I really, really want to like Joe Biden. Though his record on progressive policies is mixed, he’s like the white grandpa I didn’t know I had. During his long career he has strengthened policies against campus sexual assault, helped pass the Violence Against Women Act, which he also wrote. He’s one of the most vocal male allies in the #MeToo movement in Washington, D.C. But every time Biden, who may be angling for a presidential bid in 2020, speaks about Anita Hill, it is so frustrating.
In an interview with NBC’s Today, Biden condemned his colleagues for their treatment of Hill, who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, then a nominee, of sexual harassment. The 1991 hearing was more like a trial—Hill versus 14 white men in a committee headed by Biden, who rushed the process against the request of his female colleagues; did not block offensive, invasive questions and comments from his colleagues; did not include key witnesses who backed Hill’s experiences; and, at the last minute, switched the order of the testimonies, allowing Thomas to preemptively discredit Hill and defend himself.
Yet nearly 30 years later, as he extends support for Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Biden is still sidestepping his role in the way the proceedings went off the rails. “Anita Hill was vilified when she came forward by a lot of my colleagues, character assassination,” he said. “I wish I could have done more to prevent those questions and the way they asked them.”
While he acknowledged some mistakes, Biden mostly positioned his colleagues as the bullies. “My biggest regret was, I didn’t know how I could shut you off because you were a senator and you were attacking Anita Hill’s character,” he said. “Under the Senate rules I can’t gavel you down and say you can’t ask that question, although I tried.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t have stopped the kind of attacks that came to you,” he said in the interview. “But I never attacked her. I supported her. I believed her from the beginning and I voted against Clarence Thomas.”
As we’ve re-learned this week, belief doesn’t seem to much matter. Very little of what has transpired in how Congress is dealing with Ford suggests it will deal with her hearings any differently than those with Hill 27 years ago. Ford, like Hill did then, deserves more. An important way to avoid repeating the past, then, would be for Biden to acknowledge his full role in what transpired—something that Anita Hill, in a 2017 interview with the Washington Post, has asked for.
While Biden has apologized for what Hill “went through,” as he reiterated at Glamour’s Women of the Year Summit in November 2017, he still has not assumed direct responsibility. “The message I’ve delivered before is I am so sorry if she believes that,” he said. “I am so sorry that she had to go through what she went through. Think of the courage that it took for her to come forward.”
“That’s sort of an ‘I’m sorry if you were offended,’” Hill told the Post in response to Biden’s half-apology.
“I still don’t think it takes ownership of his role in what happened,” she said. “And he also doesn’t understand that it wasn’t just that I felt it was not fair. It was that women were looking to the Senate Judiciary Committee and his leadership to really open the way to have these kinds of hearings. They should have been using best practices to show leadership on this issue on behalf of women’s equality. And they did just the opposite.”
Hill told the Washington Post that she’s not hearing him take “responsibility for it.”
“That’s what I want to hear,” she said.
It’s much easier for Biden to claim moral high ground and chastise his former colleagues for doing the wrong thing, but Biden falls short of acknowledging the extent to which Hill was wronged and how his actions contributed to that. That’s especially disheartening because Biden is supposed to be one of the good ones.