Michelle Goldberg: What to do with Tara Reade’s allegation against Joe Biden?

(Matt Rourke | AP photo) In this March 12 photo, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del.

It would be easier to know what to do with Tara Reade’s accusation that Joe Biden sexually assaulted her if her tale were more solid, or if it were less.

In the past few days, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press all reported on a story that’s been circulating through the left- and right-wing media for the last few weeks. Reade, a staff assistant in Biden’s Senate office in the early 1990s, is one of the women who last year spoke out about Biden’s handsiness. When the AP interviewed Reade last April, she said that Biden “rubbed her shoulders and neck” and “played with her hair.”

She also told The Union, a California newspaper, last year that she didn’t feel sexualized. “She instead compared her experience to being a lamp,” the paper reported. She told the reporter, Alan Riquelmy: “‘It’s pretty. Set it over there.’ Then when it’s too bright, you throw it away.”

But last month, in an interview with left-wing podcast host Katie Halper, Reade added new, more serious details to her story, claiming that Biden pushed her against a wall and penetrated her with his fingers. (The Biden campaign has said, “This absolutely did not happen.”)

Since Reade made her latest accusation, people on both the left and the right have been demanding, with a mix of genuine outrage and gotcha glee, that the Democratic Party live up to its #MeToo commitments and #BelieveTaraReade. “For Elite Democrats, Joe Biden’s Candidacy Means Ditching #MeToo,” said a headline in socialist magazine Jacobin. “Joe Biden, Brett Kavanaugh and the #MeToo hypocrites,” said one in The New York Post.

So must Democrats, for the sake of consistency, regard their presumptive presidential nominee as a sexual predator?

As I’ve written repeatedly, I think Biden is a weak candidate, and I wouldn’t be unhappy if the Democratic Party were forced, by some last-minute emergency, to replace him, maybe with one of the Democratic governors who has shined in response to the coronavirus crisis.

But, absent other accusations, that is not going to happen. Reade seems almost engineered in a lab to inspire skepticism in mainstream Democrats, both because her story keeps changing and because of her bizarre public worship of President Vladimir Putin of Russia. “President Putin has an alluring combination of strength with gentleness,” she wrote in a since-deleted 2018 Medium post. “His sensuous image projects his love for life, the embodiment of grace while facing adversity.” (Reade has since said her comments about Russia stemmed from a novel she was writing, though the Medium article is written as an op-ed essay.) In December she tweeted, with worrying grandiosity, “I worked for the Senate, I know the plan to bring Russia to its knees.”

Reade’s account of giving up a career in politics, like her stories about Biden, has shifted over time. In 2018 she wrote that she left politics both because she wanted to pursue a life in the arts and because “I love Russia with all my heart” and could no longer abide American imperialism. Less than a year later she claimed she was forced out of Biden’s office after complaining about sexual harassment and was so scarred by the experience that she abandoned political work altogether.

Let’s be clear: Reade could well be telling the truth now. It’s not implausible that she was afraid to admit what happened to her before, and so came up with an alternative narrative about her history. Plenty of people with wacky political views are victims of sexual assault. Indeed, I’d imagine that being sexually assaulted by a widely beloved mainstream politician would shatter one’s faith in the system and increase the appeal of fringe political ideas.

A friend of Reade’s, who has remained anonymous, has told reporters that Reade confided in her about the assault at the time. That’s a meaningful piece of evidence. A confirmation by Reade’s brother is more complicated. According to The Washington Post, in a recent interview he told a reporter that Reade told him at the time “that Biden had behaved inappropriately by touching her neck and shoulders.” A few days later, he texted the reporter to say he now recalled Reade telling him that Biden had put his hands “under her clothes.”

No one, looking at what’s been reported about Reade and Biden, can claim to have more than a hunch about what happened, which is why, I suspect, a lot of mainstream feminists haven’t said much about it. Writers on the left and the right purport to find their silence damning: So liberal feminists don’t “believe women” after all!

There have been a number of sneering columns accusing liberal feminists of hypocrisy for not championing Reade as fervently as they did Christine Blasey Ford, who claimed, during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination fight, that he’d sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school. It’s a sly rhetorical move that dares feminists to violate their own ideals by publicly weighing one woman’s credibility against another.

The truth is, if Ford had been so inconsistent in telling her story, feminists might still have believed her, but they likely wouldn’t have made her a cause célèbre, and Democrats on Capitol Hill never would have invited her to testify publicly. Advocates for victims of sexual harassment and assault would worry that using such an ambiguous case as a political weapon would undermine their cause.

Personally, I’m just left with doubt: doubt about Biden and doubt about the charges against him. But the one thing I have little doubt about is the bad faith of those using this strange, sad story to hector feminists into pretending to a certainty they have no reason to feel.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.