Joe Biden stares into the camera as he speaks at a mic with wife Jill beside him.
Joe Biden announces that he is withdrawing from the race for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination on Sept. 23, 1987. Jerome Delay/AFP via Getty Images

The End of Character Politics

Did Joe Biden overcome the reasons America rejected him as president before, or just outlast them?

One of Watergate’s less obvious but lasting effects was that a politician’s “character”—a capacious term that would eventually encompass all kinds of supposed virtues and flaws—became an object of increasingly obsessive scrutiny for the press and the public. This was a noticeable shift. John F. Kennedy, for instance, was famously unfaithful to his wife, and yet, as Lesley Stahl told Radiolab in 2016, “we wouldn’t have dreamed of printing that even if the whispers were loud enough to spread around the country. It just wasn’t done.” Those decorous conventions collapsed in the wake of a more invasive press activated by Richard Nixon’s crimes. So, in the ensuing years, did whatever illusions the public may have had about its political leadership. Though there were many reasons for Nixon’s downfall, the Oval Office tapes that finally incriminated him beyond doubt did something else as well: They revealed the extent of the gap between the private machinations of the men who held office and their public bearing. And once the press had helped reveal that gap, it became impossible to close it up again.

As the tacit agreement to keep the private sins of politicians off-limits began to erode, a new political reality emerged. Its strictures—as with all such upheavals—were sometimes a little arbitrary. Many of the scandals were naturally about sex, and few were as much of a legal breach as the Watergate break-in and cover-up. In 1976, Rep. Wayne Hays resigned when it was discovered he’d been keeping a young woman on his staff who turned out, despite his forceful denials, to be his mistress. The financial side of this mattered, of course, but so—to a portion of the public that was coming to see the personal as political—did the cheating and lying, something that used to be dismissed as mere “scandal.” The so-called character question only increased in importance over the next few years: Jimmy Carter won in part by contrasting his moral probity with the Nixon-Ford administration’s (in 1979, James Fallows would backhandedly call Carter “as admirable a human being as has ever held the job”). And in 1987—charmingly called “the Year of the Bimbo” by the Wall Street Journal—Gary Hart, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, would be brought down after an affair was deemed (despite his protestations that infidelity “hasn’t been the business of the American public for 200 years”) not just newsworthy but disqualifying.

In his book All the Truth Is Out about Hart, Matt Bai suggested—in a passage lamenting the rise of “this violent compression of politics and celebrity and moral policing”—that character, as a bucket term for human flaws that reflect on a politician’s fitness, had become distressingly and even unsustainably broad.

It wasn’t just about sex, as it was in Hart’s case, but also about whether you uttered a line you wished you could take back or made an investment you probably shouldn’t have, about whether you’d ever gotten stoned or written something idiotic in a school paper. Nothing mattered more in a politician than his essential character, and no shred of private behavior, no moment of weakness or questionable judgment, was too insignificant to illuminate it.

Once a person’s private conduct was perceived to impinge on their ability to do their public work, the onus fell on the public to decide what to do about revelations of this sort—in particular, whether they rendered the candidate unfit for public service. Many of us have spent decades being overexposed to the ubiquitous personal shortcomings of politicians. The idea was that we, the judicious public, deserved to know all the facts, ingest the filth, and metabolize it into a sound and democratic electoral result. But it has been a messy change. It’s not just that media organizations are neither consistent nor clear about which scandals are newsworthy; the problem is that we, the members of that vaunted public square, have not been able to reconcile these ugly exposures with the American ideals democracy theoretically serves. And so Americans have been heading, for some time, toward something like moral burnout.

Back in 1987, Gary Hart felt unreasonably targeted. He wasn’t alone; many Americans found the reporters who hid in the bushes to get the story of Hart and Donna Rice guilty of sensational overreach. On the other hand, Cokie Roberts told Radiolab that some female reporters at the time felt that Hart’s conduct was more than fair game. “There were times when you’d be in a room where he’d hit on every woman in the room,” she said. “The way women were treated was something we thought, and I continue to think, is a good gauge of character. … We were expanding the universe of what was a major character flaw.”

There was one other unexpected casualty of that 1987 presidential campaign dominated by the politics of character: Joseph Biden.

Biden was forced to end his first presidential campaign after he was found to have copied parts of a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock, even appearing to claim details from Kinnock’s life story as his own. He was also found to have borrowed bits of speeches from Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, and to have improperly footnoted an assignment in law school. It’s unlikely that these discoveries would have ended his campaign two decades earlier. The New York Times called Biden “the second victim of the character issue in a contest for the White House.” “Whatever else it may or may not prove, the withdrawal of Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. from the contest for the Democratic Presidential nomination demonstrates how much the 1988 campaign differs from its predecessors,” the Times piece noted. “Never before have candidates’ alleged character flaws emerged so early or proved so lethal.”

