Several women have accused former Vice President Joe Biden, a likely 2020 contender, of inappropriate physical conduct.
One of those women—Lucy Flores, a former candidate for lieutenant governor of Nevada—writes that Biden smelled her hair and kissed her on the back of the head during a campaign stop in 2014. Another woman, Amy Lappos, says Biden put his hands on her head and pulled her closer during a 2009 political fundraiser.
These and other accusations lend credence to the media caricature of Biden as "creepy Uncle Joe," an idea the former veep's critics on both the left and the right have been eager to popularize. The #MeToo movement has made the public more attuned to sexual misconduct, and warier about powerful men in government, media, and entertainment who stand accused of wrongdoing. Biden's reputation as a man who is overly familiar with women could hurt his campaign for the presidency—though anyone who thinks this is guaranteed to doom him should be gently reminded that the current president is Donald Trump.
At the same time, it's important not to mischaracterize matters. Some forms of #MeToo advocacy have eroded careful distinctions, particularly on college campuses.
For instance, one of the viral images most associated with the "creepy Uncle Joe" headline is this picture of Biden rubbing the shoulders of Stephanie Carter while her husband, Ashton Carter, was sworn in as secretary of defense. But as she explains in a recent Medium post after the picture started making the rounds again, it does not depict a #MeToo violation. Biden's contact with Carter was welcome and consensual.
Carter had slipped and fallen on some ice just before the ceremony, she writes, and the incident had left her shaken:
By the time then–Vice President Biden had arrived, he could sense I was uncharacteristically nervous—and quickly gave me a hug. After the swearing in, as Ash was giving remarks, he leaned in to tell me "thank you for letting him do this" and kept his hands on my shoulders as a means of offering his support. 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.
In that context, Biden's touching of Carter wasn't inappropriate. It wasn't inappropriate, because the sole person with the authority to judge that—Carter—says it wasn't.
Carter's experience does not invalidate Flores's or Lappos's. But it should serve as a reminder not to lump together a bunch of unrelated or misleading moments when discussing Biden's fitness as a candidate. At the very least, the media should give Carter the final say on the 2015 photo and stop recycling it for "creepy Uncle Joe" coverage.