One evening in the mid-1990s, Lynda LaCasse was smoking a cigarette on the front stoop of her apartment in Morro Bay, Calif., when she was joined by her neighbor and friend Tara Reade. It was an emotional conversation, encompassing custody battles and violence. According to LaCasse, Reade disclosed an incident that occurred when Reade worked for then-Senator Joe Biden in 1993: After she took him his gym bag, he backed her up against a wall, kissed her neck and hair, put his hand under her clothes, and penetrated her digitally. “I remember the skirt. I remember the fingers. I remember she was devastated.” Reade wept at the memory; LaCasse urged her to file a police report.
On April 27, Business Insider published this account, corroborating Reade’s prior testimony. LaCasse made it plausible, moreover, that she has no ax to grind: She is a longtime Democrat, with a history of anti–Donald Trump posts on social media, together with recent praise for Biden as well as Bernie Sanders. She even said she still plans to vote for Biden. She also said her friend Tara Reade should be heard; she believes her, period. “I have to support her just because that’s what happened,” said LaCasse, who added that she came forward without Reade having asked her to: “We need to stand up and tell the truth.”
Such evidence supplements several other accounts that corroborate elements of Reade’s story—from her brother, two anonymous friends, a former colleague, and footage from Larry King Live apparently featuring Reade’s now deceased mother, who called in to the show a few months after the alleged incident in 1993 to seek advice on behalf of her daughter.
Given this strong evidence, why are many people still refusing to believe Reade? Among the primary reasons: an unwillingness to believe that Biden is “the type” and sheer political inconvenience.
We know, alas, that Biden is the type. He sniffed and kissed the hair of the politician Lucy Flores. Six other women have testified to his touching and kissing them in ways that made them uncomfortable. We also have relevant footage. This is a man with a demonstrated history of handsiness—and a man who so does not understand boundaries that he made jokes last year about having permission to hug and touch people onstage after being confronted about his problem.
Yet Maureen Dowd wrote in The New York Times, “I’ve covered Biden my entire political career, and he is known for being sometimes warmly, sometimes inappropriately, hands-on with men and women. What Reade accuses him of is a crime and seems completely out of character.” Such sentiments betray a failure to understand that Biden’s demonstrably inappropriate behavior emanates from the same sense of privileged male entitlement that often underlies more serious sexual breaches, including sexual assault of the kind Reade alleges. The reporters for the New York Times article on April 12 first exploring Reade’s allegations in that venue made a similar mistake when they initially wrote that they “found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden, beyond the hugs, kisses and touching that women previously said made them uncomfortable.” This is sexual misconduct, as was repeatedly pointed out on Twitter. (The paper subsequently deleted the “beyond” addendum—though without issuing a correction notice—leaving the sentence more coherent but less accurate.)
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The firm conviction that Biden wouldn’t push boundaries in more serious ways, notwithstanding Reade’s corroborated testimony, rests partly on a misguided faith in his “good guy” persona and a wrongheaded belief that only veritable monsters commit sexual assault. But as the Me Too movement has shown, many women’s monsters can seem like nice guys to the rest of us. And the number of true monsters—amoral, unrepentant psychopaths who do nothing but evil—is vastly outstripped by the entitled men who commit sexual assault with the blithe, deluded sense that she’s enjoying it, somehow.
According to Reade, when Biden assaulted her, he asked her softly, “Do you want to go somewhere else?” After she rebuffed him, he expressed disappointment and frustration: “Come on, man, I heard you liked me.” Then he pointed his trademark finger at her. “You’re nothing to me. Nothing.” Before walking away, he clapped her on the shoulders. “You’re OK. You’re fine.” Except, of course, she wasn’t.
For anyone who shares the widespread conviction that ousting Trump from office in November is a political imperative, admitting the credibility of Reade’s claims at this moment is painful and inconvenient indeed. There is nevertheless a moral obligation that we do so. If the Me Too movement means anything, it is that victims must not be swept aside and ignored, impugned, erased, and silenced when their claims are difficult to countenance—most notably when the person they are accusing is someone we want to believe in.
We may want to believe in him for a litany of reasons: because we know him, because we like him, or because—as is the case here—we feel we need him to be innocent. But these reasons add up to little more than the basis for highly motivated reasoning: post hoc rationalizations for the foregone conclusion that of course he didn’t do it. As we have seen time and time again, such conclusions do a profound injustice to women, amounting to what the philosopher Miranda Fricker calls “testimonial injustice,” wherein someone is not believed because of her social position—in this case, being a woman in a historically patriarchal society, in which powerful and privileged men have long been deemed more credible in these sorts of situations.
