It’s a generous descriptor to call Joe Biden’s press junket ‘an apology tour,’ when every apology appears wrenched out of his throat against his will. But on Monday, Joe Biden continued his media circuit with an interview on Good Morning America.
When GMA’s Robin Roberts mentioned Anita Hill rejecting Biden’s recent apology over the handling of Hill’s sexual harassment allegations during Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing in 1992, Biden was ready with what is now his go-to line.
“As the committee chairman, I take responsibility that she did not get treated well,” Biden said. He later added, “I apologize. I apologize again. She didn’t get treated well across the board.”
Despite saying “I apologize” twice, Biden phrase was more of a general lament about what Hill endured. His co-opting of the despicable actions of others might sound valiant to Biden, but they absolve him of any real guilt.
Biden’s use of passive voice—describing Hill’s nauseating treatment as a thing that simply happened to her, as opposed to a thing Biden was complicit in allowing—made the apology sound like vague hand-wringing rather than a sincere admission of wrong doing.
Using the passive voice to evade owning an action is a common political maneuver, but Biden has a history of this kind of dodging of responsibility for his treatment of Anita Hill. Biden maintains that he has always been a champion of women and that he knew what the stakes were in the Hill case. Yet, he allowed Anita Hill to be ridiculed on national television, citing, oddly, his own apparent inability to hold other powerful men accountable.
And the more Biden fumbles through these half-baked apologies that remove himself from Hill’s hurt, the emptier this apology tour will feel—both for Hill, and for outside observers who can spot the difference between sincere remorse and an apology designed to ease ire.
Biden has a history of the latter.
At first, his statements avoided any notion of wrongdoing. From the New York Times in 1991:
Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. plays down the notion that his career could be damaged by the outcome of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings into the sexual harassment accusations against Judge Clarence Thomas.
“When you are in public office long enough, you get people to see a motion picture of you and not just stills,” said Mr. Biden, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “If it is concluded at the end of the process that I did not do well, I believe that would not guarantee my demise with women anymore than if I did brilliantly.”
Mr. Biden told reporters today that if he had to conduct the hearings again, he would not change the decisions he made.
In the 1994 book Strange Justice, Biden insisted that he was trying to act as a level headed operator “in fairness to Thomas, which in retrospect he didn’t deserve.”
As Biden saw it, he had just been trying to be fair to Thomas. Moreover, he believed in the sanctity of privacy, which, he argued, extended to Supreme Court nominees. It was up to him, he concluded, to act as a statesman and, no matter how nasty the other side got, to uphold the standards of decency. But Biden once overheard his own wife suggesting that when it came to power, he was naive. And in this instance he ultimately came to realize that his sentiment had been misplaced.
It wasn’t until the 20th anniversary of the Hill hearings that Biden’s role received renewed scrutiny. In a New York Times interview with Hill, following the release of her book Reimagining Equality, Hill was asked if Biden’s decision not to call witnesses who were willing to corroborate her testimony led to Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Hill said, “I can’t say. You’re asking me to speculate on a hypothetical. But everybody has to take responsibility for what he did during that time, including Joe Biden, who should have called the witnesses.”
Biden’s office didn’t appear to respond to Hill’s comment or her book, but they took the time to release a statement following the release of the 2016 HBO film Confirmation, a dramatized version Hill’s testimony. In it, Biden is depicted as reluctant to confront the sexual harassment allegations and concerned about ruining his reputation if Hill’s accusations were false.
Vice President Biden has so far not directly commented on the film. But his office put out a statement about the Thomas hearing, saying the then-Senate chairman fought for “gender diversity” on the Judiciary Committee, “successfully adding two female senators to the committee for the first time in its history.”
The Biden statement also touted a “63 percent favorability rating for his handling of the hearings,” according to a Gallup poll taken at the time.
One year later, Biden’s ham-handed, passive mea culpas began in earnest.
At Glamour’s Woman of the Year summit in November 2017, Biden was asked to respond to Hill’s belief that she was treated unfairly:
My message, which I’ve delivered before, is, I am so sorry - if she believes 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.
In an interview with Teen Vogue in December 2017, Biden said, “I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill. I owe her an apology.”
In January of 2018, PBS Newshour’s Judy Woodruff asked Biden if he contacted Hill. Biden said he hadn’t. When asked if he planned to, Biden replied, “I hadn’t planned on it. I’m always happy to see her.”
He added, “I wish I could have protected her from the attacks that came at her, but I didn’t know any way to do that.”
In September 2018, during the lead up to Christine Blasey Ford testifying that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school, NBC’s Craig Melvin asked how the senate judiciary committee should behave. Biden noted that when he was head of that committee during the Hill hearings, Hill was “vilified” and experienced “character assassination” at the hand of his Republican colleagues. He said Ford should not receive the same treatment.
“I wish I could have done more to prevent those questions and the way they asked them,” said Biden.
Later in the interview, Biden clarified his actions by reiterating his apparent powerlessness, despite being the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I’m sorry I couldn’t have stopped the kind of attacks that came to you [Hill]. But I never attacked her, I supported her. I believed her from the beginning. I voted against Clarence Thomas.”
Just last week on The View, following the announcement of his presidential run, Biden said that he’s “sorry for the way she got treated,” but maintained that he treated her well.
For almost three decades Biden has subtly invoked his regret that he didn’t call out his colleague’s sexist questioning. But with every apology, Biden can’t help but to simultaneously exonerate himself, with his phrasing.
These apologies feel even less sincere considering their proximity to his presidential run, nearly three decades after Hill’s testimony and nearly a year and a half after publicly stating that he owes Hill an apology.
It’s fair to assert that, despite the apology tour, Biden hasn’t actually evolved on this issue at all. He maintains that he was in the right in not letting additional witnesses testify against Thomas. He maintains that he wouldn’t do anything differently. He maintains that he was simply trying to be fair during the hearings. He maintains that judgment of his performance according to a 1991 Gallup poll holds water decades later. Biden has spent decades masking his cowardice as diplomacy and still, he refuses to own the negative impact his cowardice had on Hill’s life.
And unless he finds a way to move forward, we’ll all continue on in this terrible cycle: Biden with these non-apology “apologies,” while Hill responds, “this ain’t it,” until perhaps one day Biden can see himself clearly.