Joe and Jill Biden spoke with outgoing Glamour editor-in-chief Cindi Leive during the magazine’s annual Women of the Year event on Monday, and the conversation inevitably turned towards sexual assault. Over the course of his career the former VP has shaped himself into a prominent women’s rights advocate, leading the charge to pass and renew the 1994 Violence Against Women Act and, during Obama’s term, to combat sexual assault on college campuses.
But Anita Hill is where the story Joe Biden tells about himself begins to unravel—it was anticipated to be a spot of vulnerability, were he to have run against Clinton in 2016. Amid renewed and somewhat baffling talk of a 2020 campaign, he has taken this opportunity to rewrite history just a little bit. Biden, who was at the time a senator and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been roundly criticized for his handling of the 1991 confirmation process for Clarence Thomas, who—despite Hill’s famed allegations of workplace sexual harassment—is now one of the most conservative justices on the Supreme Court.
Here’s what Biden said at the Women of the Year conference today after he was asked about Anita Hill by Rachel Wilkerson-Miller, a BuzzFeed editor in attendance:
It got down to one witness who at the last minute decided she did not want to come and testify. So I wanted to make sure she understood, my chief of staff went to the hotel room this woman was staying in, very accomplished woman, and said we want you to testify. She said no, she didn’t want to, he said, will you sign this affidavit saying you refused to testify. Some argue that I should have made her come and testify. The truth of the matter was, you don’t want a witness who’s gonna come and testify and be weak in the testimony and undercut the testimony of Anita Hill.
Anita Hill was victimized, there is no question in my mind, and every single solitary person on that committee who believed her voted no. It was a tie vote. What I do feel badly about was the bad taste that got left in the mouth of some of the people around Anita Hill, and maybe even Anita, about whether or not the witnesses should have been called who weren’t called etcetera. Maybe I could have handled that better, but I believed her from the beginning, I made her case from the floor, I made her case to the committee.
Leive then interjected to note that Hill “has said herself that she expected a fair process and did not feel that she had one.” She asked if Biden had a message he would give Hill now, given his more recent work on these issues.
“I am so sorry if she believed that. I am so sorry that she had to go through what she went through. Think of the courage it took for her to come forward,” Biden replied.
“I feel really badly that she didn’t feel like the process worked, but I tell you what, I said something at the time that proved to be right. I said this is going to be the start of a fundamental change of what constitutes harassment in the workplace and people are going to begin to change.”
Great call, Joe.
“There were three women who were ready and waiting and subpoenaed to be giving testimony about similar behavior that they had experienced or witnessed. He failed to call them,” Anita Hill, now a professor at Brandeis, told HuffPost Live in 2015. “There also were experts who could have given real information as opposed to the misinformation that the Senate was giving... and helped the public understand sexual harassment. He failed to call them.”
“[N]either he nor any other senator had spoken to Hill in an effort to draw an independent judgment about her credibility,” Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, who co-wrote Strange Justice, noted of Biden’s involvement.
Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, who worked on Hill’s legal team, has denied Biden’s claim that he’d believed additional testimony would weaken Hill’s case, calling it “absolutely, unequivocally, categorically, and positively false.”
Biden’s claim that he “believed her from the beginning” doesn’t ring particularly true, either. From HuffPost’s writeup earlier this year:
“I must start off with a presumption of giving the person accused the benefit of the doubt,” Biden told The New York Times two days before Hill was set to testify. “I must seek the truth and I must ask straightforward and tough questions, and in my heart I know if that woman is telling the truth it will be almost unfair to her. On the other hand, if I don’t ask legitimate questions, then I am doing a great injustice to someone who might be totally innocent. It’s a horrible dilemma because you have two lives at stake here.”
A horrible dilemma, indeed. Watch a clip of the conversation below:
Update: This post has been updated to include context on why Biden was discussing Anita Hill.