“There’s absolutely a line of decency,” Lappos told the Courant. “There’s a line of respect. Crossing that line is not grandfatherly. It’s not cultural. It’s not affection. It’s sexism or misogyny.”
This should not require saying. The kind of behavior that Lappos and Flores are accusing Biden of engaging in is, at the very least, profoundly disrespectful. And yet the notion that Biden is simply an affectionate person—that his creepiness is merely an inevitable outgrowth of his considerable charm—has been circulating among the American media, summoned as both an explanation and an attempt at exoneration. “I am sure that somebody can misconstrue something he’s done,” Mika Brzezinski said on Morning Joe on Monday, discussing Flores’s allegation. “But as much as I can know what’s in anyone’s heart, I don’t think there is bad intent on his part at all.” Instead, Brzezinski suggested, the matter is much simpler than that: Biden, she said, “is extremely affectionate, extremely flirtatious in a completely safe way.”
Extremely flirtatious in a completely safe way. (Here, to be clear, is more from Flores’s essay: “I was embarrassed,” she writes. “I was shocked. I was confused … I couldn’t move and I couldn’t say anything. I wanted nothing more than to get Biden away from me.”)
In one way, the allegations against Biden are shocking. In another way, though, they are precisely the opposite. Flores and Lappos have accused Biden, after all, of engaging in exactly the kind of behavior that he has been repeatedly documented engaging in, over a period of years, through file photos and C-SPAN footage and the other media that steadily help to convert American politicians into American celebrities. Gawker, in early 2015, published an image essay taxonomizing the varied ways Biden has been photographed interacting—closely and intimately and publicly—with women and girls. So did New York magazine. The Daily Show offered a video-based version of the same: “The Audacity of Grope,” the segment was called. (It featured documentary footage of Biden engaged in assorted acts of woman-whispering, and culminated in Samantha Bee, the show’s fake White House correspondent at the time, appearing with the front of her blouse and the back of her skirt marked with handprints. She had just come from a meeting, Bee explained to Jon Stewart, with the then vice president.)
The women’s claims, then, are very specific allegations issued into a broader environment in which the term allegation no longer fairly applies. There is no way to broadly deny, given the documentary evidence at hand, that Biden has behaved, in the recent past, precisely the way the women claim he has. And yet Biden, who has premised the current iteration of his ever-evolving political persona largely on his championing of women—he introduced 1994’s Violence Against Women Act—found a way, despite it all, to deny their claims. He did so in regard to Flores’s allegation, via a statement delivered through his spokesman on Sunday, like this:
In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support, and comfort. And not once—never—did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention.
I may not recall these moments the same way, and I may be surprised at what I hear. But we have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention. And I will.
The statement, polite and respectful and insisting that Biden very much believes women, even if he does not believe this particular woman, concluded with a reminder of the statesman’s bona fides as a feminist champion: He has hired women staffers, the response noted, and, in the Senate, fought “to end violence against women and ensure women are treated with the equality they deserve.” The substance of Biden’s rejoinder to Flores, however—a spokeswoman, while declining to respond to Lappos’s allegations, referred the Courant to the same broad statement—is the brief document’s introduction: “Not once—never—did I believe I acted inappropriately.” If it is suggested that he has done so, however—though the statement itself, of course, is responding to just such a suggestion—Biden will listen respectfully. “But it was never my intention.”