We Should Take Women's Accusations Seriously. But Tara Reade's Fall Short.
I would vote for Joe Biden if he boiled babies and ate them. He wasn’t my candidate, but taking back the White House is that important. Four more years of Trump will replace what remains of our democracy with unchecked rule by kleptocrats, fascists, religious fanatics, gun nuts, and know-nothings. The environment? Education? Public health? The rights of voters, workers, immigrants, people of color, and yes, women? Forget them. And not just for the next four years: A Trump victory will lock down the courts for decades. I cannot believe that a rational person can grasp the disaster that is Donald Trump and withhold their support from Biden because of Tara Reade.
I would say this even if I had no problems with Reade’s account—after all, Biden will be running against Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by 25 women and has confessed to “grab[bing] them by the pussy” on tape. (I’ll leave it to others to explain why the writer E. Jean Carroll’s claim last summer that Trump raped her in a department store dressing room in the mid-1990s was a one-day story, while Reade has been all over the news for weeks.)
Fortunately, I may not have to sacrifice morality to political necessity. When I started writing this piece too many long days ago, Trumpies, Berners, and many feminists alike supported Reade’s allegation, first made public on March 25 on Katie Halper’s podcast, that Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993 when she was a staffer in his Senate office. I was on the fence. I wrote, “I’d like to know more” on Twitter and Facebook and was reviled as a feminist hypocrite—interestingly enough, mostly by men. It was also mostly men who demanded that I sign on immediately to #IBelieveTara.
I take women’s accusations very seriously, but there have always been reasons to be skeptical about this one. To believe Reade, you have to believe that Biden put her up against a wall and penetrated her with his fingers on the spur of the moment in a hallway in the Capitol complex, where she says she was looking for him to give him his gym bag. This corridor, which she can’t precisely identify, is a public space. (Her lawyer said he assaulted her in “a semi-private area like an alcove.”) Indeed, Reade told Megyn Kelly that before she caught up with Biden, he was talking to another person. It was the middle of a workday. To believe Reade, you have to believe Biden would take that risk.
Here are some of the difficulties I have with Reade’s accusation:
She has changed her story—not just added to it, as her defenders claim, but altered it over and over. She has said she was essentially forced out, given one month to find a new job, but she has also said she left to follow her boyfriend to the Midwest, to pursue a career as an actress, and because she loved Russia and hated imperialism. Her former colleague in Biden’s office told CNN that she told him at the time her employment was terminated because of a health issue she had. She tweeted positively about Biden, aka “my old boss,” and retweeted or liked tweets praising Biden for his work against sexual violence. Asked about her pro-Biden tweets, she said they came from an old account that had since been hacked. Her supporters say it’s not uncommon for women who have been harassed or assaulted to speak about the perpetrator favorably in public after the incident. Okay, but do those women also say they were hacked?
In 2018, she wrote absurdly adulatory pieces for Medium about, of all people, Vladimir Putin (“President Putin’s obvious reverence for women, children and animals, and his ability with sports is intoxicating to American women”). She later deleted them and now says that she lost faith in Putin when she learned of Russia’s decriminalization of domestic violence—but she had retweeted and liked a tweet from Chelsea Handler about the new Russian law a year before. She also said that her pieces were part of a novel. (There is nothing novelistic about them. They are straightforward opinion pieces.) She told Megyn Kelly her quasi-erotic gushing over Putin’s irresistibility to women was supposed to be humorous. It is hard to believe she is a Russian spy, as some have claimed. She’s a terrible writer, and her pieces were self-published and pretty much invisible. Surely the Russians can find better uses for their Moscow gold. To me, the Putin pieces are of interest because they are so bizarre as to suggest some kind of mental instability.
