A formal response to #MeToo allegations has become something of a contemporary set piece. You tune in to see how a guy pulls it off, the way you might want to see a TV actor try his hand at “To be or not to be” on stage.
The interpretation by former Vice President Joe Biden, as his nonconsensual, assault-like hugs were the subject of a nationwide debate, has been surprisingly revealing in terms of his fitness for a 2020 White House run. For the last week, Biden has responded to harassment charges by crowing about what a man of the people he is for hugging people. For good measure, he’s also heavily implied that anyone who doesn’t see it that way is a coldhearted, humorless prude.
Then, on Friday, he touched a woman and a child roughly on stage. Drawing roars of laughter from a mostly male crowd, he claimed he’d gotten “permission” — presumably from the PC prudes, whom he was all too eager to spite for the lulz.
The #MeToo response is, I think, a genuine moral audit. It’s a personal statement of accountability that — particularly in the current climate — is delivered on pain of losing everything. It is revealing.
Under this microscope, it became clear that Biden can take criticism. He listens. He can see where he was misguided. And he claims he is willing to change.
But he also did something only people who are profoundly not sorry do. He rationalized his misconduct — and then, far worse, he ennobled it. He said — miming a bear hug and a lapel grab — that he considers this roughhousing to be a universal “gesture of support and encouragement.”
Mmmkay. In the dictionary of American body language — across classes, cultures, genders — lapel-grabbing is defined by almost everyone as flat-out aggression.
Fair enough that Biden, like all of us, has blind spots. There are dozens of American touching rituals that elude me. At what kind of encounters do you cheek-kiss once, twice or three times, and when do you refrain altogether? I honestly couldn’t tell you.
But when someone who does know steers me straight, I hope I don’t ever say, “I have a great heart and my cheek-kissing is a perfect expression of support and encouragement, you sicko scold.”
Instead, I hope I say, “I’m hopeless with this. Can you show me how to do it right?”
Biden doesn’t belong in jail, or even some golf-free rehab center. But even though his behavior fell well short of violence, he justified it using the language and logic of assailants.
And that’s where he truly lost me.
In his Twitter video Wednesday, Biden looked casual and avuncular, and a touch condescending. Solemnity was missing. He has, he said as a half-concealed boast, a wonderful, warm, snuggly-yet-virile approach to politics. Because he’s been through so much in his life — a tear of self-pity twinkled in his eye — people regularly approach him for solace and selfies. (They come to him, you see.)
And then the logic goes really haywire. Because Biden wants to heal and inspire, he said, he grabs people’s bodies.
His style, he said, is about “connecting with people.” It’s very “human,” he said, pronouncing the word as yuman.
Maybe some people do cherish hard hugs from strangers in times of trouble; I presume Biden now understands that others, call us crazy, might not. But subtext was clear. Biden is just being human, so anyone who experienced his touches as aggressive must be … well, less human.
“I’ve never thought of politics as cold and antiseptic,” he went on, implying that if you harbored doubts about his conduct, maybe you were a little bit cold. And antiseptic. Maybe even … frigid.
Like so many of those accused of #MeToo missteps and misdeeds, Biden is also obsessed with his own intentions, which are irrelevant. In no other formal act of contrition — not a newspaper correction, not a religious atonement ritual — do people dwell on their intentions.
Newspaper readers don’t care, nor should they, that the journalist was in a rush to do the dishes and that’s why she mixed up Solange and Beyoncé Knowles. In Biden’s Catholic liturgy, God doesn’t care if you took his name in vain to prove a crucial point. What matters is only that you transgressed. Your duty is to confess and ask for forgiveness.
But evidently that’s not the Biden way. Friday’s reference to the accusations was even more brisk and revealing: “I’m not sorry for anything I’ve ever done,” he said, unprompted.
Not sorry for anything? Is anyone with a yuman yeart sorry for absolutely nothing?
To be clear: Biden doesn’t seem to me to have crossed any bright moral or legal lines with the specific ways he touched people. If he were my 13-year-old son, and had been hugging girls in a creepy way, I’d just tell him to cut it out.
But if Biden-as-my-son couldn’t own up to his own errors, refrain from self-justification or, for heaven’s sake, self-righteousness, and engage in sincere contrition — that I would consider a grave failing. I wouldn’t grab my son by the lapels (I’m too antiseptic for that) but he’d definitely be grounded past 2020.
Virginia Heffernan wrote this piece for the Los Angeles Times.