In his public life, Joe Biden can generally be counted on to do some version of the following: call bad men “good guys,” use the moniker “Middle-Class Joe” to describe himself despite now being very rich, touch women inappropriately and often uncomfortably, and refuse to fully take responsibility for his role in how Anita Hill was treated in 1991 during the confirmation hearings he oversaw for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
“To this day I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to give her the kind of hearing she deserved,” Biden said on Tuesday night at an event honoring campus activists who work to combat sexual assault. “I wish I could have done something.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same excuse he’s given over and over when he talks about Hill. It’s not an apology, but rather a somber man reflecting somberly on how things had to be. Biden, in his telling, was a victim of circumstance, much like Hill herself.
Biden made a similar comment in September 2018 on the Today show, when he positioned his Senate colleagues as the bullies and himself as the helpless bystander: “Anita Hill was vilified when she came forward, by a lot of my colleagues. I wish I could have done more to prevent those questions and the way they asked them.”
He continued: “My biggest regret was I didn’t know how I could shut you off, as you were a senator, and you were attacking Anita Hill’s character. Under the Senate rules, I can’t gavel you down and say you can’t ask that question, although I tried. And so what happened was she got victimized again during the process.”
And in an interview with Teen Vogue in 2017, Biden trotted out the same argument: “I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill. I owe her an apology.” He added: “And my one regret is that I wasn’t able to tone down the attacks on her by some of my Republican friends. I mean, they really went after her. As much as I tried to intervene, I did not have the power to gavel them out of order. I tried to be like a judge and only allow a question that would be relevant to ask.”
Biden, if you recall, was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time—hardly a man with little power over the hearings. As my colleague Prachi Gupta has written in the past:
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.
And while publicly, Biden is somewhat contrite, in private, according to the New York Times in 2018, “he has also described it as unfair that Ms. Hill continues to hold him responsible for her rough treatment in the Senate.”
Hill, for her part, has not wavered from her belief that Biden could have done more to control the hearings. In 2018, when asked her thoughts about Biden’s role during her testimony, Hill responded: “I think Joe Biden was pretty much useless. He tried so hard to be ‘neutral’ when the situation called for anything but neutrality.”
In 2017, Biden issued yet another non-apology; in response, Hill told the Washington Post, “He said, ‘I am sorry if she felt she didn’t get a fair hearing.’ That’s sort of an “I’m sorry if you were offended.” Hill continued: “But I still don’t think it takes ownership of his role in what happened.”
She made clear that her objection to Biden’s lukewarm mea culpa is about more than just how she was treated: “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.”
Biden has said that in response to the hearings, he championed the Violence Against Women Act. That’s to be commended, but surely it shouldn’t be difficult for him to say something along the lines of: I really fucked it up, and I’m sorry, and I’ve learned a lot and grown since then? On Tuesday night during his speech, Biden called for a culture shift to prevent violence against women. “It’s an English jurisprudential culture, a white man’s culture. It’s got to change,” he said.
Maybe be the change you want to see, Joe?