Reade’s claim of supposed “retaliation” by Biden’s office exists in so many versions I got a headache trying to keep them straight. In 2019, she was interviewed by The Union, her local Nevada County, Ca., newspaper, as one of a group of women, including former Nevada state assemblywoman Lucy Flores, who came forward to complain about unwanted touching by Biden. Reade told The Union that she was deprived of certain duties, placed in a windowless office, and ultimately pushed out of her job because she complained about Biden’s handsiness and refused to serve drinks at a fundraiser after a staffer told her Biden “liked her legs.”
Reade said she spoke to U.S. Senate personnel about her concerns. Word got back to Biden’s office.
“My life was hell,” Reade said. “This was about power and control.”
“I couldn’t get a job on the Hill,” she added.
Who was responsible for her problems in the office? The title of her Medium essay, “Powerful Men and the Women They Choose to Destroy,” certainly seems to blame Biden, although the narrative itself is confusing. But she has also blamed his staff and said that Biden may not have known about her office troubles and may not even have known when she left her job. She told Megyn Kelly that when she encountered him in the Senate hallway just before the alleged assault, “he remembered my name.” That sounds as if she didn’t expect him to know who she was.
Her account of filing a sexual harassment complaint is similarly bewildering. Granted, the alleged harassment and assault took place 27 years ago, but much of her story sounds as if she is revising and improvising as objections come up. She first called it a sexual harassment complaint, and then said she never used the term sexual harassment (“I chickened out”) and may only have filled out an “intake form.” Where is that document? Biden asked the National Archives and the Senate Secretary’s office to release whatever they had; the National Archives said the document would be held by the Senate, and the Senate said releasing documents would violate confidentiality. Reade has called on Biden to open his papers at the University of Delaware, which are closed until two years after he leaves public life. He has declined to do so, saying the document would not be there and a search would set off a fishing expedition. But even if the complaint were found, it would tell us nothing about the alleged assault, because she has said she didn’t include it in whatever paperwork she filed, or didn’t file.
The best reason to believe Reade is her corroborators. But if you examine their accounts closely, each of them falls short. Reade said she told her mother, now deceased, about the assault and her mother urged her to go to the police. She said her mother called in anonymously to Larry King, and a video of that call has indeed come to light—but her mother mentioned only that her daughter had been working for a “prominent senator” and had “problems” that she couldn’t get help for (“out of respect” for her boss, the mother said, she didn’t want to go to the press). Reade’s brother, when first interviewed by The Washington Post, said nothing about assault; having spoken to the left-wing journalist Nathan Robinson, a fervent Reade partisan, he texted the Post a few days later and said he now remembered Biden putting “his hands under her clothes.” Lorraine Sanchez, who worked with Tara Reade from 1994 to 1996, said Reade told her about sexual harassment but not assault. An anonymous friend says Reade told her she was harassed in 2006 or 2007. No mention of assault. A 1996 affidavit has recently surfaced in which Reade’s ex-husband says Reade told him she had been sexually harassed when she worked in Biden’s office. No mention of assault.
Two friends come closest to corroborating the assault. One is an anonymous woman who met Reade when they both worked on the Hill. Last year she corroborated Reade’s claim that Biden had touched her neck and shoulders but, said the friend, there was nothing sexual in it, which is what Reade also said at the time. When Reade claimed assault this March, the friend corroborated that, too, and said she had kept Reade’s confidences because “it just wasn’t my place.” In other words, she lied for her friend.
The second corroborator is Lynda LaCasse, Reade’s neighbor in the mid-’90s. In an interview with Rich McHugh of Business Insider, LaCasse says Reade told her about the assault in 1995 or ’96, but admits she had forgotten about it until Reade reminded her:
McHugh: When did this come on your radar again?
LaCasse: Just recently. Tara called me and said, “Oh my gosh, this Joe Biden thing is coming up again.” I said, “Oh my God, that.” I had forgotten about it.
When interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, LaCasse seemed to say she always remembered it (Tara “told me about the allegations. And I said, “Oh, yes, I remember that.”). But when asked about her own support for Biden, she said something a little strange: “It’s a difficult thing. I’ve always supported him. And I just have to keep supporting him now. And it’s a little bit harder now, after this allegation.” That certainly sounds as if the allegation was new information, not something she always remembered, or about which she just needed to have her memory jogged.
Are these friends telling the truth? It’s hard to say. Memory is a funny thing, and these conversations would have happened more than 20 years ago. However, the anonymous friend says she didn’t just withhold part of the story but confirmed something that she knew was false. And it does seem odd that the thing LaCasse says she had forgotten is the most shocking piece of the story, the piece that was added just this year and the only reason we are talking about Reade now.
Why did Reade come forward when she did? Why not when she accused him of handsiness in 2019? She has blamed the media—the sharp remark of a journalist at the The Union shut her down. She has also said she reached out to the campaigns of Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, but no one responded. Reade is a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders, and it may be relevant that her story came out in the pro-Sanders media—The Katie Halper Show, The Intercept, Current Affairs, Democracy Now!—just as Biden was emerging as the presumptive nominee. On Super Tuesday she responded to a tweet from The Intercept’s Ryan Grim. Grim tweeted, “A head-to-head Biden v Sanders contest will force voters to take a close look at Biden again. That went very badly for him last time.” Reade responded, “Yup. Timing… wait for it….tic toc.”
That certainly sounds as if Reade was being strategic about how and when she released her accusation. (Reade told Kelly she was referring to the survivors’ advocacy organization Time’s Up, which she hoped would find her a lawyer. But why would she allude to that in response to a tweet about Super Tuesday?) In any case, it is hard to ignore the political usefulness of Reade to the Sanders camp. In fact, Reade has been useful to a lot of people: Bernie supporters, Trump supporters, people who want revenge for Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh, people who think #MeToo is a pack of crazy women, people who think feminists are hypocrites in the pocket of the Democratic Party.
Do plenty of famous, powerful men molest less-powerful women? Of course. #MeToo has made us all aware of that. Many studies show that most women who say they have been sexually assaulted are telling the truth. However, when you’re dealing with actual individuals, it isn’t good enough to go with generalities. (As Susan Faludi clearly established, #BelieveAllWomen is a right-wing canard.) Otherwise, you get arguments like those of the feminist philosopher Kate Manne, who writes in The Nation that Biden is “the type” of man who would sexually assault Reade, because he has “a demonstrated history of handsiness.” That’s like saying a man accused of armed robbery is “the type” because he was in the habit of shoplifting. Touching women, invading their space, commenting on their bodies, looking them up and down are all regrettably common, especially among men of Biden’s generation; impulsively assaulting a staffer in a public hallway, not so much. Both behaviors may spring from “the same sense of privileged male entitlement,” but they are different in kind.
Manne takes my colleague Joan Walsh to task for writing in a recent opinion piece that there is “no evidence” that Biden sexually assaulted Reade. Reade’s accusation is itself evidence, Manne writes, “though there remains room to disagree on its strength or probative value.” I’m sorry, I don’t understand that at all. Allegations should lead to further investigation, but they are not evidence on their own. If I allege that my business partner cheated me or my doctor committed malpractice, that is not evidence that they did so. It is just my claim. Evidence is what I bring to support my allegation, not the allegation itself. To say otherwise is to argue that everyone accused rightly starts out with one strike against them. After all, someone accused them. Smoke, meet fire.
If every piece of evidence for an accusation is a brick, and there’s something the matter with each of them, do you have a wall or just a pile of bricks? I think you have a pile of bricks. It is possible that Reade endured some form of sexual harassment while working for Biden: the handsiness mentioned by many women, for example. The assault? The retaliation? Little evidence, and no proof. Her supporters compare her favorably to Christine Blasey Ford, who waited even longer to come forward with her accusation that Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her at a party when they were both in high school. Democrats believed Ford, they say, and doubt Reade for political reasons. There may be some truth to the claim that Democrats were eager to believe Ford and are reluctant to believe Reade, and it may even be true that some find Ford more credible because, unlike Reade, she has led a solidly middle-class life of professional accomplishment and respectability. But it’s also true that Ford did not change her story, testified under oath, took a polygraph test, and had four sworn affidavits from people she told about the incident plus her therapist’s notes.