Such testimonial injustice was typified, if unwittingly, by Joan Walsh in The Nation, when she wrote in the opening sentence of her recent column, “There is no evidence that former vice president Joe Biden, now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, sexually assaulted aide Tara Reade in 1993.” Reade’s testimony is evidence that the sexual assault occurred, though there remains room to disagree on its strength or probative value.
Much of the public debate over Reade’s allegations have focused, in that vein, on her credibility. A great deal has been made of her supposedly changing story. But most of these “changes” are rather a matter of her having enlarged her account over time, by finally coming forward to speak out about the alleged sexual assault, in addition to the sexual harassment she previously attested to. (Biden’s touching her shoulders and running a finger up her neck, among other matters.) And adding to one’s story, when ready and willing to do so, does not amount to contradicting it. It is also hardly mysterious why it might take a victim time to break her silence: The pain, fear, and prospect of recrimination serve to keep many women quiet for years, decades, or even a lifetime. Reade recently said that, last year, when she spoke out about the sexual harassment, “I couldn’t get the words out [about the sexual assault].… As time has progressed, I felt stronger about speaking my truth. I realized I had to do this.”
We know, moreover, that sexual assault victims’ accounts often contain gaps or minor inconsistencies and sometimes evolve over time as they grapple with traumatic memories and come to terms with what happened to them. This, as sexual assault advocates and trauma specialists have taught us, does not mean the victim is lying. It simply makes her a typical, human, and hence imperfect victim. And as Biden himself put it during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, “For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real, whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time.… Nobody fails to understand that this is like jumping into a cauldron.”
Certain other attempts to discredit Reade have been more cynical or perhaps desperate: Having a peculiar regard for Vladimir Putin does not make her a liar. Nor does having allegedly complained of Biden’s sexual harassment to the Senate personnel office, without using the term “sexual harassment” specifically, cast doubt on her story. It amounts to having described something de re but not de dicto—speaking of a thing without using the word for it.
There is admittedly the point that, if Reade’s allegations against Biden are true, it would be unusual for Reade to be the only victim of such an attack. But it is hardly impossible. And if there are other such victims, it is not difficult to believe they might hesitate to come forward, especially now, with Reade facing intense scrutiny and death threats. An absence of additional evidence is hence not strong evidence of absence here.
And so I believe Tara Reade. I believe that we all should. And we are in the narrow window of time when it is not too late to push, at a minimum, for an independent investigation into her allegations, with a view to potentially replacing Biden as the presumptive Democratic nominee in 2020. Depending on what would come to light during an investigation, Biden might even be pressured to step aside to make way for a less compromised and therefore more promising candidate.
Biden, of course, has denied Reade’s claims, though not in a way that inspired much confidence. (He said on Morning Joe on May 1, “I am absolutely positive that no one that I am aware of ever was been made aware of any complaint—a formal complaint—made by or a complaint by Tara Reade against me at the time this allegedly happened 27 years ago or until the—I announced for president, well, I guess it was in April or May of this year. I know of no one who was aware that any complaint was made. Nor has…no, no, that’s it.”) At the same time, he refused point blank to release records containing Reade’s name from his University of Delaware Senate records—telling interviewer Mika Brzezinski that Reade’s alleged complaint about sexual harassment would instead be filed in the National Archives. This claim has subsequently been denied by an archives spokesperson. And even if Biden sincerely believed it at the time, why not permit the relevant University of Delaware papers to at least be looked at?
If this were a court of law and we were jurors, then it would be appropriate to deem Biden innocent until he’d been proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But a presidential campaign is not a court of law, and different standards of evidence apply: After all, we’re not contemplating convicting this man or taking away his civil liberties. We’re contemplating not believing his story—knowing, moreover, that he has lied many times before—and potentially withholding from him the chance to run for our highest office on this basis. Although this would undoubtedly be a very serious matter, the accusations he is facing are yet more so.
I, of course, advocate voting for Biden over Trump, the allegations against the former notwithstanding, if we end up facing that grim choice. (Trump has been credibly accused of even worse sexual crimes and sexual misconduct by many more women—not to mention the fact that he represents an existential threat to many vulnerable populations and, indeed, the planet.) But we are not there yet. Replacing Biden at this stage would not be easy; it may nonetheless be called for.
And I confess I am deeply angry that we are in this position. We did not have to be. We have known all along that Biden was sexually inappropriate, lecherous, and handsy. Had we as voters and had the Democratic Party taken this as seriously as we all ought to, we wouldn’t be in this mess now. It is not too much to ask that the next president of the United States adhere to the highest moral standards when it comes to his treatment of women. And if we don’t give the supposedly small things the weight they deserve, then the big things will often loom large in precisely this way. They are part of a pattern we simply can’t afford to ignore any longer.