The still-unfolding saga of the 2016 election has acquired a dramatic new twist: an accusation of sexual assault against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden by former Senate aide Alexandra Tara Reade. It is too early to tell how it will affect the campaign. Reade’s allegations do not amount to a credible case against Biden. But they raise tough questions about hypocrisy and doublethink on #MeToo issues by many Democrats — starting with Biden himself — as well as feminists and the media.
Reade, a 56-year-old California writer, first came forward a year ago after several other women accused the former vice president of touching or hugging that, while non-sexual, made them uncomfortable. Reade, who worked on Biden’s staff in 1992-1993 when he was a U.S. senator, said he often touched her neck and shoulders.
The issue faded for a while. Then, Reade resurfaced in late March with a new claim: She now says Biden once pushed her against the wall in a hallway of the Senate office building, kissed her, reached under her skirt and penetrated her with his fingers.
There are many reasons this story doesn’t hold up. The alleged attack seems extremely implausible. Reade says it happened in a “side area” of a public hallway — after she had already complained to senior staffers about sexual harassment by Biden. There is no record of her complaint, and the former staffers she has named deny any knowledge of it.
While Reade’s brother says she told him about the assault in 1993, he appears to have changed his story — initially telling a Washington Post reporter that Reade mentioned only non-sexual touching, then following up to say that she had told him Biden put his hand inside her clothes. A friend who also claims Reade contemporaneously discussed the incident has remained anonymous.
Reade’s bizarre behavior compounds her credibility problems. She has praised Biden on social media as recently as three years ago, even sharing tweets about his work with sexual assault survivors. More recently, she has made blog posts gushing over the virility and “sensuous image” of Russian President Vladimir Putin. (The issue isn’t spying for Russia but mental stability.)
Should Biden be condemned based on such claims? I would say no. But it seems that Biden would, as a general principle, say yes: “For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real,” he said two years ago about the allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Biden also has championed campus sexual assault policies that have been widely criticized for fostering a “presumed guilty” mindset — and has assailed attempts to make these policies fairer to accused men.
Biden isn’t the only one with a hypocrisy problem. Feminist pundits such as Salon writer Amanda Marcotte and New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, usually found in the “Believe women” camp, are now doubters who treat Reade’s allegation mainly as an inconvenience. Actress/activist Alyssa Milano, who used to tweet about the importance of supporting women’s #MeToo stories, now backs Biden and says believing women shouldn’t come at the expense of fairness to men. Major media outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post waited a long time to report on Reade’s allegation and subjected it to much more skeptical scrutiny than the accusations against Kavanaugh.
Checking the facts and seeking fairness for both accuser and accused are fine principles. Now, Democrats need to make them the rule, not the Biden exception.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.