawyer, a really notable woman” he spoke of in his speech, rather than as a child to be ushered out of the room while the men discussed business.
It’s second nature for too many women to apologize for what they have done, even when they’ve done nothing wrong. Why won’t Biden, who really did do wrong own up?
Although it’s easy to find Professor Hill’s number at Brandeis University and, for God’s sake, as he would say, call her up and say he’s sorry, he hasn’t. Last fall, Hill told Elle magazine that when the doorbell rings unexpectedly, she jokes that it must be Biden come to apologize. It never is, though.
A man can grow in the presidency and in his lusting for it. Nixon, they say, stopped pouring ketchup on his cottage cheese. Biden was a good vice president and has a lifetime of public service behind him. He is schooled in public policy and how Washington works—and doesn’t. Yet Obama seemed relieved in the end to support his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Has Biden grown? Not enough, at least until he shows he understands that when he had the singular chance to help a living, breathing, worthy person, relying on his protection as she took a great risk, he instead allowed her to be publicly mocked and shamed as a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty, a fabulist conjuring up a high-tech lynching for some supposed gain. Biden harmed her and he harmed the country by depriving us of a full examination of the man who would be a Supreme Court justice.
And he harmed himself. Biden needs to rethink his part in this decades-old travesty not because it’s an impediment to his being president but because it was wrong.