Joe Biden got on a plane and flew to Chicago. He wanted to talk face-to-face with the first black woman ever elected to the United States Senate.
It was a surprise visit. In the recollection of Carol Moseley Braun, he cold-called her from O’Hare airport; in the memory of an aide who says she was there, he had the doorman call from the lobby of her apartment building. All agree, though, that nobody was expecting him. He just … showed up.
Moseley Braun was in the frazzled process of moving into Lake Point Tower, but up to her condominium Biden came. It was a cold, clear day, the week after Thanksgiving, barely a month past her pathbreaking victory of 1992. Standing at the sweeping, floor-to-ceiling windows, Biden marveled at the views of the city’s skyline and gazed out over the expanse of Lake Michigan. She was some five weeks away from even being sworn in, and he was a 20-year Senate veteran—but as Biden and Moseley Braun sat on unpacked boxes, he made a pitch over slices of cherry pie that she figured was coming as soon as he’d walked through the door. He was the chair of the Judiciary Committee—and he wanted her on it.
“You just want Anita Hill sitting on the other side of the table,” she said.
She’d meant it as a joke. He didn’t seem to think it was funny.
“He didn’t approve,” Moseley Braun told me. “He didn’t laugh—that’s for sure.”
Biden had a political problem—and Moseley Braun was a potential solution. He had been elected in 1990 to a fourth six-year term, having proven all but unbeatable in his home state of Delaware. But he also was a mere 13 months removed from what was, and in many ways remains, one of the most damaging chapters of his career. At 50, he was, in Senate terms, still young—and still ambitious. He had tried a first run for president four years earlier on gauzy, new-era themes, but his most recent, highest-profile tour in front of the television cameras had been a nightmare of old-white-guy theater: He was at the helm of the Judiciary Committee for the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings in the fall of 1991, in which Hill graphically accused Thomas of sexual harassment. The hearings were a national circus, a he-said, she-said crossfire laced with references to pornography, and the coverage revealed something at the very least unbecoming about the Senate itself—with a panel of all white men impugning the character of a black female law professor, calling her charges “scurrilous,” asking if she had “a militant attitude relative to the area of civil rights,” suggesting she was “delusional” or motivated by ideology or a desire for reprisal as a “scorned woman.” The spectacle left Biden looking not so different than his aged colleagues—at worst sexist, at best out of touch.
His Oval Office ambitions might have been dormant, but they weren’t dead, and Biden needed, he knew, to rehabilitate the image of the all-male, all-white Judiciary Committee—as well as his own. So he did something extremely direct and “very rare,” Ted Kaufman, Biden’s longtime chief of staff, told me—“highly unusual,” “I think I can say almost without precedent”—making an express trip to lodge a special appeal to a black woman who had just made history. Biden’s pitch, said Moseley Braun, was threefold: “The Judiciary Committee needed my voice and my perspective and that I knew these issues,” “he wanted to have some women on the committee,” and “he would personally appreciate it.”
It might have been flattering for a different new senator. But Moseley Braun wanted no part of being on the Judiciary Committee. Even though it had been the “horrible” images of “all these old, white men” grilling Hill that had driven her to run for the Senate in the first place, Biden’s committee was not on her list of preferred posts. At 45, the former federal prosecutor, state representative and county recorder of deeds had been on the judiciary committee in the state legislature and had tired of the conveyor belt of hot-button issues. “I’d determined I would never want to do that again,” she told me. And so Biden flew home without a commitment.
But he didn’t take no for an answer, and ultimately Moseley Braun said yes, and so did Dianne Feinstein, who was one of the other three female senators-elect who had been swept into Washington on the strength of women’s outrage about Thomas and Hill. It was a triumph of optics, to be sure, but the altering of the makeup of the committee led to more than just a new look. In the two years of the 103rd Congress, Moseley Braun and Feinstein with their voices and their votes to the passage of an assault weapons ban, the Violence Against Women Act and—perhaps most resonant right now—a Moseley Braun-led reckoning with the painful legacy of the Confederacy by blocking the continuation of government-sanctioned use of one of its most divisive symbols.
