Alexandra Tara Reade: A girl walks into the Senate
“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the Gods; they kill us for their sport.” — William Shakespeare
I am not a “snowflake.” I like to be touched, a lot. I am an affectionate person. However, I like to decide who touches me and when.
I did not understand or have the words back then to describe how I felt, but only sensed power moves and body language that I did not like. There was not yet the framework as there is now.
I did not like Joe Biden’s hand on me not for the reasons you think, it is because I am the alpha in the room too. Again, I like to be the one who chooses who enters my space and in what way.
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We are sexual beings and we are all trying to figure out how to express this aspect of ourselves at work and home lives, it is a journey our society is on right now. But this is not a story about sexual misconduct; it is a story about abuse of power. It is a story about when a member of Congress allows staff to threaten or belittle or bully on their behalf unchecked to maintain power rather than modify the behavior.
Welcome to D.C.
I had been approached in college by a political science professor to apply for an internship in a congressional office. After working as an intern in Washington D.C., I caught the political operative bug and worked on campaigns. I applied at then Sen. Joseph Biden’s office and I was interviewed on the phone, flew back to D.C., and hired at the in-person interview, on the spot. Sen. Biden walked past as I was being interviewed and prepared for orientation, he asked me a question then as he breezed out, said, “Hire her,” with a smile.
I was beyond excited, I packed up my Nissan and cats, told my boyfriend goodbye and headed alone on the cross country drive to Washington D.C. I arrived at a place affectionately referred to by locals as “the nunnery.” It was an all women’s boarding dorm across from the Congress. It was considered the safe place for parents to send their young women who were interning and working as staff on the hill. We ate in a common dining hall, had gym locker type bathroom/showers and no men were allowed upstairs after 8 p.m. It was secure and safe. Little did the parents know who unwittingly sent their young college grads here that the real predators were some of the members of the House and Senate.
Remember, this is before Chandra Levy and Monica Lewinsky were part of our collective lexicon. This was a time in the 1990s when discretion was still on the side of the young princes who held office and allowed them to pillage as they saw fit without the nasty consequences.
I met one of my best friends there who worked for Sen. Ted Kennedy. We had snowball fights on snow days, concerts and dressy formals to attend, heartbreaks and work challenges. We had secrets and were privy to sensitive information. Our conversations revolved around current events, love interests and what bill had a chance of passing that congressional session.
One day, I got called into the office by my supervisor for reasons unknown. My stomach flipped over wondering what I had done wrong as I walked in the room. There were raised voices among the staff present.
I was told that Sen. Biden wanted me to “serve drinks at a event” because he “liked my legs” and thought I was “pretty.”
I was a former model and actress, so at the time such comments were of no consequence to me. I was asked to do many things based on my looks and I did not know what value my intellect even held at the time, if any.
However, to a senior female legislative aide, it was not OK and she voiced her objection. She said, “Tara, you do not have to be treated like an object, you do not have to serve cocktails at a function for men because the Senator asked you to do this!”
The staff argued, I stayed silent and knew inwardly this was a huge problem, a trap, no matter what I did or said. I said nothing. I was later told to “keep my head down and fly under the radar, if I wanted to last.” I was told by my supervisor to wear lower skirts and button up my blouse more. “Try not to look “sexy” she said. I was bewildered, as I did not think I looked like any of that. It was a thing, an issue and somehow I was the problem, somehow, it was all my fault. I felt ashamed as if I had asked for it.
My troubles had just started. Sen. Biden would touch me on the shoulder or hold his hand on my shoulder running his index finger up my neck during a meeting. Again, I did nothing. It was uncomfortable. Again, because it was a kind of dominant gesture, and I do not like to be dominated. But he did this often to me, others, he was demonstrative. I believe these gestures were not so much about “connection” but establishing dominance in the room. I kept silent when he did this. I respected him but I feared him.
Things at the office got hard for me and it was obvious I was going to be forced out with legitimate or not so legitimate reasons. I was told by my female supervisor not to make waves and that the chief of staff would just think we were “all on our periods and complaining for no reason.”
