Earlier this week, Joe Biden released a video statement to address allegations that he had kissed a Democratic candidate for office on the head and smelled her hair during the course of the 2014 campaign, actions that she said made her feel “gross.” Biden said 351 words in that statement. None of them were “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.”
Lucy Flores, the former Nevada state legislator who made the allegation against Biden, took note of the absence of clear contrition. “Given the work he has done on behalf of women, Vice President Biden should be aware of how important it is to take personal responsibility for inappropriate behavior, and yet he hasn’t apologized to the women he made uncomfortable,” she said via Twitter following Biden’s video statement.
And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi noticed too. “To say, ‘I’m sorry you were offended’ is not an apology. It’s ‘I’m sorry I invaded your space,’” she told Politico. “I’ve known Joe Biden a long time. My grandchildren love Joe Biden. He’s an affectionate person, to children, to senior citizens, to everyone, that’s just the way he is. … But he has to understand in the world that we’re in now that people’s space is important to them, and what’s important is how they receive it and not necessarily how you intended it.”
That video statement by Biden was actually the third time in the space of roughly a week that Biden or a spokesperson for him addressed the allegations made by Flores and another woman in Connecticut. In neither of the previous two statements was an apology offered. (Here’s the statement released Sunday morning via Biden spokesman Bill Russo.)
All of which raises a very simple question: Why not? After all, neither of the women who have come forward have accused Biden of sexually harassing or assaulting them. He’s in no legal jeopardy. Instead, they have said that his behavior, whether he understood it or not, made them feel uncomfortable. It would seem to be a relatively easy thing for Biden to say something like this: I am deeply sorry that I didn’t respect your personal space. I will change my behavior going forward but that doesn’t change the past. So, all I can do is apologize and hope these women take me at my word that I get it now.
Not that tough, right? But Biden didn’t say that, or anything like it, when he spoke Friday to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He did nod to the controversy, joking when he took the stage after embracing IBEW’s president, “I just want you to know, I had permission to hug Lonnie.” He made the same joke later, after putting his arm around a kid who came onstage with a group.
With that speech, Biden may have made things even worse – making light of a situation like this one feels tone-deaf, even if the crowd in the room laughed. Biden has to know better. This isn’t a joking matter.
As Matt Viser notes in a terrific Washington Post piece on the former vice president:
“Joe Biden hasn’t offered a full-throated apology for his treatment of Anita Hill in the 1990s. He hasn’t backed away from his view that busing was the wrong way to integrate schools in the 1970s, nor has he denounced his decades-old positions on banning federal funding for abortion services….
“Throughout his decades in public life, Biden has never been one to freely offer apologies, particularly when he is confronted with charges that cut to his character or a personal decision.”
The argument Biden allies make, according to Viser, is that the former VP meant no harm and his actions weren’t purposely offensive – hence he doesn’t really have anything to apologize for. Which, uh, OK? When you are running to be president of the United States in the midst of the #MeToo movement, I’m not sure it’s enough to say that because you didn’t mean to make these women uncomfortable – even if they say you did make them uncomfortable – that you don’t have to apologize.
After the Friday event, Biden doubled down when talking to reporters who asked if he owed the women a direct apology.
“I am sorry I didn’t understand more,” Biden responded. “I am not sorry for any of my intentions. I am not sorry for anything that I have ever done – I’ve never been disrespectful, intentionally, to a man or a woman. That’s not the reputation I’ve had since I was in high school, for God’s sake.”
Politicians are, at root, just like us. We, as a species, are very good at rationalizing our behavior. We don’t like to take blame. And we don’t like to admit we were wrong – or to apologize. (Case in point: Donald Trump, who rarely if ever apologizes and has suggested that the more than a dozen women who have alleged he acted inappropriately – or worse – toward them are all lying.)
The right political move for Biden is to say sorry. Full stop. But it’s not something he likes doing or wants to do. But it is the right thing to do.