Biden is 77 now. In this unlikely last act, after three and a half decades in the Senate and two terms as vice president, he is the presumed Democratic nominee at what is shaping up to be a transformative moment in the history of this country. As Biden attempts to navigate social and political chop of a kind that hasn’t been seen since the ‘60s, as he makes his case in the midst of coast-to-coast civil rights protests and a pandemic and the corresponding economic crash that have laid bare abiding and systemic inequities, once again he is contending with unfavorable perceptions that he has mistreated women and is prone to racial gaffes and bears no small share of the blame for America’s prejudiced criminal justice system as the architect of the punitive 1994 crime bill. And yet once again, too, he also is positioned to make important, even historic choices—none at the moment more momentous than the person he selects as his potential vice president. Biden has pledged that his running mate will be a woman, and because of the unprecedented events of the last several months, and because of political pressure from key constituencies within his own party, and even because of Biden’s own sense of obligation to make meaningful change, there is a high chance the woman he picks will be a woman of color.
And if he does, the story of his relationship with Carol Moseley Braun in the early 1990s presents a newly salient look at both the candidate and how influential, too, a new person with a fresh perspective can be—once she’s in the job. According to more than 30 interviews with aides to Biden and Moseley Braun, plus operatives, activists, strategists and political scientists, it highlights a complicated truth about the candidate: Some see in Biden self-interest, while others see high-mindedness and a genuine want to right a wrong—but the most intellectually honest observers grant that it’s obviously both.
“Sure, it was in his interest to go after Carol Moseley Braun to kind of rehabilitate himself a little after Clarence Thomas, but he also understood the moment that we were in as a country and that he needed to evolve,” Matt Bennett, an executive vice president at the centrist think tank Third Way, told me. “If he wanted to be president, he needed to be in touch with the times, both for the party and for the country, and he recognized that he was out of step, I think, in the Anita Hill moment. And he changed.”
“The Senate is an institution that does not like change. The easiest thing to do in the Senate is just stick with the status quo, and if you move at all, you move in micro-inches, incrementally,” former Biden aide Larry Spinelli told me. “And he figured out how to make change, in that way, in those kinds of places,” said Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager who worked with Biden in the Obama administration.
The question remains: Will he make change once again in the same way he did nearly three decades ago?
“Biden is a politician who is strategic and savvy and understands where there might’ve been some missteps in the past, and is trying to rectify them,” Nadia Brown, a professor of political science and African-American studies at Purdue University, told me. “It’s very reminiscent of what he’s doing now, vetting these women, particularly women of color, to be his potential VP pick. He shows that he has, you know—even if it’s passively, right?—an understanding that identity politics matter, and that our country desperately wants to see a woman as a VP pick and understand the strategic-ness of picking a woman of color, preferably a black woman, who will deliver him key votes.”
“He’s not going to be at the barricade,” a longtime observer of Delaware politics said of Biden when we talked earlier this month, “but he’s going to know what to do after others have been to the barricade.”
It’s not a stretch to say Carol Moseley Braun ran, and won, because of the actions, and inactions, of Biden and his Judiciary Committee.
Steeped by then in the surface-level gentility of the Senate, focused on the appearance of “fairness” and the maintenance of an air of bipartisan comity, and wary of appearing adversarial toward the man who was to be the second black Supreme Court justice, Biden by many accounts was halting in his leadership throughout the Thomas-Hill drama. In particular, he opted not to have testify at least three corroborating witnesses to the alleged sexual harassment and ended up presiding over a panel that swaths of watchers saw as a GOP-spearheaded male chauvinist inquisition of Hill more than a good-faith, socially conscious effort to listen and learn.
They seethed on Capitol Hill. “What disturbs me as much as the allegations themselves is that the Senate appears not to take the charge of sexual harassment seriously,” Barbara Mikulski, the only female Democratic senator, said at the time. “The gap of understanding between men and women turned the Capitol into a Tower of Babel, with women and men apparently talking different languages,” said Nancy Pelosi, who had been a congresswoman from San Francisco since 1987. “The indifference” of their male colleagues was “a microcosm of the way women were being treated all across our country,” the late New York congresswoman Louise Slaughter would say looking back. Patricia Schroeder, the congresswoman from Colorado, zeroed in especially on the Democrats on the committee. “Those cowardly lions,” she would call them. “Pitiful,” she said.
