It’s a story we know all too well. A woman says a politician hurt her. He abused her. She’s coming forward now. She wants people to know what this man is made of, what he’s capable of.
And we know the rest of the story, too. People question her motives. People question her character. She is part of a partisan conspiracy to discredit the person she’s accusing. Or maybe she’s just wrong. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. It can’t be that bad.
It’s the story cycle we use to wash, rinse and then ultimately pronounce as clean our male politicians — how we justify placing them in positions of power.
It happened with President Bill Clinton after the allegations of sexual misconduct from Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, Leslie Millwee and Monica Lewinsky. (In light of the MeToo movement, Lewinsky has come to describe her relationship with Clinton as a “gross abuse of power.”)
It has happened with President Donald Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women. In a recent, vivid example, it happened in fall 2018, when Christine Blasey Ford accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of having sexually assaulted her at a high school gathering. Ford is still effectively in hiding after her moving testimony, while Kavanaugh sits on the high court.
And now we have the case of Tara Reade, who has accused former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, of assaulting her when she worked in his Senate office in 1993. Reade’s brother and a friend who prefers to remain anonymous have both said she recounted the incident to them at the time. Biden, echoing the men before him, has flatly declared, “It never happened.”
Many Democrats are twisting themselves into rhetorical pretzels to justify ignoring Reade’s allegations. Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, says that because the allegation didn’t turn up when Biden was vetted as the Democrats’ vice presidential selection in 2008, it couldn’t have happened. In the New York Times, columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote, “Reade seems almost engineered in a lab to inspire skepticism in mainstream Democrats, both because her story keeps changing and because of her bizarre public worship of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.” (Reade wrote, and has since deleted, an article on the website Medium praising Putin’s leadership.)
Biden’s communications staff has stressed that the man who “authored and fought for the passage and reauthorization of the landmark Violence Against Women Act” could not have committed such an act — in much the same way Kavanaugh’s defenders said his history of hiring female clerks made Blasey Ford’s accusation unthinkable.
I wish it all didn’t feel so familiar.
When Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, it felt for a moment as if the story arc might change — that this time, the story would end differently. She was a compelling witness — recalling, for example, the laughter of the men, boys really, assaulting her: “indelible,” she said, in her “hippocampus,” the part of the brain where short-term recall transforms into long-term memories.
I watched her testimony on my computer, sitting in my bedroom, crying — remembering my own assault in college, 17 years ago, which I’d never spoken of or told anyone about. Because to function I had to convince myself that it had never happened. Near me on the bed, my phone buzzed and buzzed with text messages from friends, each of whom had their own stories, too, their own moments that they had convinced themselves had never happened. Because the daily enterprise of womanhood, of survival, required that we gaslight ourselves.
As we now know, the story did not end differently. The Republicans needed Kavanaugh more than they needed the truth, and Republicans on the committee insisted on a truncated investigation of the accusations. They wanted his vote on the Supreme Court, and political expediency won the day.
Right now, the Democrats are faced with the same choice. Our presumptive nominee stands credibly accused of sexual misconduct. It’s a nightmare in an election cycle that has already seen the impeachment of the sitting president and a global pandemic that Trump is utterly unequipped to handle. Lives hang in the balance of the outcome in November.
And yet Democrats should still insist that Biden step aside. Democrats must apply the standards we elaborated during the Kavanaugh case to our own side. In his defense, Biden’s campaign is emphasizing his support of women’s rights. But as Jessica Valenti argues in GEN, “Feminists must not fall into the trap of ignoring individual women’s stories in exchange for broader political power. It not only runs counter to our most fundamental values around trusting women, but it’s also a strategy that has never — and will never — result in the progress we’re actually after.”
And it’s not just feminists, but Democrats. If we want the change we say we do, if we truly stand for women, we cannot silence yet another woman’s voice for political gain. “Biden or Trump” is a false dichotomy designed to force us into hypocrisy. It’s false because it ignores that there are so many qualified candidates who could just as effectively win against Trump in the general election.
Faced with credible accusations of sexual assault against their man, the Republicans could have substituted another judicial conservative for Kavanaugh. Democrats, too, can replace Biden with an ideologically similar figure. Or we risk becoming hypocrites.
It is only May. Biden, were he denied the nomination at or before the August convention, would hardly face jail time, so there’s no need to apply a standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” to Reade’s assertions. Many Democrats and political leaders have called for an independent investigation of Reade’s claims. I, too, echo this call, but it’s not enough. Anyone who has been assaulted knows that there is never a credible enough witness, never enough proof. Biden should be investigated and replaced.
Before Reade went public with her allegations, I had been committed to voting for the Democratic nominee, even if that person wasn’t my preferred candidate. And I intended to vote for Biden despite having had an unpleasant experience with him on the campaign trail. In September 2019, in my role as a columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, I moderated a forum on LGBTQ issues with several presidential candidates. At the forum, I asked Biden about his history of voting for the military policy known as “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and he replied, sarcastically, “Well, aren’t you nice?”
I replied, “Just asking what people want to know.” The audience applauded. Later, as we walked off the stage, he walked by me and said, dryly, “Well, aren’t you a real sweetheart.”
I tweeted the exchange and it went viral. I spent that weekend hiding in my house from the harassment and death threats — people accusing me of making it up, of misunderstanding him, of attacking him. He never apologized. I bring this up not just for transparency, but because I know, in a very small way, what it’s like to be part of an inconvenient political narrative.
I caucused for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation primary contest. But as the primary cycle dragged on, and both low-polling and formidable candidates dropped out, we were finally left with Biden. The Democratic electorate was apparently so afraid of losing another election to Trump that they settled on the safest option: the centrist white male politician. And now, he is yet another white male politician shadowed by sexual misconduct allegations.
I do not want to be forced to balance the accusations against Biden and Trump — playing the “Which is worse?” game. But that is what I’m being told I will have to do.
November is six months away, and we still have time to tell a different story. I want to believe that at least in some small way the world has changed — that all the work the Third Wave of feminism has done to elect more women, and to remove the culture of shame and silence around assault, has shifted how we handle accusations like Reade’s.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., could revive his campaign; other candidates could leap back in; party leaders might recruit a Democratic governor who has handled the coronavirus pandemic well. There are many options. We do not have to sacrifice yet another woman on the altar of political expediency.
Lyn Lenz, a columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, is the author of “God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America” and the forthcoming “Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women.” She wrote this article for the Washington Post.