Joe Biden’s long career, now capped by a careening and testy performance as the soon-to-be Democratic nominee for president, is a virtual Museum of American Politics.
We’ve been walking through the exhibits ever since last June’s Democratic debate, when Sen. Kamala Harris called Biden out for making “very hurtful” comments about having worked with two senators who supported racial segregation.
Peer through the glass at this display and you’ll see the history of the Democratic Party, which, if you look back far enough, put its name proudly on the defense of slavery, and ferociously opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1866.
Biden hasn’t been in politics that long, but the Democratic Party was still the comfortable home of segregationists when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Far more Republicans in the House and Senate supported the legislation than Democrats did.
So when Biden was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, that fight was as recent as the re-election of Barack Obama is to us. In other words, most everybody who was there in 1964 was still in politics, hauling around their alliances and resentments.
What makes Biden a museum is his failure to understand that these political relationships don’t look to us today like the kind of references you’d put on a resume. They look more like old college yearbook photos that one day will ruin your confirmation hearings.
During this presidential campaign, Biden sought to tout his record as someone who can work with people of different views. He cited his good relationships with Senators James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman E. Talmadge of Georgia, both defenders of racial segregation.
He was called out for those comments by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, said Biden should apologize. “Apologize for what?” Biden said, when reporters asked him about it, “Cory should apologize. He knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body.”
But “racist” was the word that many voters used when they heard Biden’s recent appearance on The Breakfast Club. As the interview concluded and host Charlamagne tha God asked Biden to come back again because “we have more questions,” Biden snapped, apparently irritated that the sale was not yet closed. “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black,” the former vice president said.
That pathetic statement is a museum piece, too, a relic of an earlier era of racial politics. The interview with Charlamagne was part of a new political landscape. Younger voters are not their grandparents. They have questions, not about Biden’s long-ago Senate votes, but about their future.
Another exhibit in the museum shows grainy footage of Biden, then Senate Judiciary Chairman, grilling Anita Hill about her charges of sexual harassment by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
And in the next display case, we see Tara Reade, a Senate staffer in the early 1990s, who alleges that she was sexually assaulted by then-Sen. Joe Biden.
Back then, Reade told several people that she had been sexually harassed by Biden, and she says she filed a report with a Senate personnel office. Biden denies the allegations.
There was a time in American politics, and everywhere else, when it was routine and accepted for powerful men to “toy” with women in the workplace. The conduct could range from sexual comments to groping and sometimes much worse than groping. In a workplace context, where power was extremely unequal, it was understood and often reinforced that women who complained would find their reputations smeared and their careers destroyed.
This museum exhibit, like The Breakfast Club gallery, is notable for the sharp difference in the reactions by Democrats based on their age. Octogenarian House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, chooses not to believe Reade’s allegations.
But college Democratic groups across the country are speaking out in opposition to Biden. The publication Campus Reform reported that the groups “all cited the sexual assault allegations against Biden by former Senate staffer Tara Reade.”
The Texas College Democrats State Convention adopted a resolution calling for an investigation of Reade’s allegations. D.C. College Democrats followed with a similar resolution of their own. “We believe that the accusations against Mr. Biden are both credible and extremely relevant in his bid for President,” the D.C. College Democrats said in a statement.
“Tara Reade is telling the truth,” #MeToo activist and actress Rose McGowan wrote on Twitter after seeing a video clip from a 1993 “Larry King Live” segment in which a woman identified as Reade’s mother called the show to discuss “problems” her daughter endured while working as a Senate staffer.
The caller to the show said, “Yes, hello. I’m wondering what a staffer would do besides go to the press in Washington? My daughter has just left there, after working for a prominent senator, and could not get through with her problems at all, and the only thing she could have done was go to the press, and she chose not to do it out of respect for him.” Fear could be another motive, and we’re seeing why.
A dispiriting smear campaign against Tara Reade appears to be underway in the press and elsewhere. Politico “investigated” her, finding past financial problems, and reported their findings under the headline, “‘Manipulative, deceitful, user’: Tara Reade left a trail of aggrieved acquaintances.” The Monterey County District Attorney’s office has opened an investigation into whether Reade, who has testified as an expert witness, may have lied about her educational credentials. The probe was triggered by inconsistencies in comments Reade wrote in a personal blog in 2012, now deleted. The news reports of the investigation manage to get the words “lied on the witness stand” into the first sentence.
This has the same sad sound of other efforts to throw slime on women who told the truth, a Washington version of Hollywood’s “You’ll never work in this town again.” If you remember, Gennifer Flowers was smeared until she produced recordings to prove she had a long affair with then-candidate Bill Clinton, and the press was told some lies to discredit Monica Lewinsky until she produced a dress that hadn’t gone to the dry cleaners.
Perhaps incumbent Democrats rallied around Biden during the primaries to save themselves from the political risk of having a socialist at the top of the ticket. The former vice president serves the purpose of protecting down-ballot candidates from having to defend leftist policy proposals that voters in much of the country will never support.
We’ll find out in November if that was a shrewd decision. But in the presidential race, it looks increasingly unlikely that the Democrats are going to beat a reality show with a museum collection.
Susan Shelley is an editorial writer and columnist for the Southern California News Group. Susan@SusanShelley.com. Twitter: @Susan_Shelley.
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