Just say you’re sorry, Joe.
Take a deep breath, stand up tall and say it:
I’m sorry, Anita Hill, for how I treated you.
Apologies, of course, are never simple, even when the words are. They require the relinquishing of pride, the acknowledgment of harm inflicted, a humility that can feel humiliating. So far the courage of such humility has eluded Joe Biden.
On Thursday, the former vice president announced that he’s running for president, news that once again inflamed the public debate over his behavior toward Anita Hill.
Remember that? I do. If you were an adult in 1991, you remember, too. The whole nation sat riveted to the TV as Hill, a young lawyer, testified before a committee of U.S. senators that Clarence Thomas, the new nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, had sexually harassed her while he was her supervisor.
In a vast, wood-paneled hearing room, a phalanx of men sat on a high platform looking down at a lone young woman. They were all white. She was black. Their questions and remarks were frequently curt, mocking, denigrating. I remember feeling I was witnessing an assault.
The committee was led by Sen. Joe Biden.
In the 28 years since, the world has “evolved,” as we like to say, and so, it seems, has Biden. As a society, we take sexual harassment far more seriously, and Biden has acknowledged the wrong done to Hill.
“What happened,” he has publicly stated, “was she got victimized again during the process.”
What he hasn’t clearly recognized is that he was a big part of that process.
Biden is sometimes described as an everyman, a politician who can hobnob with the powerful but who also understands the regular people. He displays a genuine, if cagey, folksiness and, at the age of 76, wears a patina of experience that can pass for wisdom. He has endured great personal loss, most recently of his son, with dignity. He seems like a decent man.
And if to some detractors, he’s “just another old white guy,” he’s also seen by his supporters as the candidate best fortified to beat the 72-year-old white guy currently in the job.
In pursuit of that job, Biden has made feints at apologizing to Hill.
In a recent public appearance, he called her brave and said she “paid a terrible price” for her courage.
“She was abused in the hearing,” he said. “She was taken advantage of. Her reputation was attacked. I wish I could have done something.”
On Friday, in an appearance on ABC’s “The View,” he said, “I’m sorry for the way she got treated.”
“I don’t think I treated her badly.”
A few days ago, The New York Times reported that Biden recently called Hill to express regret over what happened. His words fell on her ears as less than an apology.
She said she doesn’t think Biden’s behavior during the confirmation hearings disqualifies him. “I’m really open to people changing,” she told The New York Times.
But, the Times noted, she said she can’t support him for president unless he takes full responsibility for his conduct.
Anyone who has been in politics for a long time is apt to have things to apologize for. Making mistakes comes with the job. So does changing with the times, or it should.
The Biden of today seems more enlightened than the Biden of 1991. He championed the Violence Against Women Act. He has worked with a social movement called “It’s On Us,” which encourages men to take responsibility for stopping sexual assault and harassment. In those ways, he has stepped up to meet the times.
But Biden’s reluctance to fully acknowledge his role in what happened to Hill suggests a troubling blind spot.
Is it one that will be a make-or-break issue for voters? I wouldn’t bet on it. There’s even a theory that he’s sidestepping a full apology because there’s a group of voters — those drawn to President Donald Trump — who wouldn’t want him to seem to cater to such liberal sensitivities.
But there are a lot of other voters waiting for Biden to prove that he’s in touch with the new age, that he really has changed.
Come on, Joe. Exercise the strength of humility.
Keep evolving. Apologize. It’s a form of leadership.
Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune who won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.