Earlier this year, Joe Biden reached out to Anita Hill, the young law professor who famously testified that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Biden presided over Thomas’s confirmation hearings, during which Hill was mocked, degraded, and humiliated. During the phone call, Biden expressed “regret for what she endured” and “admiration for everything she has done to change the culture around sexual harassment in this country.” Biden, however, failed to directly apologize for his role in how she was treated, leaving Hill “deeply unsatisfied.”
Criticism of Biden was swift, and his subsequent comments to mitigate the damage only fed the fire. Below are three PR lessons from Biden’s failed apology that he should have known.
Never ruin an apology with an excuse
Biden’s call to Hill, and his statements in media interviews afterward, amounted to a non-apology. He implied that other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee treated Hill poorly without acknowledging his own shortcomings and failures. By repeatedly saying “I wish I could have done more,” Biden implied that he did everything in his power to ensure Hill was treated fairly and respectfully, does not think he shoulders any blame for what happened, and would not approach the situation differently today.
If the goal was to prevent a 28-year-old controversy from harming Biden’s presidential campaign, the outreach to Hill and statements that followed failed miserably. Americans troubled by Biden’s actions, or rather inaction, during Thomas’s confirmation process wanted an apology, not excuses. Biden instead came across as deflecting and shifting blame for what happened on his colleagues rather than recognizing his own culpability.
A stitch in time saves nine
Biden has known for years that the Senate Judiciary Committee wronged Anita Hill. And like the rest of America, he watched the #MeToo movement reignite the conversation about sexual harassment that the Thomas confirmation hearings first lit. Waiting until the weeks before announcing his presidential candidacy to finally reach out to Hill looked like an insincere and self-serving attempt to mitigate a political liability rather than do the right thing.
Recognize the ripple effect
Perhaps most troubling was Biden’s apparent inability to grasp how his committee’s attitude towards Hill set the tone for how victims of sexual harassment are treated in this country. His apology failed to acknowledge the lasting impact of what Americans witnessed Hill endure or how her ordeal reverberated far beyond Capitol Hill in the years that followed. His statements left Americans wondering how much Biden has actually evolved on the issue of sexual harassment and to what extent he empathizes with victims.
His work championing the Violence Against Women Act and “It’s On Us” movement has been dampened by his inability to show that he understands the big picture when it comes to Anita Hill. Biden should have not only addressed the Senate Judiciary Committee’s transgressions, but shown that he recognized the larger context of Hill’s testimony.
Apologies only work when the recipients believe you truly recognize what you did wrong and that you hold yourself accountable. Biden failed to communicate even one of these messages. Given the current polls it may not matter, but time will tell.