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Biden Contends With Past Controversies Involving Gender And Race


Those recent complaints about Joe Biden's unwanted hugs and touching are bound to be scrutinized now that he's officially running for president. And there are many more topics from his past likely to get the same treatment. NPR's Don Gonyea looks at two certain to be on that list.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Let's start in 1991. Clarence Thomas is a Supreme Court nominee facing accusations of sexual harassment. Senator Joe Biden chairs the confirmation hearings. He questions Thomas's accuser, law professor Anita Hill.


JOE BIDEN: You have described the essence of the conversation. In order for us to determine - well, can you tell us, in his words, what he said?

GONYEA: He presses her for details.


ANITA HILL: I can remember something like, you really ought to see these films that I've seen or this material that I've seen. This woman has this kind of breasts...

GONYEA: You can hear her discomfort. Biden and the all-male, all-white Senate committee faced strong criticism for lacking sensitivity and fairness. In late 2017, Biden participated in an event with Glamour magazine. He was asked about Hill. The audio was from Glamour TV.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: I'm wondering if there is anything that you would do differently with regards to Anita Hill, if given the opportunity.

BIDEN: No. Let's get something straight here. I believed Anita Hill. I voted against Clarence Thomas.

GONYEA: Then this response to a question about Anita Hill still feeling she was treated unfairly.


BIDEN: My message, which I've delivered before, is, I am so sorry - if she believes that. I am so sorry that she had to go through what she went through. Think of the courage it took for her to come forward.

GONYEA: More recently, Biden has expressed further regret. Patti Solis Doyle worked for him in '08, when he was Barack Obama's running mate. She is not affiliated with any 2020 candidate. She says Biden needs to address that issue full-on, adding that those recent complaints about too-close contact could have been a cue to do so.

PATTI SOLIS DOYLE: I thought it was an opportunity for Joe Biden to have a bigger conversation, a more thoughtful, considered conversation about the #MeToo movement.

GONYEA: Solis Doyle says Biden must publicly satisfy concerns about his treatment of Anita Hill. If not...

SOLIS DOYLE: He won't be able to move on, and it will dog him on the campaign trail.

GONYEA: Today, the campaign confirmed that Biden has spoken privately with Anita Hill. In a statement, they said, quote, "he shared with her directly his regret for what she endured and his admiration for everything she has done to change the culture around sexual harassment." Biden will also need to address this issue.


BIDEN: Well, the telephones in the state of Delaware are ringing off the hook.

GONYEA: This is floor debate on the 1994 crime bill. That's Senator Biden of Delaware.


BIDEN: They're saying, pass the crime bill. Give me a hundred thousand cops, build more prisons and get on with it.

GONYEA: The bill was a response to violent crime in U.S. cities, but its mandatory sentences and stiff penalties would lead to increased incarceration. Jamal Simmons is a Democratic strategist.

JAMAL SIMMONS: These policies really had a negative impact on communities of color because of the number of people who were sent to jail and stayed away for so long.

GONYEA: Over the years, the belief that the law unfairly affects African Americans has grown, the Black Lives Matter movement giving it new resonance. This year, on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Joe Biden offered a mea culpa of sorts for pushing that legislation.


BIDEN: I haven't always been right. I know we haven't always gotten things right, but I've always tried.

GONYEA: Polls show Biden popular with African Americans. The potential problem is with younger black voters who are most likely to be appalled by the 1994 crime bill. Jamal Simmons.

SIMMONS: There are going to be people who are skeptical of Joe Biden's apology and the timing, but we'll see whether or not they accept him in the end.

GONYEA: He says the other side of this is all the goodwill Biden has earned for being such a loyal part of President Obama's team. That's real, too.

SIMMONS: He rode with him all the way through tough times, thick and thin. And I think people give Joe Biden a lot of credit for that.

GONYEA: It's what happens when your time in public office has lasted roughly a half century. And with thousands of votes cast in the U.S. Senate and so many speeches delivered, other moments from Biden's past will no doubt get another close look as well. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.