CAMDEN, S.C. -- At a recent brunch here preceding the Carolina Cup steeplechase race, the host gave me a gift of hometown recognition and, though we are friends, extended his right hand as I approached him.
As the gathering looked on, I ignored his hand and gave him a warm hug, which he returned. It was a natural thing for me to do because I’m an incorrigible hugger and I love the guy. We were among friends, though many politicos were in attendance. Thus far, no one has objected.
Also recently, a high-ranking state official whom I’ve known for 30 years greeted me with a handshake in his office, where several staffers were gathered. I accepted the handshake, though a hug under other circumstances might have been more natural given our long history and our Southern culture of social huggers and kissers. But an embrace wasn’t appropriate to the situation.
Two circumstances, two men, two very careful approaches. One was social, the other professional -- and therein lies all the difference. But to be clear, it fell to me -- the woman, in other words -- to determine ultimately how the greetings would go.
And when in doubt, a handshake is always the better choice.
These personal anecdotes are prompted by Joe Biden’s sudden dunking in the #MeToo vat of public humiliation following two women’s allegations of past inappropriate touching. Lucy Flores, a former Nevada state assemblywoman, wrote last week in New York magazine’s The Cut that, during a 2014 rally when she was running for lieutenant governor, Biden approached her from behind, placed his hands on her shoulders, smelled her hair and planted a “big slow kiss” on the back of her head. On Monday, former congressional aide Amy Lappos told The Hartford Courant that in 2009, Biden rubbed noses with her at a fundraiser. Despite his, shall we say, warm personality, no one, including those he has touched, is accusing Biden of anything approaching a crime.
Even #MeToo activist and actress Alyssa Milano tweeted in his defense. After paying the requisite respect for Flores’ story -- telling her truth, as it were -- she paid homage to Biden’s work on behalf of women. Notably, as senator he introduced the 1994 Violence Against Women Act.
In one of the dirty quirks of politics, some liberals apparently will tolerate repulsive -- and, in some cases, potentially criminal -- behavior by men as long as they check all the right boxes. So, too, some biblical conservatives will avert their gaze from a hush-money-paying, misogynist president with a history of philandering, just as long as the Supreme Court is properly packed. The Lord really does work in mysterious ways.
Until now, Biden has been able to employ his flirtatious charm to great effect, in part because he’s a good guy whose policies seem to flow from a genuine concern for women. Also, to be precise, he reliably carries water for feminists. But, let the man consider running for president in #MeToo nation, and he’s practically a predator. Republicans couldn’t be happier, but it would be wrong to conflate Biden’s “Eskimo kisses,” as we used to call nose-rubbing, with Trump’s recorded comments about sexually assaulting women.
I confess to a high tolerance for male attentions. Oh, those dreadful decades of flattery and doors held open. How ever did I survive? I’d clutch my pearls and swoon, but I’m writing in my pajamas and airplane socks. That said, as one of just two or three female reporters in my first newsroom, I also can muster long-suppressed rage regarding the many times I felt minimized or reduced to just-a-girl by patronizing male bosses, politicians and assorted others, whose “grandfatherly” gestures were simply rude, condescending and sexist. If you sometimes wonder why women are so angry: Those guys.
In politics, glad-handing, hugging, social kissing, and winking as occasions required have been time-honored and effective means of communication and communion, especially in the matriarchal South -- the truer story that outsiders have never heard. But times change and habits die hard. Biden, at 76, is caught between two ages and will have to adapt if he wants to survive.
The sad irony is that Biden, considered by many to be the Democrat most capable of defeating Trump, could be taken down by his own party, thanks to the standard set by New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand in her take-down of former Senate colleague Al Franken. And Trump, who once bragged about force-kissing and grabbing women by their genitals, would get to pose as the better man.
All things considered, whom would you rather hug?