It’s possible the character issue truly peaked in 1987; that was also the year that Ronald Reagan’s failed nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court (sunk with the help of Biden) became shorthand for what were perceived as personal attacks for partisan reasons. Biden was already middle-aged—44!—when he first experienced this newfangled backlash to his past failings. Many, political insiders especially, saw those failings as minor: Democrats who stayed mum about Gary Hart spoke up in Biden’s defense. Even Republicans defended him. “I have never seen the Republicans as totally supportive of a person on the opposite end of the spectrum as they have been with Joe,” Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, a Democrat from Ohio, told the New York Times. Sen. Strom Thurmond said, “I’ve always found him to be a high-type man.” The New York Times observed that these defenses “reflected Mr. Biden’s acceptance within the Senate ‘club,’ where Mr. Hart was always considered a loner.”

R.W. Apple Jr.’s assessment of Biden’s 1987 candidacy chose an apt metaphor to describe what went wrong: “In the early stages of a courtship, transgressions can be fatal, but in a well-rooted marriage, they may be quickly forgiven; so it is in politics. Almost the first things many voters learned about Mr. Biden, aside from his good looks and articulateness, was that he had done things that most people consider a bit questionable at best.” In other words, Biden may have been familiar to Washington. But the senator from Delaware wasn’t broadly popular, or an especially known quantity, in the rest of America.

Biden is now in just such a “marriage” with many American voters—thanks in no small part to his long tenure in the Senate and his close association with President Barack Obama. He’s a household name. But as he comes under at least as much scrutiny for his moral character as for his politics, 33 years later, we can see two things: 1) that Trump has badly distorted—perhaps beyond recognition—our ability to properly judge the issue of moral personal behavior in American politics; and 2) that we can learn a lot about how Biden himself thinks about the character question by seeing how it played out when he presided over the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings.

One can deduce how much Biden hated the rise of “character” as a matter of public concern given how reluctant he seemed, a few years after losing the presidential primary on the issue, to see Thomas evaluated on the same terms. Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer write in Strange Justice that Biden was aware early on of Hill’s allegations but “went out of his way to suggest that any charges of improper conduct—he made no mention of Hill or her allegations, of course—were not worthy of debate.” Indeed, in a speech he gave explaining his choice to vote no on Thomas in committee, he made a point to say “there is no question with respect to the nominee’s character, competence, credentials, or credibility.” He told the committee before Hill’s allegations went public: “I believe there are certain things that are not at issue at all, and that is his character. This is about what he believes, not about who he is.”

Biden’s statement betrays some concern over how slippery and powerful the category of “character” had gotten. Character wasn’t reducible to one’s reputation, nor was it defined by one’s actions, however objectionable; it was a more personal amalgam, and one that, in his view, deserved some measure of privacy. Biden draws an extremely curious distinction on these grounds: He posits that Thomas can and should be judged on what he believes—implying that what a person believes is at least theoretically separable from who they are.

Biden’s strenuous exclusion of character as a criterion for public office was shared by an unlikely party: Anita Hill. According to Abramson and Mayer, Hill was also unhappy that character was becoming a defining issue in American politics. Before her claims went public, she told a friend “that she had been ‘appalled’ by the treatment their old Yale professor Robert Bork had received during his abortive confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court in 1987. She didn’t want to see another nominee ripped apart on the basis of his personal character: ‘Bork and Thomas should stand or fall on their ideas.’ ”

Biden shakes hands with Simpson in the committee room
Sens. Alan Simpson and Joe Biden after the Judiciary Committee voted not to recommend the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork during a meeting on Capitol Hill on Oct. 7, 1987. Joseph Duricka/AP

It’s somewhat ironic that Biden—who made a point of rejecting character-based politics in 1991—has been frequently accused of transforming American political culture on those very grounds when he ran Bork’s confirmation hearing in 1987, just as his own presidential campaign was collapsing on character-related charges. (He withdrew from the race in the middle of the hearings.) Borking has become a term of art for unfairly attacking a candidate through “harsh public criticism or vilification.” Many conservatives blame Biden, specifically, for ushering in an era dominated by the politics of personal destruction, even though the effort to turn public opinion against Bork (which cited his conservative legal opinions but also his role presumably aiding Nixon in Watergate’s Saturday Night Massacre) was initiated by Sen. Ted Kennedy and a combination of grassroots organizations. In actuality, Biden tried to safeguard Bork’s privacy, refusing, for example, to subpoena Bork’s video rental history. In 2008, a former Biden intern described Biden’s commitment to the theoretical separation of private and public selves at this crucial moment in 1987: “I saw Mr. Biden struggle to focus the hearings on Judge Bork’s judicial philosophy rather than his private life, in the face of overwhelming political pressure from interest groups on the left. … He did everything in his power to resist the collapse of boundaries.” Still, the hearing was one of the first to be televised and Bork himself was underprepared, which did nothing to turn the tide back in his favor. The Senate voted against the nominee by the widest margin in history.

