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Witcover: Biden answers accusation of inappropriate touching

Jules Witcover: Joe Biden invaded a woman's personal space, but that shouldn't keep him from the 202 race.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, widely believed to be on the cusp of entering the 2020 presidential campaign, has issued a carefully crafted response to a female Democratic politician's allegation that he behaved improperly in a 2014 encounter.

Lucy Flores, a Nevada state legislator and onetime Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in Nevada, reports that at a campaign event in which Mr. Biden was supporting her he was standing behind her when he put his hands on her shoulders, leaned in, smelled her hair and kissed her on the top of her head.

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Ms. Flores told MSNBC that she did not feel that Mr. Biden had sexually assaulted or sexually harassed her but nonetheless that he had inappropriately invaded her personal space. It was shocking, she said, and it made her feel very uncomfortable to be treated in that way by a powerful political figure with whom she had no personal relationship.

Her television interviewer reported that Ms. Flores had been a political supporter in 2016 of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and also recently had attended a campaign rally for another Democratic contender, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke.

However, Ms. Flores denied that her disclosure was politically motivated, saying she was motivated by feelings of invasion by such a prominent and powerful public figure. At least one declared female candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, has joined the questioning of Mr. Biden's behavior.

In a statement responding to Ms. Flores' complaint, Mr. Biden acknowledged that he had offered "countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort" in his long public career, but he maintained that "not ever -- never -- did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested that I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention.

"I may not recall these moments in the same way, and I may be surprised at what I hear," the statement continued. "But we have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, men should pay attention. And I will."

The accusation has come out in the midst of a broader wave of criticism of Mr. Biden's well-known penchant for offering expressions of affection and admiration for women, sometimes with hands-on gestures and whisperings. One frequently aired photo showed Mr. Biden in 2015 with his hands on the shoulders of, and whispering in her ear of, the wife of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at his Pentagon swearing-in. She later said Mr. Biden was merely bolstering her and thanking her for agreeing to allow Mr. Carter to serve. Other critics have called various Biden gestures toward women "creepy" and made eye-rolling references to "Uncle Joe," either in praise or ridicule.

In the former vice president's home state of Delaware, the Bidens are widely respected for familial closeness and affection, and particularly for their collective pride and sense of community responsibility. Joe Biden himself often makes a point of assuring fellow Delawareans that his word is his bond, telling them he is giving them "my word as a Biden" on any pledge offered.

In an earlier political crisis for him, he was accused at law school by a fellow student of plagiarism on a test, whereupon he requested and received exoneration. In running the first time for president in 1988, he borrowed the language of a British politician as his own, once without attribution, was called on it, apologized and withdrew from the race. His wife, Jill, immediately recognized the peril of the allegation to the heart of her husband's reputation and sense of honor. She observed, "Of all the things for him to get out of the race for, it was to be attacked for his character."

In the course of a year writing a biography of Mr. Biden, I never encountered an instance in which he gave reasonable cause for alarm. As for his general demeanor, including his proclivity to talk at length, the public response invariably has been, "That's Joe." Among his fellow Delawareans, and in the U.S. Senate, he is accepted as he is, warts and all.

In this latest lament about treatment of women, his authorship in 1994 of the Violence Against Women Act, at first opposed by some religious groups as a federal intrusion into family rights, has stood him in good stead.

And so it still appears that sooner or later he will indeed enter the 2020 presidential race.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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