As I write, Reade’s story seems to be falling apart. PBS NewsHour has posted an article based on interviews with 74 Biden staffers, who spoke highly of their boss and his respectful and enlightened behavior toward women. One staffer, who had worked with Reade, said her office problems had to do with her poor performance at the task they shared, answering mail from constituents. Another said the drinks request would never have happened because Biden, in a move that seems unusual for that era, did not want women to do such menial tasks. More than 50 said that as staffers they had never attended fundraisers and some mentioned an office policy barring most staffers from campaign work. (“‘Never would have happened,’ said Melissa Lefko, who was a staff assistant in Biden’s office during the time Reade was there. ‘We all knew there was a very hard line there.’”) NewsHour reporters investigated the hallway where the assault is alleged to have happened and determined that there was no “semi-private area like an alcove,” as her lawyer claimed, where Biden could have assaulted Reade unseen.
An article in Politico portrays Reade as a manipulative, dishonest user who exploited acquaintances and kind people who tried to help her over the years, and who always spoke proudly of her time working for Biden. Of course, liars can be raped, users can be raped, people who skip out on the rent can be raped. But it is an intentional misreading to say, as some have claimed, that the article slams Reade for being poor. Very few poor people trick veterinarians into billing others for medical care for their pet horse.
We may never get to the bottom of this to everyone’s satisfaction. I certainly won’t be holding my breath waiting for the journalists who ran with this story on very little evidence to climb down, let alone apologize. On Twitter, Biden is still a rapist, and perhaps always will be. Meanwhile, Reade and her supporters have made it harder for the next woman who claims to have been sexually harassed, assaulted or raped. False claims are rare, as I mentioned earlier, but they loom large in the public imagination. People still remember Tawana Brawley, who was not, as she claimed, raped by a gang of white men, including police officers, over four days in the woods in upstate New York—and that was 33 years ago.
Here’s what I do know: Whether or not you believe Tara Reade—and I’m betting that the case for believing her is going to get weaker rather than stronger as the weeks go by—you should vote for Joe Biden if he is the nominee. And he is almost sure to be the nominee, despite the best efforts of some Sanders supporters to use Reade to force Biden to step aside. Moreover, there is nothing hypocritical about feminists supporting Biden. We have a perfect right to support the candidate who will be better for women and their rights than the one who will send us back to the 1950s. It is the only intelligent thing to do. Not only is Tara Reade’s claim far from proven, weighing the personal against the political is what voters do all the time. Black Virginians stuck with Governor Ralph Northam despite his blackface scandal. Were they hypocrites? I doubt that was the only time Americans have had to swallow their pride and support a politician who, whatever his faults, served their interests.
I realize Democrats and those to their left care deeply about their principles. Al Franken was hustled out of the Senate, after all, on the basis of far less serious—but better attested—allegations than Reade’s. But this time we need to take a leaf from the evangelicals, who enthusiastically support Donald Trump and don’t give a hoot that 25 women have accused him of various kinds of misconduct or that he paid hush money to a porn star. They don’t care about his dishonest finances, either, or his still-unrevealed income taxes or indeed anything detrimental about him. What they care about is what Donald Trump will do for their issues: install Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade, for starters.
Whether or not you feel in your bones that Tara Reade is telling the truth, the evidence is just not there. We do not have the luxury of sitting out the election to feel morally pure or send a message about sexual assault and #BelieveWomen. That will not help women at all. Or anyone else.
[Katha Pollitt is a columnist for The Nation.]
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