Women seethed, too, on an altered campaign trail, ripe with gendered fervor. Female Senate candidates made plain their motivation. “When I saw the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings …,” Patty Murray in Washington state said on CBS. “The sense of rage I felt as I watched …,” Feinstein wrote in a fundraising letter. “If there had been only one woman on the Judiciary Committee,” Barbara Boxer in California told the Washington Post, “things would have been different.”
And then there was Moseley Braun in Illinois.
“That’s what stirred her to run,” Jill Zwick, her deputy campaign manager, told me.
“She started watching the Clarence Thomas hearings and got angrier and angrier,” said Steve Cobble, her political director and fundraising coordinator. “She made no secret of the fact that she had started running because of her anger at the way the Judiciary Committee handled the Thomas fiasco.”
The incumbent she targeted, Alan Dixon, voted to confirm Thomas. “I don’t ever recall her really holding up Joe Biden as the bad guy,” Zwick said. Just … one of them.
“My duty,” Moseley Braun said back then to a reporter covering her campaign, “is to stand up for something and to be a spokesperson for the outrage and disappointment and those who wanted to see change in the Senate.”
“Enough is enough,” she said to another. “These guys just don’t get it.”
That summer, clearly troubled by how the hearings had gone but struggling with what precisely to glean, Biden expressed muddled regrets and puzzled through possible takeaways. “It was about a massive power struggle going on in this country,” he told E.J. Dionne of the Post, “a power struggle between women and men, and a power struggle between minorities and the majority, and it’s a reflection of the schizophrenic personality of the American public now with regard to both those issues, feminism and race.” He suggested it had been if nothing else a boon for his name ID. “Most voters can’t name their own senator,” he said, according to the 1994 book Strange Justice. “But now everywhere I go, I get recognized.” At the Democratic National Convention, he ran into Anthony Lewis, the New York Times columnist. “As many women as men didn’t believe Professor Hill,” Biden told him. “But even those who didn’t were outraged by the attitudes of some men on the committee.”
By the first week of November of 1992, though, the immediate political implications were indisputable. Feinstein, Boxer, Murray and Moseley Braun, of course, were elected, bumping the number of women in the Senate from a paltry two to an ever so slightly less inequitable half a dozen. “The Year of the Woman,” people called it. And Biden knew he needed at least one and preferably two of them on the Judiciary Committee. “After the Thomas-Hill hearings,” Ron Klain, a longtime Biden aide, former chief of staff and current senior adviser to his campaign, told me, “he was quite resolved that there would never be an all-male Judiciary Committee again.”
At the time, Biden was “very anxious to have a woman on the committee,” an aide told the Associated Press. “If it takes a draft, he’ll impose a draft,” a Biden associate said to a Hearst reporter. He called Murray, she told the Seattle Times, the week of her win. He sent Boxer red roses. He cornered Feinstein at a D.C. party that socialite Pamela Harriman threw for President-elect Bill Clinton. “Joe,” Feinstein told me in a statement, “invited me to lunch in his office. This was after the Anita Hill hearings, and he understood it was a big deal that no women served on the committee. We sat at a small round table in his Russell Building office and discussed the unique perspective women could bring to the committee’s work.”
But Moseley Braun was unique. She also was the only lawyer of the lot. And so Biden jetted to Chicago and walked into the lobby of Lake Point Tower.
He knew what he wanted. He wrote a composition saying so in the fifth grade, according to the 2002 book Only in Delaware: Politics and Politicians in the First State. In his 20s, when he met the parents of the woman who would become his wife and they asked him what he aimed to do and to be, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was good-natured but blunt.
“President,” he said.
“Of the United States.”
“The guy,” said Third Way’s Bennett, “has always wanted to be president.”
“Biden,” Michael Briggs, a former reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who covered the Hill hearings and who went on to work for Moseley Braun (and later Bernie Sanders) as a spokesman in the Senate, told me, “had to live with the repercussions of those hearings and the Thomas confirmation and knew that there were issues involving women, particularly African-American women. And it makes sense to me that he would be attracted to” Moseley Braun “as a way to help him deal with those issues.”
Only two people know exactly what was said in the meeting in the condo littered with unopened boxes.
Biden’s campaign declined to make him available to talk about it.
Moseley Braun, meanwhile, has talked about it periodically, and over the years her rendition has hardened into a tidy tale of how a smiling Biden convinced her to be on the Judiciary Committee, the cherry pie a charming and catchy detail she’s relayed on CNN and in the pixels and pages of Ebony, the magazine of the Washington Post and this magazine, too. The two aides who say they were there were perplexed by the pie when we talked this month—they don’t remember any food of any kind that day as they helped her move. Moseley Braun, however, is insistent. “No,” she told me. “There was a grocery store in the building there, so I had bought a cherry pie.” Regardless, though, of whether there was or was not pie, the upshot of the meeting was well short of quick and conclusive.
“I didn’t want it,” Moseley Braun said in 1999 in a Senate oral history interview—didn’t want to be on the Judiciary Committee—“because it’s how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or stuff that people will never agree on and argue about till the cows come home,” she told me. “So I was, like, ‘OK, no, I don’t want to. I don’t want to do this.’”
Biden pals and allies like to talk about his uncommon tools of persuasion. “He locks his eyes on you. He smiles. He’s got this big, white-teeth smile,” said Cynthia Hogan, a chief counsel for Biden in the early ’90s and during his vice presidency and a current adviser to his campaign in charge of vetting VP hopefuls. “And he just asks you questions about yourself. Everyone loves to think they’re important, right? And he makes you feel like you’re the most important thing on Earth.”
Aides from across the years have a word for it. “‘Bidened,’” said Victoria Nourse, a Judiciary Committee staffer for Biden in the early ’90s who’s now a law professor at Georgetown. “To be ‘Bidened.’”
“One, he gets super close to you,” said Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager. He won’t take no for an answer, either, Messina continued. And the other thing? “For a guy who’s famous, fairly famous, for never shutting the fuck up in speeches,” said Messina, “he’s amazing and personal about listening.”
Even so, the day Biden visited Moseley Braun in Chicago, she didn’t say yes. She still hadn’t said yes when she was sworn in more than a month later.
Dan Quayle, the vice president, administered her oath, and then some 500 guests gathered in the Dirksen office building for another ceremony. Ted Kennedy was there. Jesse Jackson spoke. Then Strom Thurmond stood up. And people held their breath.
“I just came by to pay my respects to the new senator here,” said the erstwhile segregationist lawmaker from South Carolina, who was 90 at the time. “And I don’t object to seeing more ladies in the Senate!”
Then up to the microphone stepped Biden—with whom Thurmond had a chummy relationship, an example of the kind of alliance he cultivated in his early days on Capitol Hill with a number of predominantly southern, stubbornly bigoted senators. Ever since, it’s been a knock on him from the left. But at this moment of such visible change, Biden celebrated this juxtaposition. “If there’s anyone in this room over 40 then you would certainly be surprised at what you saw today,” Biden said. “Who would ever have thought they would see Strom Thurmond welcome to the Senate the first African-American female senator?”
People cheered. “Where there is life, there is hope, and we have a whole lot of hope pinned on this woman from Chicago,” Biden went on. “I want to let you know that a lot of people want Senator Moseley Braun on their committees. Well, I’m gonna get her!”
It took more work. “She told me,” Zwick said of Moseley Braun, “the deal she cut with Joe Biden was that she would serve on the Judiciary Committee but that he needed to help her.” Moseley Braun, Zwick recalled, wanted to shift to the Finance Committee in two years—which is what happened. Moseley Braun denied the existence of any deal of that sort. “Joe made a very persuasive argument, why it was a good thing for me to be on the committee,” she told me, “and I finally wound up agreeing with him.”
The first week of the new Congress, Feinstein and Moseley Braun were appointed to the Judiciary Committee.
“I think I’m safe to say that there were a fair number of members of that committee, even on both sides of the aisle, that would have been perfectly fine to not have any women come on the committee,” said former Biden aide Spinelli, who at the time was heavily involved with the committee and its work. “And certainly, if they had been the chairman, they would never have taken any extra steps to try and recruit women to be on the committee.” For that, he said, Biden deserves kudos. “He kind of got it, that there needed to be a change, and he was willing to take the effort to make that change.”
“This,” said Hogan, “is where he’s an institutionalist. He didn’t care about his personal reputation. He cared about the reputation of the committee and of the Senate. That’s what he wanted to rehab.”
Moseley Braun, for one, says she didn’t see him principally as an opportunist. “I always took what he did as authentic. I would not have gone on the committee if I felt there was anything cynical, or anything just self-promoting, with him coming to me,” she told me. “What I perceived was that here was a sincere attempt to get me on the committee, to open up the committee in terms of integrating it, you know, with women.”
True. This was true, too: “Did Joe have a problem after Anita Hill? Absolutely,” said Bruce Fisher, who was an aide to Biden in the ’80s and to Moseley Braun during her ’92 campaign. And Moseley Braun, he told me, was “a partial solution to that” and “a political opportunity for him.”
“It’s not just a black woman. It’s the first black woman in the United States Senate. It’s the only black woman in the United States Senate.” He added, “So, was that smart? Yeah. I think that was smart. Was it politics? Was it a sense of the moment? Was it a sense of what he personally needed?” It was all of that.
With a Democratic president in the White House for the first time in 12 years and party control of both chambers, Biden’s Judiciary Committee in the 103rd Congress was busy with Feinstein and Moseley Braun—with the confirmation of the first female attorney general, with the confirmation of the second female Supreme Court justice, and with the 1994 passage of the Biden-authored Violence Against Women Act, the latter an initiative for which Biden had pushed for years. “Senator Biden had introduced this legislation before,” Moseley Braun said in a VAWA-related news conference in 1993. “They weren’t listening.” They were now.
“The ‘Year of the Woman’ elected unprecedented numbers of women,” Feinstein said, “and Senator Moseley Braun and I have broken the cycle of the all-male Judiciary panel, we hope, forever.”
“Thank God,” Biden quipped, stressing (as perhaps only he could) the importance of what would become one of his signature accomplishments. “I don’t care if she’s dancing on a bubble. I don’t care if she’s walking naked from here to the Capitol. I don’t care whether she is a prostitute or a nun,” Biden said. “No man has a right to touch a woman without her consent.”
“The Senate,” Jim Manley, a veteran top Democratic Senate aide who at the time was working for Ted Kennedy, told me, “was sloooooooowly changing—but, you know, there was resistance everywhere.”
Moseley Braun, for instance, along with Mikulski and Republican Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, helped change by flouting an antiquated rule that said women on the Senate floor had to wear a dress or a skirt. “Another barrier erected by the old boys came tumbling down,” wrote Basil Talbott, the Sun-Times politics scribe, when Moseley Braun “stepped onto the Senate floor wearing pants.” That same year, for the first time, a women’s restroom was built just off the Senate floor.
But nothing underscored quite so starkly what Moseley Braun brought to the Senate, and to the Judiciary Committee, and the ways she nudged Biden, more than what began to unfold four months into her tenure.
“Welcome to a committee with two women, one black, and one senior member who once ran for president on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket,” Nina Totenberg, one of the reporters who had broken the story of Hill’s allegations, said on NPR in May of 1993. “Now, mix in the Daughters of the Confederacy, their all-white membership and their logo featuring the Confederate flag, the brew could be explosive.”
Membership in the Daughters was limited to blood relatives of Confederate soldiers. And every 14 years, from 1898 on, Congress had pro forma OK’d the renewal of the design patent for their insignia, which incorporated the first national flag of the Confederacy. Moseley Braun, the only black person on the Judiciary Committee, the only black member of the Senate, told her colleagues it was past time to stop. It was 128 years after the end of the Civil War, and “those of us whose ancestors fought on a different side of the conflict or were held as human chattel under the flag of the Confederacy have no choice but to honor our ancestors by asking whether such action is appropriate,” she wrote in a letter to her colleagues. “The Ku Klux Klan understands the meaning of the symbols of the Confederacy when they raise the Confederate banner at their marches and rallies,” she told them. “We should not, as a Congress, give our imprimatur to a symbol that is so inflammatory.”
“Think how important that was,” Hogan said. “But that’s exactly the kind of thing Biden wanted—was somebody to say, ‘I don’t care if we’ve been doing this for 100 years, let’s look at it afresh.’” That was the point. “That,” she said, “is exactly what he wanted.”
“She raised concerns that nobody had raised before,” Spinelli said. “And certainly there were people in the room at the time when she first raised it that were—even if they were not literally—were figuratively rolling their eyes. I was in the room when that happened. … There were people who were, like, ‘Oh my God.’ You know, ‘Why is she doing this?’”
Thurmond wasn’t so ingratiating now. He was not only an honorary member of the Daughters but the chief sponsor of the reauthorization of the patent. “It’s just a favor for a group of little old ladies,” one of his aides told Totenberg. But the Senate, she said in wrapping up her NPR report, was “distinctly less clubby these days, and Senator Moseley Braun has forced an issue that could be extremely embarrassing for every member of the Judiciary Committee. Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Biden is said to be agonizing, and other committee members are none too pleased to be forced to choose between a symbol that is anathema to many of their constituents and senatorial courtesy.”
It was a version of the same choice Biden had had to make during the Hill hearings.
Lean back on gentility and comity.
Or take a step forward.
This time, Biden made a different decision. Three committee members voted to renew the patent—Democrat Dennis DeConcini from Arizona, Republican Orrin Hatch from Utah, and Thurmond, of course—but 11 senators agreed with Moseley Braun and said no, including Biden.
“This is called progress,” Biden said. “This is awakening to the sensitivities of some people that others don’t have.”
And when, two and a half months later, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina stood on the floor of the Senate chamber and attempted to flip the decision, it spurred tense, lengthy wrangling. “I would like to put a stake through the heart of this Dracula,” Moseley Braun said in an emotional speech on the floor. “The Confederacy is a part of American history,” West Virginia Democrat Robert C. Byrd said. It “never occurred” to Mitch McConnell, said the then-second-term Republican from Kentucky, that this “would be interpreted somehow as an endorsement of racism or slavery.” Remarks from Alabama Democrat Howell Heflin, though, proved pivotal: Although he was a descendant of a Confederate surgeon, he said, “we live in a different world” and had to “heal the scars.” He couldn’t, and he wouldn’t, “put the stamp of approval on a symbolism that is offensive to a large segment of America.”
Three-quarters of the Senate—a 75-25 vote—in the end sided with Carol Moseley Braun.
“I think you saw here today on the floor of the Senate one of the reasons why I and others have been saying for so long there is a need for diversity in this body,” Biden said. “The fact of the matter is that the senator from Illinois has pointed out something that has been sorely missing from this body—that one single voice speaking for millions and millions of voices in this country who feel like this body doesn’t understand their problems.”
“Her leadership, her voice, her perspective was just really critical,” Klain said, “in bringing the committee, you know, into the 20th century, and to confronting a bunch of issues that it absolutely, positively had to confront.”
“It says a lot about Senator Moseley Braun. And it says a lot about Biden,” Geoff Gibbs, who is black and was Moseley Braun’s chief counsel and had worked for Biden as a policy aide in the ’80s, told me.
“At the time she was the only black person in the Senate to speak out on behalf of all black Americans on this issue. And he did everything he could to support her, both kind of politically and personally. He stood by her side, and I was there to see it,” he said. “Joe Biden was a key ally, his support was unwavering, and it was critical. And I believe then, and I believe now, that it was heartfelt.”
Was he at any point “agonizing,” as Totenberg had reported at the outset? Did he need extra convincing?
“He didn’t,” Moseley Braun told me. “Here’s the thing: I went to Joe and said, ‘Look, this is not right.’” She said she couldn’t support it. “And he was sympathetic,” she explained. “I did not know at the time what kind of pressure he was getting from the other side.”
“I don’t think anybody that didn’t have maybe one foot somewhat in the institutional camp and then one foot forward could have really made that transition,” said Spinelli. “And I would make the same argument now.”
Right now, it’s not really the argument Biden is making.
The twin pillars of his presidential bid seem to be competence and compassion. He’s running as maybe dull but dependable, and as the empathetic prospective grief counselor in chief. And the sale is necessarily complicated by the knotty realities of Biden’s long public life. He was the right-hand man to the nation’s first black president, but he also was anti-busing and a designer of the crime bill many view as having made life worse for black families. Working across the aisle with Republicans like Thurmond and Helms may once have seemed admirably pragmatic but now looks like excessive deference to some of his most retrograde colleagues. Sifting through Biden’s record, a higher-up operative who worked on a different Democratic 2020 presidential campaign told me the other day, is to grapple with the tangled history of modern America overall. “It becomes like a fucking scarf trick with a goddamn party clown,” this person said. “For every good thing, three other bullshit things are attached—because that’s how history works.”
And when it comes to Joe Biden’s record on race and women, talking about Carol Moseley Braun almost can’t help but mean talking about Anita Hill as well.
The most memorable time that Biden mentioned Moseley Braun, during the primaries in a debate last fall, turned into an unforced error. Citing her right-out-of-the-gate endorsement of him, he called her the “only” black female senator instead of the first. “The other one is here,” Kamala Harris from across the stage piped up with a flabbergasted laugh.
More recently, at a CNN town hall in Charleston, South Carolina, three days before the state’s primary that handed Biden a triumph that started the all but unforeseeable cascade of events that propelled him toward the pole position to be president after all these years, he was asked a question.
“So,” said a woman named Claire Wofford, introduced by Chris Cuomo, “the votes of married suburban women are said to be critical to a Democratic victory this fall. Many of us, however, still remember the Anita Hill hearings all too well. Other candidates are being asked to account for past programs or policy choices they now regret. What do you say to those female voters who were and perhaps are still unhappy with how you handled the confirmation of Clarence Thomas? Times have changed—so how have you?”
Last week, I called Wofford. She is a political science professor at the College of Charleston, and specializes in the U.S. legal system and the role of gender in the structuring of political power. I wondered if that was why she had asked the question she did—but the reason, it turned out, was far more personal and visceral than her academic interests. “A lingering resentment for Joe Biden,” she told me.
In October of 1991, she said, in the TV room of her dorm on the campus of Wellesley College, the top-tier women’s school just outside Boston, she sat and stared with an equally aghast group of her fellow freshmen at the Biden-guided hearing with Hill. “Watching those men berate her and ask her those invasive questions—I mean, it shocked me, just like it shocked millions of women across the country, and it made me mad. It made me mad.”
She wanted Biden, she remembered, to stop the other senators from treating her that way. She wanted him to be a better advocate for her instead of for Thomas. She wanted him to allow the other women to testify. She wanted there to be women, any women, just one woman, on the committee.
And now she wanted to hear him say he was sorry.
“A full-throated apology,” she told me.
“Well,” Biden began at the town hall …
“I opposed Clarence Thomas from the beginning,” he said. (He voted against him in the committee count, and in the final tally, too, but he also called him heading into the hearing “a man of high character.”)
“I believed Anita Hill from the beginning,” Biden continued in Charleston. (“It was clear to me from the way she was answering the questions, she was lying,” he said, at least according to Arlen Specter, the late, then-Republican senator from Pennsylvania.) “And I tried to control the questions under the laws that exist for the Senate,” he said. “And I was unable to do it. Just like the last hearing, the last hearing they had, they were unable to control—keep people from being able to ask questions.”
Biden shifted into what he did thereafter.
“What I did was I made a commitment. I made a commitment,” Biden told Wofford. “Never again would the Judiciary Committee only have men on that committee. So I went out and campaigned for two people—Carol Moseley Braun, an African-American senator from the state of Illinois, and Dianne Feinstein from California—on the condition that if they won they would join the committee, they would become part of the committee. I kept that commitment.” (“I have no recollection of that,” Moseley Braun told me when I asked if Biden campaigned for her. “I don’t remember him doing that,” said Jeannie Morris, a reporter who embedded with Moseley Braun’s campaign in ’92 and eventually wrote a book about it. “I doubt in ’92 if she really wanted him to come campaign,” said Cobble, her political director and fundraising coordinator. “Women especially were not very happy with Biden.” But he did, along with a fistful of other senators, on a live, closed-circuit feed, beam into an early October fundraiser Moseley Braun had at the Chicago Hilton.)
In Charleston, people applauded. “Number three,” Biden continued with his answer to Wofford. “I’ve spoken with Anita Hill. And I apologized for not being able to protect her more.” (Hill in recent years has said repeatedly it was not a sufficient apology.) “But, look, I wish I could have protected her more. I publicly apologized, apologized then. And I was able to—what she—we owe her—we owe Anita Hill a lot, because what she did by coming forward, she gave me the ability to pass the—right and pass the Violence Against Women Act. We owe her a great deal of credit.”
What, I asked Wofford, had she thought of the answer?
“Good enough,” she told me, for her to vote for him in February—although she copped to being “a little queasy when I did it”—and she’ll without doubt vote for him come November. “I would have loved 100 percent personal responsibility, but I was about 80 percent satisfied,” she said. It was important for her to hear about the Moseley Braun and Feinstein and the Judiciary Committee. “We in political science call that symbolic representation—the importance of not having all men—and I’m 100 percent on board with that—and that’s obviously an issue now with all the talk about the VP pick.”
Speaking of which: It was a huge plus for Wofford when he promised to make his VP a woman. Now, of course, he again must gauge whether or not to select a black woman—part of a broader balancing act at this fraught and volatile juncture to try to find a spot on the ideological spectrum that appeals enough to enough people in a coalition that’s not unlike the one that fueled Moseley Braun way back when. Enough liberals. Enough black people. Enough women in the suburbs. It’s a coalition Biden has to have to even have a chance at a reformist, “FDR-size” presidency—that level of governmental intervention at this time of such strife, grief and need—which surely would be a heck of a last plot twist for the traditionally more moderate Biden.
But if his history with Carol Moseley Braun reveals anything about Biden it is that he is a politician who can genuinely adapt when he needs to.
“He is now talking about things that are vastly different than he was talking about last fall, because we live in a new world,” said Third Way’s Bennett. “I think his ability to change gears and to offer ideas that fit the moment we’re in and not the moment we were in recently is related to his ability to see how the tide is shifting and to steer toward that.”
“Legislating has been compared to surfing,” Kaufman, Biden’s former chief of staff and his closest, longest-running adviser, told me. “Being successful is seeing the wave, seeing what’s coming …”
“When you’re trying to effect change, to move the country forward, to make real progress, you have a decision to make when you’re part of an institution like the Senate. You can decide to work within the system to change it and evolve it, or you can decide to work against the system, or try to change it by force, not by persuasion,” Tony Blinken, a longtime Biden aide and a senior adviser to his current campaign, told me. “And I think in his career the vice president has found the first path more effective in terms of making real change.”
“He is a change maker and a change agent, just in a different way than folks traditionally think of it,” Biden senior adviser Symone Sanders told me. “Women, and specifically women of color, people of color period—they bring different perspectives than all white men. So just the mere presence of a black woman—the mere presence of a woman—changes the conversations that are had in the room.”
“The fact of the matter is,” Moseley Braun told me, “there are enough black women out here who are the ones that show up at the polls, who have voted to save his career in South Carolina, who have literally stuck by the Democratic Party, time and time again, and then have been overlooked. Think about it. Obama did not nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court. I’ve heard that from more than one person: We didn’t get a Supreme Court justice. We got nothing out of the Obama administration, really, to speak of as a group.”
She’s looking now to the man who showed up in Chicago going on 28 years back.
“If you put a black woman on the ticket, and somebody who actually has street cred in terms of the civil rights agenda, then I think that’ll bring people out to vote for him,” Moseley Braun said. “I just hope he will.”