Decades ago, in a former life, I received an assignment in my college civil engineering class.
I was to be part of a team — there were three of us, I think — and we were to use a surveyor’s tripod, topped with a telescopic instrument whose name I have long forgotten, to plot our way around campus.
The idea was to measure the distance between two points, the angle we turned to get from the second point to the third point and the distance between those two points, and so on, until we had returned to our starting point — all the while recording our measurements and route on graph paper. And if we did everything right, the plotted line on the graph paper would end precisely at that starting point.
Except it didn’t. We were several feet off at the end. And we had no idea where the error was made or how to correct it.
Obviously, this is a problem when you’re planning a building or constructing a road.
Or when you’re Joe Biden.
Failing to close the loop can be fatal.
I say this understanding that things right now seem pretty good for Uncle Joe. The former vice president is leading in the polls for the Democratic presidential primary and he hasn’t announced yet that he’s a candidate. President Donald Trump reportedly has concerns about Biden being a tough opponent.
Biden even is showing up in selfies and group shots in dozens of profiles on the Tinder dating app in the Washington D.C. area, according to The Washington Post. Why not? He’s smart, he’s empathetic, he has a fundamental decency, and he presents himself like a regular guy. And no one rocks aviators and a crisp white shirt with quite the same battle-hardened élan as Biden.
And yet, Biden has a problem. Because all of his experience and all of his years of triangulating and calibrating and plotting a course haven’t brought him to close the loop on the Anita Hill incident.
That was painfully obvious last week when he expressed “regret” yet again for the way Hill’s sexual misconduct allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, her former supervisor, were treated. Biden was right that Hill, who like Thomas is black, was treated horribly during her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. He was right that she “paid a terrible price” and was “abused” while being questioned by “a bunch of white guys.”
And he seemed clearly pained as he told his New York City audience, “I wish I could have done something.”
Wish I could have?
He was the chairman of the committee.
He didn’t have to let Thomas testify both before and after Hill. He could have called at least three other women as witnesses who said they had experienced the same kind of workplace harassment from Thomas that Hill alleged. He didn’t have to force Hill to repeat all sorts of embarrassing details about Thomas’ actions. He didn’t protect her from attacks from the all-male, all-white committee, like Alabama Democrat Howell Heflin’s derisive, “Are you a scorned woman?” And Utah Republican Orrin Hatch’s suggestion that her allegations were inspired by “The Exorcist,” not reality. And several GOP senators accusing Hill of “erotomania.”
And Biden didn’t have to be so chummy with Thomas himself during the future justice’s testimony.
I like people who apologize when they do something wrong — if they’re sincere and if the apology is for the right thing.
Now, this kind of flaw might seem tiny compared to those of the current occupant of the White House. And I keep saying I’ve sworn off prognosticating after 2016. But the Anita Hill episode is among those that dogged Biden’s past presidential ambitions.
Uncle Joe needs to close this loop. For himself, for Hill, and for the voters he hopes will be his team.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.