I went to another senator’s office for help and met discreetly with the staffer I knew. At the time, I was volunteering for the 25th anniversary of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial at the VIP tent and a staffer for Sen. Ted Kennedy tried to step in on my behalf. Then, I went to Senate personnel for help. No one helped me. I resigned or I would say, I was forced to resign. I was told to look for another job.
In the aftermath, I did not feel competent or worthy of anything. My self-esteem plummeted and my career nose-dived. What started with promise and possibility, ended because some prominent Senator decided that he liked my legs. I was sad and lost and moved on.
I wish I could say there was a happy ending, that Sen. Biden apologized or that he helped make amends, he did not. I do not even know if he realized why I left. Biden was protected by his chief of staff from unpleasant events, like a young king.
In the words of the Sade song, I was “left for the lions.” We staffers all knew the dire consequences if you spoke out against one of the powerful, one of the beloved. So yes, I spoke up then, and then again now and people are trying hard to shut me down. But I get back up, I channel my inner Boudicca for strength.
Saw it on the internet
After my story was published in The Union, the internet trolls started and within 24 hours there was a conspiracy blaming the Russians, again. A distant cousin called me and said stuttering, “I just finished watching ‘The Americans,’ the tweets say you’re an illegal, a Russian agent??”
Head slams on keyboard.
”Ummm, what is that show?” I ask. “And I am related to you!”
She is laughing now and said “I know but your writing … those blogs?”
“I am in a creative writing group and in writing a novel, the poetry is part of the novel and the blogs because I watch and read a lot of Noam Chomsky. I dislike xenophobia. I will not be told by power elite who and what country to like. I love cultures, Russian, Italian (and the food) and so many others. I mean I speak some Spanish, Italian too, and I mean l Iike to explore and learn. Since when did exploring our world and views become so wrong?”
I am upset now and feel defensive. Again, somehow me talking about what happened is my fault.
She ponders and replies, ”Hmmm, well this Norm Chomsky is a dissident, right?”
I sigh, “It’s Noam.”
“Yea, right. ”
I am a loyal American and in the words of Lucy Flores, I was a Democratic foot soldier. I voted despite all my troubles for the Obama/Biden ticket … twice. I heard Assemblywoman Flores speak up, and then she was ripped apart in some of the media. This is why women do not speak up, in case anyone is wondering. The late-night hosts lined up with their snide humor, but hey, we still need to laugh at ourselves.
All of the trolls? The outrage and circling the wagons to protect Joe Biden? It comes from a real place. A place of fear and hope for a better future than the one we have now. I get it. But a friend called who knew me back then and heard a pundit say, “Yes, well none of his former employees have come out.”
My friend said gently, “Tara, did you hear that?”
I sighed, “Yea.” And the gauntlet had been thrown. So I responded to the reporter who called me.
There is a song by Sara Bareilles, “She Used to be Mine” that sums up these experiences. Like the lyrics say, I am imperfect but kind and hard on myself. To the millennials, as you look at our geo-political landscape and the major candidates, remember, “Mockingjay.”
To my trolls, I am sorry you were baffled and scared that I was a foreign agent, or some political scheme to end Joe Biden. I am not. Even after all that happened, Joe Biden’s legislative agenda, especially on social issues, was aligned with my own.
We all suffer from fear and grief. If we could just see each other with some compassion. All of us face death of loved ones. Right before I came to Biden’s office, my brother died. Watching my beautiful brother slowly die young and in tremendous pain was awful.
Joe Biden has faced the loss of not one but two children and others close to him. He has had unimaginable grief. Many of us have known that dark corridor of pain. Some never get out. If we can reach out to each other with empathy and the knowledge we are all trying our best with the information we have at the time, maybe there will be healing.
Maybe as women, we can speak up at the time and not lose our jobs or reputations if our boundaries are violated. Maybe we can start from there.
Alexandra Tara Reade lives in Nevada County.
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