This much is accurate: Biden maintained a distinction between public and private life even when it was not politically advantageous to do so. The future vice president’s reluctance to act on Hill’s account until he was forced to is well documented. So is the fact that he considered burying other ethically troubling allegations about nominees the decent thing to do—to avoid besmirching their characters. Per the New York Times, “On other occasions as Judiciary Committee chairman, [Biden] said he had been made aware of unsubstantiated reports of wrongdoings by nominees that he did not divulge in order to protect their reputations.” On the whole, Biden seemed to believe that a man’s good name needed protection more than his alleged bad actions needed exposure. In a 1992 interview with E.J. Dionne in which he looked back on the confirmation hearings, he said he regretted not defending Hill and “attacking the attackers,” but he also made clear that he was worried less about damage to Hill’s character than to Thomas’. Conceding that he could have paused the hearings in order to investigate whether there was a “pattern of behavior,” Biden said that it wouldn’t have been fair—to Thomas. He was worried that doing so would allow rumors about Thomas to spread.

Biden did, however, pay lip service to the new world everyone was inhabiting. He speechified—to Thomas and to his colleagues—about how private misconduct intersects with public service, and how the judgment of a man accused of such a thing would go:

We’re big boys. I knew when I ran for president everything was free game. Anybody who runs for the Supreme Court or is appointed to the Supreme Court, to be more precise, should understand. It’s not Boy Scouts, it’s not Cub Scouts.

Biden also clarified then that the hearing was “not a referendum” on whether sexual harassment was a grave offense—it was—but about whether it had occurred. “Now,” he addressed Thomas, “we’re going to hear more witnesses who are going to come in and corroborate your position and hers. We’ll find out whether they’re telling the truth or not as best as we are capable of doing, just like you as a judge are when you look them in the eye and make a judgment.”

As we now know, Biden did not call three witnesses who could have spoken to whether Thomas had a pattern of sexual harassment. Angela Wright-Shannon and Sukari Hardnett were prepared to testify to Thomas’ conduct and to the culture at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. So was a third woman, Rose Jourdain, who said she could back up Wright’s testimony and was prepared to do so while extremely ill.

In 2017, Biden told Teen Vogue that he wanted the witnesses to testify and that they had refused. “I wasn’t able to convince three women we’d subpoenaed to cooperate with testimony. At the last minute, they changed their mind and said they wouldn’t do it. I had them sign an affidavit saying, ‘I want you to come, and you’re saying, “No, I will not come.” ’ ”  A letter to that effect does exist for Wright—it’s in the hearing transcript and bears Wright’s signature as well as Biden’s. But Mayer and Abramson’s reporting on how that letter came to be entered into the record does not remotely match Biden’s account:

An aide from Biden’s office called Middlebrooks [Wright’s attorney] and offered to release Wright from her subpoena—if she was willing to say that she had requested the cancellation. Wright’s response was typically blunt: ‘Bullshit. After I’ve been sitting here for three days being called names?’ Middlebrooks also refused. ‘You are not going to make her look like she’s cutting and running. She’s the key second witness and we want our story aired.’

Biden’s office kept negotiating ways for Wright not to testify, and Wright finally signed. As for Hardnett, she said in a 2018 interview with NPR that she had no idea why she wasn’t called.

What emerges from all this, it seems to me, is a portrait of a man perceptive enough to articulate changing mores even if he privately resists them. Biden wants to be good, works very hard to look good, and squints very hard to try to make nice and good mean the same thing. But given the choice between exposing a fellow insider’s questionable conduct or withholding that information from the public he ostensibly represents, Biden protected the insider. Faced with the assassination of Anita Hill’s character (which was happening in real time, under his watch) and the potential assassination of Thomas’, he protected Thomas and not Hill. Biden prioritized the preservation of the insider’s reputation over the public’s right to know.

