Joe Biden delivers remarks at the First State Democratic Dinner in Dover, Del., March 16, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Remorse for doing his job in 1991 is neither necessary nor likely to get him off the hook for being an old white male politician.
After 27 years, Anita Hill is still waiting for a personal apology from Joe Biden. Apparently, the former vice president has yet to reach out for a private tête-à-tête with the law professor who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings. But while Biden hasn’t been able to pick up the phone to talk to her about events from the fall of 1991, he understands that his connection to the Thomas hearings is a distinct liability in the 2020 Democratic presidential race.
That’s why he used an event hosted by his personal foundation, the Biden Courage Awards — honoring students who have fought sexual violence on college campuses — to send a very public apology to Hill. In his speech at the awards ceremony held in New York, the man who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee during the dramatic confrontation between Hill and Thomas, denounced the proceedings over which he presided as a vestige of “white man’s culture” that had to change.
According to Biden, the committee hearings left a “brave lawyer” to pay a “terrible price” after she was subjected to questions from “a bunch of white guys.”
“She faced a committee that didn’t fully understand what the hell this was all about. To this day, I regret I couldn’t give her the kind of hearing she deserved. I wish I could have done something.”
But if Biden thought that would be enough to put this issue to rest, he was sadly disappointed. The response to his apology was a torrent of derision from the liberal Twittersphere that mostly focused on the fact that, as chairman of the committee, he was in exactly the position where he could have “done something” to help Hill.
That his critics blame Biden for Thomas’s confirmation is highly ironic. Biden didn’t merely vote against Thomas. The justice and his defenders rightly held him responsible for the circus atmosphere in which a last-minute accusation was brought forward by the Democrats in order to derail his confirmation.
Thomas was looking directly at Biden when he famously said that he was being subjected to “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks” in which unsubstantiated “sleaze” was being publicly hurled at him. He denounced the hearings over which Biden presided as a “travesty” intended to validate unproven accusations that consisted of “gossip” and “lies” leaked to the press in order to destroy him.
Thomas’s impassioned defense of his character and reputation won over the majority of Americans at the time and convinced the Senate to narrowly confirm him. But over time, as Thomas maintained a dignified silence about his ordeal, his detractors in popular culture and the media seized control of the narrative about the hearings. In that retelling, such as in the book Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, the judge’s guilt was assumed and the prejudicial treatment to which he was subjected was forgotten. Instead, Hill acquired the reputation as a secular saint that had been sacrificed by men like Biden on the altar of racism and male privilege.
That accusation was largely forgotten after Biden was unexpectedly elevated by Barack Obama to the vice presidency from a status earned over 36 years as one of the Senate’s most notorious bloviaters and unsuccessful presidential aspirant. Eight years as Obama’s faithful number two seemed to wash away his sins for most liberals.
But the emergence of the #MeToo movement in 2017 and then the dramatic confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the fall of 2018 resurrected the charges of Biden’s complicity in the Thomas–Hill confrontation. That’s why Biden feels he must apologize for his conduct as committee chair if he is to become the Democrats’ 2020 presidential nominee.
The salient point here isn’t whether or not his apologies for being an old white male who has been in the public eye for 46 years aren’t being accepted by Democratic voters. It’s that the charge against Biden doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Though history remembers Hill as having been scorned, the senators did not, in fact, treat her discourteously. They did question her closely about her charges. They demanded details. They probed for inconsistencies and asked reasonable questions about her dealings with Thomas and how and why she had stepped forward to accuse him. That was enough to raise doubts about her testimony in the minds of the public and the committee.
According to Gallup, 86 percent of Americans watched all or some of those hearings. Had the committee truly been a sneering gaggle of white males abusing the young law professor, there might have been a wave of public sympathy for her. But the people who watched the testimony on television came to a different verdict. By the end of the hearings, 55 percent of Americans said they believed Thomas, while only 27 backed Hill’s version of events. If that is no longer the view most Americans hold, it is because they either have forgotten or never saw the hearings, or otherwise came to accept the distorted version of reality Hill’s advocates have substituted for the evidence.
The idea that Biden should have conducted the hearings differently makes sense only if those accused of sexual misconduct must be assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. Biden’s committee didn’t prevent Hill from making explicit and detailed accusations about what she said Thomas had said and done. But in the #MeToo era, as evidenced by the Kavanaugh case, asking an accuser to substantiate or corroborate their allegations is now considered to be a form of unconscionable abuse.
The reckoning for a culture in which sexual harassment and even assault were not treated as serious crimes was long overdue. But the idea that those who make such accusations should not be questioned closely or that the accused have no right to defend themselves or their reputations against what they consider to be false charges is not consistent with American traditions of justice no matter who is placed in the dock.
It remains to be seen whether assumptions about Biden’s electability will convince enough Democrats to nominate him for president next year despite his age, his willingness to think of Republicans as “decent guys,” or his baggage from the Thomas hearings.
But the true absurdity about this discussion is the belief that the duty of a committee chairman in a confirmation hearing is to prevent members from asking tough questions about accusations that threaten to destroy a nominee’s life. If Biden believes fairness toward both the accused and the accuser is something only old, white males believe in or merely a vestige of late 20th-century politics unsuitable for the 21st century, then that is a more substantive argument against his presidential ambitions than his guilt-ridden mea culpas.