So, Who Wasn't A Creepy Senator In the '90s?

From left to right: Sen. Strom Thurmond at the microphone, Sen. Ted Kennedy standing in the center, Sen. Joe Biden seated on the right, and Sen. Howard Metzenbaum standing on the far right.
From left to right: Sen. Strom Thurmond at the microphone, Sen. Ted Kennedy standing in the center, Sen. Joe Biden seated on the right, and Sen. Howard Metzenbaum standing on the far right.
Image: AP

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s reputation as a serial toucher has, in a way, turned the sexual assault allegations against him into a matter of, “Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?” But Biden’s firm denial of wrongdoing now has the backing of dozens of his former staffers.

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PBS NewsHour spoke to 74 former Biden staffers—including 62 women—about the accusations made by Tara Reade, the former Biden Senate staffer who says Biden sexually assaulted her in the ‘90s. The overall consensus: Biden might have been a little hands-on, but he was far from the biggest creep in the Senate.

The former staffers noted that while their experiences do not negate Reade’s allegations, neither their personal experiences nor the Senate rumor mill matched Reade’s allegations. According to NewsHour, “None of the people interviewed said that they had experienced sexual harassment, assault or misconduct by Biden. All said they never heard any rumors or allegations of Biden engaging in sexual misconduct, until the recent assault allegation made by Tara Reade.”

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The lengthy dive into Biden, Reade, and Capitol Hill culture in the ’90s made a valiant effort at uncovering any and all tales of exploitative or violent behavior by the former senator that might have gotten buried over the decades. A lack of a pattern or string of sexual assault allegations doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t any—or that all those who commit assault or misconduct necessarily do so in a pattern—but the fact that not a single former staffer PBS spoke to came forward with additional allegations is an obvious win for Team Biden.

Still, there was one pattern that was well known to staffers: Shoulder massages, and lots of them.

Alongside Reade’s sexual assault allegations, she also said that Biden often rubbed her shoulders and neck. Seven other women also accused Biden of inappropriate touching, including shoulder rubs and smelling their hair. In April 2019, a few weeks before announcing his presidential run, Biden released a video message acknowledging the allegations of unwanted touching.

“I’ve always tried to make a human connection,” Biden said. “I shake hands. I hug people. I grab men and women by the shoulders and say they can do this. [...] Social norms have begun to change. They’ve shifted, and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset, and I get it. I get it. I hear what they’re saying. I understand it. And I’ll be much more mindful. That’s my responsibility.”

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One has to wonder how many men got a hair sniff from Biden, but the staffers PBS spoke to saw his touchy nature as “ an endearing quality that wasn’t sexual in nature.”

“We knew that about Biden,” [former Senate staffer Mary] Byrne said. “He was always massaging somebody’s shoulders. But never anything more than that. There was no vibe about him.”

Many staffers stressed that people frequently gravitate to Biden, as a kind of “comforter-in-chief,” and look for an arm around a shoulder or a kiss on the cheek.

[...]

A former staffer said that when Biden does things like stroking women’s hair, there’s a complicated dynamic at play.

His behavior toward women can be “somewhat infantilizing,” the staffer said. “That doesn’t look like equality, right? But that was an expression of empathy, as opposed to flirtation.”

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One staffer admitted that, in retrospect, Biden’s touchy tendencies should have been called out, telling NewsHour, “We probably should have recognized that made people uncomfortable.” But unexpected touches from men were reportedly so commonplace that Biden’s were not noticeably predatory.

Bryne said, “I remember sitting at a desk outside the Agriculture Committee and one staffer would come in and give you a shoulder massage, say you are doing good. Men there felt they had access to your body as a young woman.”

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Bryne even allegedly once saw a female deputy chief of staff sitting on a senator’s lap.

Creepy senators were so rampant that those who were particularly egregious landed on the Senate version of a Shitty Media Men list. Biden’s brand of encouraging shoulder rubs apparently didn’t make the cut:

“You got to know which senators you didn’t want to be on an elevator alone with,” said Liz Tankersley, who was Biden’s legislative director from 1985 to 1993. “No one ever said Joe Biden was one of them.”

On that list in 1993, according to multiple staffers, was Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore. He later resigned, in 1995, after the public revelation that he had engaged in years of aggressive sexual behavior toward women, including staffers. The late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., was also infamously on the avoid-elevator list, staffers claimed. So was another now-deceased lawmaker — Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.

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A Man Men-style office culture might have been the norm, but that doesn’t mean the women staffers who had to experience a Senator snaking his arm around their waist just shrugged it off. Sexual harassment allegations shook up politics repeatedly in the early ’90s—perhaps most notably Anita Hill’s allegations against Justice Clarence Thomas—and norms were already changing then, not just now, 30 years later. And yet, that Biden—with his shoulder rubs and hair strokes—wasn’t the kind of guy women staffers were told to avoid at all costs says less about Biden, and more about the countless men on Capitol Hill who were never forced to acknowledge their unfettered entitlement over women’s bodies. That there are likely several women who have felt fear in the presence of the powerful, beloved politicians they worked for because a grab here and a kiss there was just another day at the office is an infuriating prospect, one that neither benevolent acts nor groundbreaking legislation can nullify.

Staff writer, mint chocolate hater.

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DISCUSSION

For some of us the ‘90s feel like yesterday, but in fact it’s roughly 30 years ago, and some rules were different. Homosexuals were becoming accepted by many as deserving of basic civil rights, but legally recognized marriages were wishful thinking. AIDS was a fatal disease. Date rape was a thing, butdrunk people can’t consent” was not*, and the standard response to a claim of rape was a checklist of things the victim might have done to cause their assault. “F-g hag” was a term for a straight women with a gay BFF. There weren’t fights over gender-neutral bathrooms in schools because there weren’t openly trans kids in schools.

Generally society changes for the better, and sometimes it’s only in hindsight we realize how bad it was. There was a time where high schools didn’t have day care for students with babies, but instead girls were kicked out of school for being pregnant. Through today’s lens we can’t imagine a decent parent that would send their daughter away just for getting pregnant (or force her to marry the baby’s father, even if the conception wasn’t consensual), but those parents would have told us it was the best option for their daughter and the baby, sparing them shame and all that. Now their reasons seem ridiculous but at the time, it was common sense.

When these male politicians were presuming every mini-skirt was an invitation to flirting, a majority of people felt the same way. We’re all smarter now, and think we should concentrate more on politicians have been doing in the last 10 years than the last 30.

*This is the part where I confess that in college in the mid-90s, if I liked a guy, I’d often get him drunk to see what could happen - and I proudly disclosed my strategy to friends. If I did that today, the proper response would be to call me out for sexual assault.