He was supposed to be the experienced adult in the race; the one with the blue-collar roots but mandarin-class resume; the soothing Bob Ross to Bernie’s angry Banksy; the steady pol who still has enough fight to defeat Donald Trump in 2020.
But so far, Joe Biden’s not-yet-a-presidential-campaign has focused more on apologizing for Biden’s past than focusing on what he offers Democrats in the future.
This week’s mea culpa was issued for Biden’s behavior during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991. Speaking at the Biden Courage Awards this week in New York, Biden called Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment, “A brave lawyer, a really notable woman, Anita Hill, a professor, showed the courage of a lifetime talking about her experience being harassed by Clarence Thomas. But she paid a terrible price. She was abused in the hearing. She was taken advantage of. Her reputation was attacked. I wish I could have done something.”
This would not have been a remarkable statement had Biden left it at that; after all, this isn’t the first time Biden has said he should apologize to Hill for his role in how she was treated. In 2017, he told Teen Vogue, “I owe her an apology” (which is not quite the same thing as giving her one, but still).
But Biden took the opportunity to broaden his statement to include a more sweeping apology for being a white man: “There were a bunch of white guys . . . hearing this testimony in the Senate Judiciary Committee,” he said. “We all have an obligation to do nothing less than change the culture in this country . . . A white man’s culture, it’s got to change. It’s got to change.” He got so carried away he even referenced the “rule of thumb,” a widely-misunderstood phrase often incorrectly used to describe domestic abuse, that he criticized as being part of “English jurisprudential culture.”
But while Biden seems happy to apologize for his general white male-ness and his presence at the Anita Hill hearings, he’s been surprisingly quiet about the specifics of his role. We still don’t know who leaked information about Hill’s allegations to the press, turning Thomas’s nomination into a circus (or, as Thomas himself called it, a “high-tech lynching”). It’s almost certain that it came from a member or staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee that Biden chaired.
Biden also needs to recognize that his frequent reminders to voters of his policy work on behalf of women (his former chief of staff has been making the rounds on TV reminding viewers of Biden’s efforts on the Violence Against Women Act) only go so far in a political culture that demands emotional responses from its leaders.
Biden has a long record as a public servant at a time when the progressive wing of his party is in a particularly unforgiving mood about the policies of old-school Democrats. The progressives want heads on platters, not focus-grouped “apologies” issued from the dais during feel-good charity events.
That’s why so much of the language they have used to criticize Biden is personal. As the Washington Post noted, “Biden is under increasing pressure from women’s rights groups, prominent African American leaders and other supporters of Anita Hill to acknowledge his personal responsibility for his handling of the 1991 confirmation hearing.” Many activists are still demanding he issue a “personal apology” to Hill and show his remorse in a more public way. As National Organization for Women President Toni Van Pelt said, “He hasn’t accepted the ownership of the fact that he was the most powerful person in the role and in the room at that time . . . He is still protecting his gender.”
Anita Hill is also unpersuaded. Speaking of Biden at an event last year she said, “He said he apologized, but he hasn’t apologized to me,” joking, “Sometimes when the doorbell rings, and I am not expecting anyone, I think, could that be Joe Biden?”
Biden might approach these mini-reckonings as a necessary apology tour (he has also apologized for his work on a 1994 crime bill) that he needs to perform to inoculate himself against the fact that he’s an old white man at a time when his party’s stars are young women of color. But if he’s not careful, it will become the political equivalent of a visit to the Body Farm. Like the Farm, where forensic pathologists study human remains in various states of decay, Biden is too intent on examining the desiccated corpses of his (often politically incorrect) past when what he should be doing is burying them and looking ahead to the future.
The only problem? If you’re a white male Democrat in 2019, running for president means not only always having to say you’re sorry, but also meeting activists’ often-outlandish, unceasing demands to show it.