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A kiss on the back of the head shouldn’t be a kiss of death for Biden

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter (right) speaks beside his wife Stephanie and Vice President Joe Biden during a swearing-in ceremony at the White House in February 2015. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

I believe Lucy Flores and her account of Joe Biden putting his hands on her shoulders and kissing the back of her head.

But that’s a kiss of death for 2020? That makes Biden unfit to be president?

If true, what a crazy world we live in. Donald Trump can win the White House after bragging about grabbing women by the genitals and paying off a porn actress with whom he had extramarital sex. Biden, meanwhile, is deemed too “creepy” to run for president because of a “crisis of touching” that’s not about sexual assault or workplace harassment, or sex with an intern.


It’s about unwanted invasion of personal space. It rises to the level of political crime because it puts the 76-year-old former vice president out of step with another cause that speaks to progressive voters in a very rigid way: the #MeToo movement. Biden’s already apologizing for white male privilege and how he mishandled the Anita Hill hearings when he headed the Senate committee that questioned her. Now he has to apologize for all the times he touched a woman’s shoulders, held her hand too long, or rubbed noses — as a Connecticut woman told the Hartford Courant that he did during a 2009 political fundraiser in Greenwich.

I’m not saying I would welcome such behavior coming from Biden or any other man approaching me in a professional situation. It’s why women perfect the art of quickly putting out their hand and turning their face away in business settings. But if someone manages to get past an outstretched arm, I don’t equate it with an outrageous attack that renders the offender dead to me forever. Yet, after a year-plus of #MeToo sagas, I know this also puts me on the other side of a divide that is often generational. There’s a world of women who make no distinction between the switch under Matt Lauer’s desk that allegedly allowed him to trap women in his office, and a comment from a male colleague about what they’re wearing.


Not everyone on the other end of Biden’s behavior defines it as inappropriate. Stephanie Carter, the wife of former defense secretary Ashton Carter, said that Biden’s holding of her shoulders in a much circulated photo was an effort by the vice president to make her feel better during a stressful moment. “But a still shot taken from a video — misleadingly extracted from what was a longer moment between close friends — sent out in a snarky tweet — came to be the lasting image of that day,” she wrote on Medium.

At the same time, I don’t discount Flores’s discomfort with Biden’s behavior, even if she waited five years to complain about it. At a 2014 event at which the then vice president came to endorse her, when she was running for lieutenant governor in Nevada, she said Biden put two hands on her shoulders, “inhaled” her hair, “and proceeded to plant a big slow kiss on the back of my head.” That, she wrote in New York magazine’s “The Cut,” made her feel “uneasy, gross, and confused” as well as “powerless to do anything about it.” She could have enlightened him then. Instead, just as Biden is deciding whether to launch a presidential campaign, she’s empowered enough to tell the world about it.


If Biden wants to run, this shouldn’t stop him. Primary voters should pick the next Democratic party nominee — not Democratic rivals who are trying to winnow an enormous field. Flores says she’s not supporting any candidate at the moment. But in 2016, she endorsed Bernie Sanders, and according to The New York Times, she attended former US representative Beto O’Rourke’s campaign kickoff in El Paso.

Biden should apologize to Flores and say that he has gotten the message: no more shoulder or nose-rubbing, hair-sniffing, or back-of-the-head kissing. If any more women come forward to complain, it will be the kiss of death for him. At what point does it also become the kiss of death for old-fashioned human contact in political campaigns?

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.