Joe Biden's physicality is a mark of old-school politicians, not a creepy old man

Ross K. Baker

The more radical enforcers of the #MeToo movement are at present cuffing around former Vice-President Joe Biden for an incident that took place in Nevada in 2014. During a campaign rally that year, state legislator Lucy Flores has claimed that Biden stood behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders and buried his face in her hair. Revealing this in a New York Magazine blogpost, Ms. Flores’s account seemed timed to coincide with the imminent announcement of Biden’s intention to seek the Democratic presidential nomination and, it would appear, calculated to inflict the greatest damage on Biden. The former vice-president released a video on Wednesday responding to his critics by acknowledging that norms of conduct had changed and that he would respect the desire of people to own their personal space.

Biden’s defenders who rallied to his defense when the accusations first surfaced made the argument “Oh, that’s just Joe Biden”, a politician of inveterate physicality. On the face of it, that seemed a pretty lame excuse but consider the fact that explaining that “it’s just Joe Biden” is a great deal different from saying, “Oh, it’s just Harvey Weinstein.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) (L) and then Vice President Joe Biden (R), on Jan. 3, 2013.

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In the 50 years I have spent in the company of politicians — both male and female — one of the things that most surprised me was their public physicality. I remember sitting in the Senate gallery observing the body language of male senators and thinking that it more closely resembled that of men in a bar than it resembled what one might expect of straight-laced lawmakers. My most vivid recollection of Harry Reid as Democratic leader is seeing him with another senator’s arm draped over his shoulder making an argument or asking for a favor.

Physical exuberance could get politicians in trouble but not for the same reasons that might entrap them today. The late Senator Birch Bayh once grasped a fellow Indiana politician around the shoulders energetically without realizing that the man was recovering from a back operation and sent the man to the emergency room.

Physicality used to be politically normal

And it wasn’t just the men. Physicality was a trait of politicians no matter what their gender. Geraldine Ferraro was a toucher. Lindy Boggs was a hand-holder. You might get a kiss from Millicent Fenwick. Nancy Pelosi is also a very hands-on person. There is a very distinct line between a public display of support, sympathy or affection and a transgressive physical invasion of a person’s body, or at least there ought to be.

I am now often hugged by other men. I don’t think they are coming on to me. It’s not something that I grew up with it but I’ve become used to it and I find nothing transgressive about it. We hug at wedding and at funerals. Physical contact between humans can be congratulatory, convey solace, or express the simple pleasure of being in the company of an old friend, but it has come to be seen by some as crossing a red line beyond which inevitably lies sexual aggression.

I believe that Rep. Flores has misconstrued the actions of Vice President Biden. His gesture was not a prelude to seduction or a cheap thrill. It was gesture by a man whose humanity happens to express itself in innocent physical contact.

Tender and creepy are pretty different

Age, gender, and status differences have made communicating affection more difficult to express innocently between people who are not family members or romantically involved but does that mean that a peck on the cheek cannot be seen as being fundamentally different than an uninvited smooch on the mouth? The difference between tender and creepy is actually pretty distinct.

And what are we to make of a sexually-suggestive remark that does not result in any physical contact? Is that less blameworthy than gripping a person’s shoulders in a gesture of support or solidarity?

It is true that old habits die hard and perhaps Biden’s gestures ought to be relegated to the attic of interpersonal conduct along with hand-kissing and curtsying but let’s not conflate sin and sentimentalism. There is so much that is worse in today’s rancorous politics that in singling out for censure gestures such as Biden’s, we are throwing out the baby and holding on to the bath water.

Ross K. Baker is a distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @Rosbake1

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden's physicality is a mark of old-school politicians, not a creepy old man