Such a man might plagiarize slightly from various speeches (or in law school). Such a man might also massage an unfavorable story into a more flattering one. It’s he who desperately wanted Angela Wright-Shannon and Sukari Hardnett to testify, Biden maintains; it was they who pulled out. Or perhaps, as he has also suggested, it was Hill’s preference that Wright keep quiet: “Biden and several of his top staff members said that it had been Hill and her lawyers who had chiefly opposed calling Wright,” Mayer and Abramson write. But Hill denied this. “We were waiting for Angela Wright’s testimony, just like everyone else,” Hill said. “Apparently something went wrong. I was as surprised as anyone that she didn’t testify.”

Biden’s stories about all this don’t quite add up. He’s not out-and-out wrong—the Wright affidavit exists, and she signed it!—but the whole is sloppy and incomplete, and the omissions and errors accrue in his favor. Biden clearly sensed, even at the time, that not calling Wright might look bad. When Democratic senators decided against calling her, Biden came out and told his staff the result of a full committee vote was 13–1 against her testifying “with himself as her sole supporter.” But two other Democratic senators on the committee said they recalled no such vote. Howard Metzenbaum, a Democrat, said, “I don’t think Biden was anxious to bring Angela Wright on.”

Even as Biden tacitly protected Thomas’ privacy, he publicly told him “you will not be unaffected by this no matter what happens. Nobody goes through the white-hot glare of this process at any level for any reason and comes out unaffected.” He also chose a fascinating metaphor for how character ought to be understood: “But, Judge, nobody’s reputation, nobody’s reputation, is a snapshot; it’s a motion picture. And the picture is being made, and you’ve made a vast part of it the last 43 years.”

I have been reading up on Biden as a “motion picture” for obvious reasons—to better understand who Biden was before he was reinvented, during Obama’s presidency, as a warm and frank “Uncle Joe” whose gaffes are part of his charm. This last snapshot is the muscular public image on which his well-rooted marriage to the American public is based. Looking back a few decades doesn’t just reveal a great deal more about who Biden was—it illustrates how the American conversation around what we expect from public officials developed too. I understand why Biden wants to remain laser-focused only on his history since helping to pass the Violence Against Women Act. But the preceding years were crucial. They defined how the nation would and would not grapple with scandals around sex—a sphere whose “dirtiness” had functionally created a safe space of sorts for men of all previous generations, but which was becoming contested, political, and public.

A minor publishing scandal in 1979 illustrated how sensitive this new focus on private conduct was, and how much the idea of holding male politicians accountable was considered risky, or extreme, or unfair. Ted Kennedy was challenging Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination for president. Suzannah Lessard wrote a 3,000-word essay about Kennedy’s philandering called “Kennedy’s Woman Problem, Women’s Kennedy Problem” for the New Republic. It was controversial enough that TNR owner Marty Peretz refused to publish it, prompting editor Michael Kinsley to resign in protest (he would later be rehired). The Washington Monthly picked the column up and made it the cover of its December issue.

Kennedy speaks to Biden, who is leaning in
Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden during a Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Washington on Jan. 6, 2005. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Lessard’s point is by now familiar: She argues that character—in every sphere—counts. While privacy matters, Ted Kennedy’s womanizing must be considered fair game if he intends to run for president, she writes. She criticizes “the fastidious gentlemen’s code that holds that the private lives of politicians should be off limits, that what counts are the serious matters, such as a man’s position on issues, and that only a very sleazy and trivial reporter would lower himself to write about that sort of dirt.” She observes, too, that there’s more than a whiff of condescension underpinning this attitude about what the voting public needs to know: that if the people knew what politicians were really like, it would “render them incapable of treating such information properly. They would be excessively shocked, they would overreact, and the political process would be distorted by irrelevancies.”

Today we’re all the way on the other side: overexposed to “that sort of dirt” about politicians and exhausted from the task of sorting through it. Has the political process been “distorted by irrelevancies”? Or has this painful ongoing process of navigating the “character” question been, on the whole, worth it?

The public’s answers to these questions have oscillated. Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, for instance, was a Republican effort to make “character” sink a president, but it didn’t work out that way. Even as, according to polling, Americans became more skeptical of whether the president had “high moral and ethical standards,” they still supported his presidency and the roaring economy that buttressed it. Many said they didn’t care what Clinton did in his personal life provided he did his job.

More recently, Donald Trump has thrown a much larger wrench into these fine distinctions. And indeed, the upcoming election, between two men who have weathered—even broken—the character question, may mark another drastic shift in how we consider it.

