Biden censures: Politics, legitimate or both?

Should Joe Biden had known better? Maybe.

As a longtime Iowa caucus consumer, I’ve had multiple interactions with Biden. That doesn’t make me unique in the Hawkeye State. I’ve had opportunity to speak with him one-on-one on several occasions, and many more to watch as he has interacted with others, in semiprivate and public settings. Again, this doesn’t make me special.

There was the time when Biden spoke at an event at a Cedar Rapids home. I asked if I could walk with him to his car to get in a few more questions. He agreed, tossing his arm around my shoulder as we walked. (For the record, a similar request of U.S. Rep. Steve King and numerous other politicians, regardless of gender, have resulted in similar outcomes.)

There also was the time in Waverly when Biden and a Vietnam veteran spoke following an event. The interaction between the two men began with a handshake and hug, and continued with their foreheads nearly pressed together. The larger the crowd, the closer Biden tends to stand. The more nervous or emotional the speaker, the more inclined Biden appears to be to use touch — a hand on a shoulder, back or arm, leaning his head into the interaction, generally moving closer.

From experience, Iowans know Biden gives a long speech, and he often crosses what’s typically considered personal space boundaries. Until recently, most were far more concerned about the former.

An Americorps volunteer receives a hug from Vice President Joe Biden before he boarded Air Force Two after speaking at a campaign rally on May 18, 2010 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
An Americorps volunteer receives a hug from Vice President Joe Biden before he boarded Air Force Two after speaking at a campaign rally on May 18, 2010 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

As Biden mulls the possibility of a presidential run in 2020, at least two women have come forward with stories of Biden’s “hands on” approach to politics and how the interactions made them feel uncomfortable. Former Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores says Biden kissed the back of her head at a 2014 campaign rally. A Connecticut woman said Biden rubbed noses with her during a 2009 fundraising event.

I have no reason to doubt these women. To be honest, based on past observations of Biden and interactions with him, both stories are more than plausible, and the women are entitled to their reaction to them — just as I am entitled to my reaction in similar circumstances. And I’ve never felt ill intent behind Biden’s actions — not his interactions with me, and not in interactions with others.

There’s also the timing. These aren’t new events, and Biden isn’t new to the public square.

“If Biden truly supports women and gender equality, he would step aside and support one of the many talented and qualified women running,” the Connecticut woman said. “The same goes for the other men who have thrown their hat in the ring.”

According to Flores, Biden’s intentions don’t matter, that any debate “should be about the women on the receiving end of that behavior.”

As much as I support women seeking public office, as much as I believe people are entitled to own their response to social situations, I completely disagree that intent is moot. Intent doesn’t erase, but it does qualify.

The #MeToo movement is serious, important work that must leave space for non-sexual, well-intentioned social missteps.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on April 3, 2019. Photo credit: Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette