Tara Reade is difficult to dismiss. Since she publicly accused her former boss, Joe Biden, of sexual assault, multiple outlets reported corroborative evidence that supports her account. She says she told her brother; the New York Times and the Washington Post confirmed that she did. She says she told an anonymous friend; reporters confirmed that too. She told the Intercept that her mother, distraught over her treatment in Biden’s office, called into Larry King Live to ask for advice around the time of the attack, and the clip emerged. On Monday, Business Insider reported the most significant piece of circumstantial evidence to date: A former neighbor and a former co-worker of Reade’s both told the outlet that Reade disclosed a traumatic event to them in the mid-’90s.
“I don’t remember all the details,” said Lynda LaCasse, the neighbor. “I remember the skirt. I remember the fingers. I remember she was devastated.” The day Business Insider published the report, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi formally endorsed Biden for president.
The Reade story creates an obvious problem for liberals. Biden is the presumptive nominee. On his unsteady shoulders rests the task of defeating Donald Trump. Not only are Democrats desperate to believe their champion will win, they are eager to believe that their candidate is morally superior to the president he challenges. For liberal feminists, though, Biden was ostensibly a complicated figure even before Reade spoke to the press about her assault. Seven women, including Reade, accused him of unwanted touching or kissing last year. On abortion, he is not a consistent ally; Biden supported the Hyde Amendment for years before abruptly changing his mind in time for his latest presidential campaign. The memory of his treatment of Anita Hill during the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas is recent enough that he called her last year, for the first time, to account for it.
Nancy Pelosi has a political reason to pretend that Biden is better than he is, and so does any Democrat who either holds office or wants to someday. Stacey Abrams paused an energetic campaign to become Biden’s vice-president long enough to tell HuffPost that Reade’s claims had already been examined, and enough was enough. Biden, she added, “would make women proud as the next President of the United States.”
But outside electoral politics, the project of evaluating Biden should be less fraught. Liberal feminists with media platforms have the flexibility to say things that Democratic politicians cannot. They can urge Democrats to take Reade seriously, even call for Biden to withdraw. They don’t have reelection campaigns to win or White House appointments to lobby for, and can hold the party accountable for its reliance on such a disappointing man. Otherwise, what’s the use of a public platform at all?
Reade has given public feminists an ideological test. Many are failing. Though some have said they’re outraged by the choices on the ballot, others rushed to discredit Reade before her story had been fully vetted by the press. “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,” Michelle Goldberg wrote in the New York Times, before the Intercept and Business Insider corroborated new pieces of Reade’s story. Goldberg, who has been critical of Biden, went on: Reade said she left politics because she loved the arts, not because Biden had assaulted her. Unlike the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, which Goldberg once called “profoundly inspiring,” Reade’s story had too many inconsistencies to be totally credible.
Days later, Nation columnist Joan Walsh launched similar accusations. “Even in the era of #MeToo, Reade’s story is problematic,” Walsh wrote. Reade changed her story “multiple times,” Walsh complained, before concluding that the woman’s story, while possible, was improbable. Goldberg and Walsh both emphasize Reade’s past writings, which cast Russian president Vladimir Putin in glowing terms. Reade has “a strange obsession” with Putin, Walsh wrote; only then, after she thoroughly poisoned the well, did she admit that Reade’s fringe views don’t make her a liar. Still others implied that Reade is a Russian plant. “I don’t buy the Tara Reade shit. I’m not here to defend any man whose shortcomings and past dumb moves are widely known. I’m here to karate-chop disinfo and dirty tricks in an election year,” tweeted BoingBoing.com editor Xeni Jardin.
But Reade’s alleged “inconsistencies” are not so damning. If she is telling the truth about Biden, her hesitancy to go public with the full story makes sense. It would be easier to tell the truth in pieces, to start with the sexual harassment, especially as other women came forward with their own stories about Biden’s misbehavior. What else was she supposed to say at the time? That Uncle Joe Biden, a massively popular figure, put his fingers up her skirt and inside her, and retaliation drove her out of politics? Nobody sane would relish the fallout. Nor is it unusual that Reade would say years ago that she left politics because she’d decided to pursue the arts. That public explanation might even be true: Trauma rearranges a person’s priorities. And we should know by now that there are no perfect victims, that immense social and legal obstacles prevent women from going public about assault, that anyone with power, whether it is political or cultural, can wield it against the weak.
“There is no one response to sexual assault,” the Times reported in the middle of the Kavanaugh hearings. “A trauma victim can as easily appear calm or flat as distraught or overtly angry.” Unreported assaults like Blasey Ford’s are “all too common,” the Brennan Center for Justice noted, for a variety of reasons. Survivors fear stigma, and even blame themselves for their own abuse, and often have no reason to believe that the criminal-justice system would work on their behalf. When the perpetrator is powerful, the likelihood that justice will ever occur can seem especially slim. Harvey Weinstein’s abuse was not a secret in Hollywood. But at the peak of his career, he was “one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood — and one of the most terrifying,” as Vanity Fair put it, qualities that allowed him to fend off the truth for years. Why forget all this for Joe Biden?
Liberal feminists had another option, which was to say nothing, and wait for more information. From a professional standpoint, delay would have been prudent; it would have also been more ideologically consistent. Democratic politicians serve feminist aims more often than their alternatives. But settling repeatedly for the least-worst name on a ballot becomes a self-reinforcing pattern. The party will shove Biden after Biden at us, and when we resist, ask us when we decided to support the nation’s Trumps instead.
There is no simple way out of the predicament that Biden and his allies have created. But premature attacks on Reade boost a candidate at the expense of a movement. They tell us only that the lessons of Me Too can be set aside as soon as they are inconvenient. That strategy might serve electoral politics, but it betrays feminism. The movement exists to critique power: to identify its abuses and demand its redistribution. Accept that, and you don’t serve the political class; you’re in tension with it. That’s uncomfortable. That’s inconvenient. That’s the point.
The alternative is even more distasteful. We’ll settle for Biden, and men like him, over and over; we’ll tell ourselves the conservative is worse, that at least the Democrat will make a woman his vice-president. We’ll eat scraps, and we’ll still go hungry, and all we’ll leave to our children is a political future only a little bit better than the present. Our grand prize? To clean up after men like Joe Biden. That isn’t power. It’s just women’s work.