It’s pretty clear by now that Tara Reade’s allegation that Joe Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993 will mean little or nothing for Biden’s presidential bid. Further reporting has cast some doubt on Reade’s credibility, but from an electoral standpoint, it’s amazing how little her allegation seemed to matter in the first place. Despite the ethical demands #MeToo made, people’s individual rulings on whether they believed Reade didn’t seem to much affect whether they would vote for Biden. Lucy Flores, who wrote an essay for the Cut last year describing the discomfort she experienced when he touched her and smelled her hair at a campaign event; Linda Hirshman; and many other feminists who spoke up for Reade said that if the presidency comes down to Trump and Biden, they would reluctantly, citing a principle of harm reduction, vote for the latter. “I won’t say it will be easy,” Hirshman wrote. “I know how supposedly ‘liberal’ men abused the sexual revolution in every imaginable way.” But she would swallow her reservations and vote for Biden anyway. The neighbor who corroborated Reade’s account falls into this category too; she’s a Biden supporter and likely to remain so. I’ve never been a Biden supporter, but if he’s the candidate, I, too, will vote for him, because the ongoing calamity in the United States must be slowed. Even Reade herself, in her recent interview with Megyn Kelly, said she understands that people who believe her will still vote for Biden. (She also noted that he “should not be running on character for the president of the United States.”)

These statements suggest that “character” might have run its course as a decisive issue in American politics. There are too many tangible emergencies. There is a pandemic. Forty million Americans have filed jobless claims. More than 100,000 people who were alive three months ago are dead. Black people are being killed on video with little to no accountability while the president defends Confederate monuments and generals. Despite the dangers, the streets are wild with people’s desperation and unhappiness. In the middle of all of this, Biden is deploying one of his unique strengths—his empathy, born from the many familial tragedies he’s suffered through while in politics. America is grieving right now, and Joe Biden is good at grief.

He is also, arguably, using the character issue to reroute Americans’ character concerns into institutional questions. When Biden says “character is on the ballot,” the line isn’t about his character as much as it is about the moral character of America. His campaign is not personality-driven. At this particular point in history, that lack of emphasis on the self may be a welcome change.

Trump and Biden, who have both been public figures for decades, have each weathered the character question by rejecting its premises. But they’ve done so in different ways. Trump has flouted ethical prescriptions both publicly and privately. He screwed people who worked for him by not paying them, knowing they’d never be able to make him do so in court. He sued enemies until they gave up, bribed porn stars, and used Trump University to further immiserate vulnerable people who didn’t see through the fraud. He’s the ultimate expression of the American id freed of any remaining Puritan constraints, and of American capitalism freed from any regulation at all, whether legal, ethical, or social.

Biden, by contrast, has long battled from inside the crosshairs of the character crisis, as both administrator and subject. His record is mixed; the flaws that cost him the Democratic nomination in 1987 are still there. New issues like his handsiness have emerged. As for Reade: Much has been written about her credibility, but it’s worth reiterating that Biden’s credibility is in question too. The strange lies he repeatedly tells—about being arrested en route to visiting Nelson Mandela even though he wasn’t, about marching in the civil rights movement even though he did not—are as injurious as his reluctance to give them up is baffling. But on this front, as with so many, Trump has bottomed out the curve. Biden’s ethical infractions exist, but he still responds to at least a few external standards besides his naked self-interest. He wants to be considered a good and decent man by people of all political persuasions, Republicans included. This last is key. Whatever else one might say about him—and I’ve said plenty—he worked very hard during the Thomas hearings to be considered fair—by Republicans even more than by Democrats.

If character were still a top-tier issue for Americans, other candidates in the Democratic primary would have fared better than they have. Biden isn’t the character candidate. He might be the decency candidate (decency being a flattering category that forgives and overlooks much that character exacts and excludes). Given the current political terrain, many Americans seem to regard having ethical aspirations at all—even if you don’t live up to them, even if you fudge facts in your striving toward them, even if you have at times sacrificed righteousness for reputation—as enough.

There is an upside to this low bar. If Biden wins, his will not be a cultish victory, and some diminished passion toward the presidency might be a healthy corrective to a country whose character might be damaged beyond repair. No doubt a President Biden would see his character come under assault by the opposing party, but it’s not likely to be able to do much damage. Much of the public is exhausted, furious, and sickened by the yawning gap between American ideals and American realities. Standards have been shredded to such an extent that it’s hard to imagine a candidate dropping out over a character issue now. Maybe this is OK. The mythmaking urge to turn our leaders into idols of history—whether Clinton or Reagan or Kennedy—was always in tension with the ugly facts that kept emerging about them. Of course the cognitive dissonance was insupportable. Of course American idealism did not survive the ongoing public exposure of the political system that built it. But if we can start treating presidents as functionaries rather than celebrities—if the reality TV president ends the celebrity presidency—that will have been a good thing. And if Biden’s first presidential run was one of the first casualties of character politics, his late career ascent might mark its end.