Biden’s prism of loss: A public man, shaped by private grief

WASHINGTON (AP) — On the night before former United States (US) Vice President Joe Biden’s world collapsed, he sat in a picture-perfect scene with his wife by the fireside in their Delaware living room.

Biden, the hotshot senator-elect at just 30, was reflecting on the big things he would do when he got to Washington. It was one week out from a holiday season in 1972, and Neilia, also 30, was addressing holiday cards as her husband rambled on. But then she interrupted his musings to share an ill premonition.

“What’s going to happen, Joey?” she asked her husband, in Biden’s later recounting. “Things are too good.”

One day later, Neilia and the couple’s 13-month old daughter, Naomi, were dead. Sons Hunter and Beau, a year and a day apart at three and four, were seriously injured.

While Biden was in Washington setting up his new office, Neilia’s car had been broadsided by a tractor-trailer as she took the kids out for shopping.

When the phone rang, Biden said later, “I knew.”

“You just felt it in your bones.”

Former United States (US) Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden meets with supporters before speaking at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake
File photo of Joe Biden with his sons, Joseph and Robert, and his wife Neilia Biden during an appearance at the Democratic state convention. PHOTOS: AP

Nothing would ever be the same. Biden was instantly transformed into a politician whose career would forever be grounded in tragedy. Loss became central to Biden’s political persona, a history he has often shared — at some points reluctantly, at others readily and on at least a few occasions with inaccuracies in the account. Now in his third bid for the White House, the painful story comes up as point of connection to voters and a personal experience on healthcare policy.

But Biden confidants said the history is much more than that. It’s essential to explaining the candidate’s inclination to give others, even political opponents, the benefit of the doubt. Surmounting loss helped to shape a determination to overcome hard things that friends see reflected in Biden’s recent talk about the need to work even with those “who may offend every fibre of your being”, and in his can-do attitude toward world trouble spots.

As it turned out, Biden’s passage through hardship was not to be a one-time journey but a well-travelled path. His life was later rocked by serious illness, political setbacks, and, in 2015, Beau’s death from brain cancer at age 46. There were other, less public, trials, including Hunter’s struggles as an adult with addiction.

Despite life’s cruelties, though, Biden remarried, added daughter Ashley to his family, spent 26 years in the Senate, eight as vice president and pursued the presidency off and on for more than three decades. He’s now making another run at age 76.

“He is the unluckiest person I’ve ever known personally, and he is the luckiest person I’ve ever known personally,” said longtime friend Ted Kaufman, who succeeded Biden in the Senate.

After the accident, Biden had no interest in the Senate anymore. No ambition for anything, really. His world view shrank to taking care of his boys.

“For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide,” he would later reveal.

Biden didn’t just have to deal with grief. He had the added burden of processing it in public.

On December 19, 1972, the day after Neilia’s car accident, Richard Nixon’s aides briefed the President on the tragedy, spelling out the name of the unfamiliar incoming senator “B-I-D-E-N”.

Then the White House operator patches Biden through for a condolence call.

“So uh, so the, uh, but, uh, in any event, uh, I mean, looking at it in a, as you must, in terms of the future, because you, you have the great fortune of being young,” the President told him. “And now I’m sure that, uh, she’ll be watching you from now on.”

Biden utters a hurried thank you and ended the call.

He debated relinquishing the Senate seat he’d yet to even occupy but eventually agreed to give the job a try for six months.

Two-and-half weeks after Neilia’s death, Biden was sworn in as senator in a small chapel at the hospital in Delaware. Beau, still in traction, was wheeled into the room in his bed; Hunter, by then out of the hospital, perched on his brother’s bed for the ceremony.

Senators gave Biden broad leeway once in office. His sister Valerie moved in to take care of the boys. The new senator went home to Delaware every night to kiss them good night.

For decades to come, Biden would wrestle with the image he cut as a tragic figure and a self-described “hot commodity” on the Washington scene.

Loss became part of the Biden package. And it made for an uncomfortable fit at times.

“I am the youngest man in the Senate and I am also the victim of a tragic fate which makes me very newsworthy,” he told Washingtonian in a 1974 interview.

“I’m sure that’s why I get so many invitations all the time. I don’t accept them and people understand why.”

The conversation revealed a man still struggling with how to be in the spotlight. He at times appears boastful and also still broken.

Former Senator Bill Bradley, who served with Biden in the Senate for nearly two decades, said that while many a politician wrestles with hidden personal tragedies, Biden from the beginning has been open about his pain.

When people “see someone who is able to make his way through that in public, which is infinitely more difficult, they have a feeling for him as a human being,” Bradley said.

“Joe is Joe,” said Bradley. “There’s no artifice.”

When Senator Chris Coons’ father lay dying in hospice care, there were plenty of expressions of support and concern.

The comforting words that the Delaware Democrat heard from Biden, a long-time friend, were different.

“He knows what you’re going through,” said Coons. “He knows that you can come through it.”

He’s seen Biden do the same for countless others — the family of a lost firefighter, the parent of a son killed in Afghanistan, the widow of local restaurateur, and so many more.

Often, these strangers-turned-partners-in-grief hear a message of reassurance from Biden that’s drawn from his own experience: There will come a day, I promise you, when the thought of your son or daughter or your husband or wife “brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.”

They also may come away with his mobile phone number.

“I have a long list of strangers who have my private number and an invitation to call,” Biden wrote in his 2017 book. “And many of them do.”

Nearly half a century into his political career, Biden still processes events through the frame of reference of his past travails. And he’s still prone to mentioning the tragedies of his life as political lessons.

Often, he brings up the twin tragedies of his wife and daughter’s deaths and then Beau’s death in the context of healthcare policy, saying he “couldn’t imagine” what it would be like if he hadn’t had good access to healthcare. He mentioned the accident during a speech to a firefighters union in March, six weeks before he announced his latest campaign.

He choked up last month during a speech in Iowa in which he invoked both the deaths of Beau and of his wife and daughter as he praised personal caregivers who are there to hold people’s hands when they “get really scared.”

In this, Biden is hardly alone. Many politicians use personal episodes to make political point. When it came time for Biden to make the decision on whether to run for president in the 2016 election, his emotions over the death of Beau were still too raw.

In an interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on September 11, 2015, three months after Beau’s death, Biden opened up about his fragile state.

He recalled a recent visit he had made to a military base in Colorado that had been going great until a man in the crowd called out Beau’s name and said they had served together in Iraq.

“All of a sudden I lost it,” Biden said. “I shouldn’t be saying this, but you can’t do that. You can’t do that.” On October 21, 2015, at age 72, Biden announced he wouldn’t run for president — not in that election anyway.

The assumption by many was that it was the end of the road for Biden’s political career.

But less than four years later, the memory of Beau’s determination that his father stay engaged in public life factored into Biden’s decision to make another run.

Whatever happens from here, there’s a kind of liberation for Biden in knowing that he can run and lose and it still won’t be the worst thing that’s happened to him.

Kaufman, Biden’s longtime friend and political ally, said the two of them have a “difference of opinion” over how to age, Kaufman arguing that their older years should be a time to take a “more contemplative” approach to life. A few years back, Kaufman said, he sent Biden a quotation he’d found from Pope John XXIII from his days as a cardinal essentially validating Kaufman’s side of their running debate. Biden sent it back, after adding a counter message from poet Dylan Thomas:

“Do not go gentle into that night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”