In a Twitter thread on Tuesday, Jean Carnahan, the former senator from Missouri, described how caring Mr. Biden was after she arrived in the Senate, taking the seat of her husband, who had died weeks earlier in a plane crash. Mr. Biden had also suffered the loss of a spouse, shortly before he joined the Senate in 1973.
“It was his empathy and encouragement more than that of any of my colleagues, that gave me strength to meet each day,” Ms. Carnahan wrote. “And, yes, I sometimes, got a shoulder pat or even a head kiss. Joe has a deep desire to share in the lives of others — their grief, pain, and joy. He reaches out through the human touch to connect and express those feelings.”
Meghan McCain expressed similar sentiments, writing on Twitter: “Joe Biden is one of the truly decent and compassionate men in all of American politics. He has helped me through my fathers diagnosis, treatment and ultimate passing more than anyone of my fathers friends combined. I wish there was more empathy from our politicians not less.”
But touching someone you know is one thing; touching complete strangers, as Mr. Biden often does, is another. Even so, former Biden aides said it never came up as an issue, and no one dissuaded him from the behavior. And it was hardly a secret.
“This is stuff mostly that he’s done in front of everybody,” said David Axelrod, who was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama while Mr. Biden was vice president. “I’m sure his intent was benign, but through the lens of today, it looks like something different.”
There may also be a generational component to that lens. The controversy around Mr. Biden erupted over the weekend when Lucy Flores, a former candidate for lieutenant governor of Nevada, described how Mr. Biden placed his hands on her shoulders, leaned in to smell her hair and “proceeded to plant a big, slow kiss on the back of my head” before she went onstage at a campaign rally.
Ms. Flores was 35 at the time. “It was completely inappropriate,” she said Sunday on CNN.
But Diane Denish, 70, who served as lieutenant governor of New Mexico from 2003 through 2010, said she had “exactly the same experience” with Mr. Biden and “had a completely different reaction to it.”