The world being what it is today, it’s often necessary to explain what should be intuitively understood. With that in mind, let’s look at Joe Biden’s tendency to touch people.
On the one hand, the vice president’s past conduct was worse than his advocates claim. The political context, in which Biden has operated for 50 years, is what matters here.
In a social setting where strangers or slight acquaintances meet, everybody has an obligation to make an effort to accommodate the temperament of everyone else. The more touchy person should try to restrain himself until he knows the touch is welcome; the less touchy should try to avoid taking offense where none is attended. Adults should all understand what is clearly right and clearly wrong, and in the grey areas should give the benefit of the doubt to each other.
The whole point of good manners is to show respect for other people, which means, among other things, not making a big deal out of honest mistakes.
But political settings are different.
Any politician who is at all self-aware knows that he should be careful about how he touches strangers or acquaintances. Politicians meet a lot of people whom they will never get to know personally but on whom they want to make a good impression. Meeting a national leader is a rare thing for most people, so it’s up to the politician — for whom meeting strangers is an everyday occurrence — to put everyone at ease.
The analogy in business is meeting a number of executives from a prospective big customer. Even if you’re a touchy person, you don’t walk around hugging everyone. You understand your own propensities and you control them as necessary.
It’s much the same in politics.
The one physical contact which politicians can aggressively initiate is shaking hands. You can feel free to stick out your hand, and usually you should. People expect it and may be offended if you don’t.
There are exceptional circumstances, and you need to be aware of them. When, for example, I visited an orthodox synagogue, I was careful about shaking hands with women.
I remember a few instances where my staff informed me that someone I was likely to meet was a germaphobe and that I shouldn’t stick out my hand to that person. It would make them uncomfortable. That was good staff work.
In a photo line, you can lean in a little and put your hand, lightly, on the middle or lower back of the person standing next to you in the picture. That creates an impression of familiarity which nobody objects to and many appreciate; in fact, believe it or not, people pay a lot of money to get a photo like that.
There is no reason why your hand should go lower than the lower back. And in or out of a photo line, you shouldn’t put your arm around the shoulders of a stranger, much less a stranger of the opposite sex. Much less should you grasp the shoulders of a stranger from behind, or touch a person’s leg, or kiss someone you don’t know well — on the head or otherwise.
And smelling somebody’s hair? No — just no.
And you don’t touch children, except to shake their hands. Where the child is a teenager who has come to your office or to a political event, you should shake his or her hand; the handshake is often the occasion of a parental photograph and moment of pride.
In saying all this, I’m talking about the vast majority of normal contexts. There are highly emotional settings, such as at the scene of a disaster or the return of a hostage, when a brief hug or embrace might be called for.
The point is that politicians have the duty to make everybody else feel comfortable. At minimum they shouldn’t do anything which risks making a normally socialized human being positively uncomfortable. Accidental contact happens, of course, but Biden’s not claiming that explains his conduct here.
Nothing I’ve described is political rocket science. It’s not a particularly difficult set of skills to master. You learn early how to act, and thereafter you know and conduct yourself in accordance with what you know.
Given the context, it’s fair to describe Biden’s persistently physical approach as creepy. And despite his explanations now, it’s hard to believe — especially given his own past statements –that he had no idea that he was consistently stepping over the line in the way he treated women at official functions and on the campaign trail. Whether he did it because he was deliberately indulging his own preferences despite the risk, or because he felt he had some kind of immunity from criticism, or both, we don’t know.
So the negative response is warranted, even if much of it is traceable to intra-party politics and some of it is manifestly disproportionate to the offense.
If Biden wants to run for president, this shouldn’t stop him. He’s not a predator, and he’ll live down the criticism if he runs a good campaign. But the vice president should now be aware that the rules of the game will henceforth, and maybe for the first time in his career, be applied to him. In fact, the referees — the people he needs — will be watching him like a hawk.