When Joe Biden issued a non-apology in April nodding to changing “social norms” in response to a series of accusations from women who said he had touched them inappropriately and without their consent, one thing was clear: Biden had little intention of actually changing, much less seeking forgiveness from those he had made uncomfortable. The former vice president has continued to treat the issue as a joke on the trail. Another uncomfortable habit of his surfaced on Wednesday that almost as clearly shows the type of retrograde personal approach to interacting with women Biden refuses to relinquish.
After meeting an Iowa voter’s 13-year-old granddaughter in Eldridge on Wednesday, Biden addressed the girl’s brothers, telling them, “You’ve got one job here, keep the guys away from your sister.”
This is a well-worn line in Biden’s mental Crowd Work Rolodex, employed time and time again over his long career in politics. In January 2011, and again in January 2013, and again in January 2015, Biden told the same joke while swearing in new members of Congress. After meeting the new members’ daughters or granddaughters, he’d take a look at them, eyes popping out of his head with faux disbelief.
In one case, it appears that Biden made the same joke to the same girl—Sen. Orrin Hatch’s granddaughter, Emily—on two separate occasions. At a swearing-in ceremony in 2013, Biden told Emily to take care of her grandfather and instructed her “no serious guys until you’re 30.” Two years later, Emily reintroduced herself to Biden. “Hi Emily, how are you?” Biden responded before immediately issuing the gag, apparently to Emily’s family members: “I hope you have a big fence around the house!”
This fence joke appeared to be Biden’s going line in 2015 while swearing in the 113th Congress as the president of the Senate. After meeting Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan’s family, including Sullivan’s three teenage daughters, Biden first asked their ages, then asked Sullivan, “I want to know, do you have a big, big fence around your house?” A C-SPAN video from that swearing-in also showed Biden putting his arm around one girl’s waist. “Just remember, no serious guys until you’re 30,” he told her.
Here are just a few more past examples:
• In 2011, to various female relatives of Sens. Barbara Mikulski, Michael Bennet, Chuck Schumer, John Thune, and others: “Just remember, no dates till you’re 30.”
• In 2011, per a 12-year-old Pennsylvania girl: “He told me not to date boys until I’m 30!”
• In 2012, to the brother of a young North Carolina woman: “Know what my dad … used to say? You have one job: Keep boys away from your sister.”
• At the same campaign event, to a different girl: “No dates until you’re 30.”
• In 2012, to a preteen girl in Ohio: “I hope you’ve got a big fence around your house. … No serious dates until you’re 30.”
• In 2013, to Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, in reference to her two daughters: “You gonna build a fence around the house? A lotta machine guns?”
Of course, Biden’s intended audience isn’t the girls he’s supposedly addressing, but any boy, man, or potential authority figure within earshot of those girls. It’s a verbal elbow nudge signaling to the girl’s father, grandfather, mother, or brother that they’d better keep their daughter/granddaughter/sister on lockdown, or reap the heavily implied consequences. Meanwhile, at no point do the girls and young women Biden addresses have the agency to say whether they feel like they need protecting. It also unnecessarily suggests to them that their appearance, which they cannot control, will inevitably put them in danger.
The subtext of these jokes is threefold. First, Biden wants to alert these girls and young women—and their families—to the fact that he finds them very attractive, and therefore they are in danger. Second, the only people who can protect them from the implicit threat other men might pose who are like Biden—but certainly not Biden himself—are the men in their own lives, or a “big fence,” presumably built by a man. Third, these girls don’t have a say in when and how their sexual lives begin—that’s up to Biden and the designated guardians. (It’s worth noting that Biden met his wife on a blind date when Jill Biden was just 23 years old, which shows the hypocrisy of his “no serious guys until you’re 30” rhetoric.)
Biden resurfacing this joke on the campaign trail once again shows that he has neither the desire nor the will to confront his past behavior toward women. And why would he, when he has apparently been able to rely on this laugh line for decades?
Biden has been able to use this line because some part of him recognizes that the people he’s addressing are largely powerless to respond. They are young girls and women who have already been taught to be embarrassed by their bodies and their appearance, who are now forced to listen and laugh nervously as a very powerful man uses their budding sexuality as the butt of his joke.
It’s also worth noting, though, how Biden responds when those girls grow into women who dare to make him feel uncomfortable. On Tuesday, Wisconsin activist K.C. Cayo confronted Biden at a campaign event about Biden’s ever-changing stance on the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. Biden responded by angrily jabbing his finger toward Cayo’s face.
“This was absolutely and undeniably an intimidation tactic,” Cayo later tweeted. “He leaned forward, raised his voice, tried to grab my arm with his free hand. For a hot sec I thought he was going to hit me.”
Biden has long touted himself as someone who is willing to listen to the other side, to commune with people whose worldviews clash with his own in working toward a better world. That communing, though, ends when people—especially women—dare to challenge Biden’s view of himself. That’s because Biden has mythologized his self-image to the point that nudging one block off course would send the entire Jenga tower tumbling down.
Biden does not want to change his perspective and behavior toward half the country’s populace because, simply put, he thinks he is right and we are wrong. Biden cannot wrap his mind around the idea that perhaps, at certain points in his long and fabled career, he was the bad guy.
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