Inside Joe Biden's History of Heartbreaking Tragedy and Triumph
For Joe Biden, it’s been a long road to accepting the Democratic presidential nomination and potentially becoming the next president of the United States. The 77-year-old politician has gone through extreme highs and lows in his personal life, including the devastating deaths of his first wife and two of his children.
Biden was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and is the oldest of four siblings. The family eventually relocated to Delaware, but Biden’s childhood was not easy due to a debilitating stutter. He’s talked about being bullied for having a stutter and how it’s profoundly affected his life.
“I can think of nothing else that has ever stripped me of my dignity as quickly and as profoundly and as thoroughly as when I stuttered in grade school,” he said in a 2008 speech to the American Institute for Stuttering.
In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, said that his childhood stutter has given him more empathy and compassion toward others.
“Joe has been standing up to bullies his entire life,” Owens said. “Joe’s stuttering, I think, is one of the principal reasons — a major, major, major reason — that he is the good and compassionate and kind man that he is.”
Biden has said that he was able to reduce his stuttering by reciting poetry for hours in front of a mirror and with the help of his mother. During a CNN Town Hall meeting in New Hampshire in February, he said he “still occasionally, when I find myself really tired,” catches himself stuttering. During the event, he talked at length about his experience when asked what advice he would give a college student struggling with stuttering.
“You know, if you think about it, stuttering is the only handicap people still laugh about,” he said. “It has nothing to do with your intelligence quotient. It has nothing to do with your intellectual makeup.”
He shared that his mother would tell him, “Joey, don’t let this define you. Joey, remember who you are. Joey, you can do it. … You’re defined by your courage and redeemed by your loyalty.”
He noted of her words of encouragement, “So every time I would walk out, she would reinforce me. I know that sounds silly, but it really matters.”
A highlight from this year’s Democratic National Convention was from 13-year-old Brayden Harrington, who said he met Biden in New Hampshire and that they bonded over both struggling with a stutter.
“It’s really amazing to see that someone like me became vice president,” Harrington shared. “He told me about a book of poems by Yeats he would read out loud to practice. He showed me how he marks his addresses to make them easier to say out loud.”
Harrington said he did “the same thing today” to be able to deliver his speech.
“I’m just a regular kid, and in a short amount of time, Joe Biden made me feel more confident about something that’s bothered me my whole life,” he said. “Joe Biden cared.”
“I’m just a regular kid, and in a short amount of time, Joe Biden made me more confident about something that’s bothered me my whole life. Joe Biden cared.”
– Brayden Harrington#DemConventionpic.twitter.com/KoPprXXwCQ
Clearly, Biden didn’t let his stutter affect his academics. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1965 from the University of Delaware, with a double major in history and political science and a minor in English. While he was still attending Syracuse University College of Law to earn a law degree, he married his first wife, Neilia Hunter, whom he first met in The Bahamas while he was on spring break. They had three children together — sons Beau and Hunter, and daughter Naomi.
In 1972, Biden suffered unimaginable tragedy when, just one month after winning the U.S. Senate election in Delaware at just 29 years old in a stunning upset against two-term incumbent J. Caleb Boggs, Neilia and their daughter Naomi — who was just a year old at the time — were killed in an automobile accident. A tractor-trailer slammed into their car while they were Christmas shopping just a mile away from their home. Beau, who was 4 years old at the time, and Hunter, who was 2, were also in the car but survived, though not without suffering serious injuries.
Hunter recalled the devastating accident while delivering Beau’s eulogy in 2015, after he died from brain cancer.
“The first memory I have is of lying in a hospital bed next to my brother,” Hunter said. “I was almost 3 years old. I remember my brother, who was one year and one day older than me, holding my hand, staring into my eyes, saying, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’ over and over and over again.”
In an interview with The News Journal, Biden said 30-year-old Neilia eerily foreshadowed the tragedy before the accident. He recalled the two spending a night in together at their home and her telling him, “What’s going to happen, Joey? Things are too good.”
In a CNN documentary, Biden shared that he contemplated suicide following the deaths of Neilia and Naomi, but his sons kept him going.
“I thought about what it would be like just to go to the Delaware Memorial Bridge and just jump off and end it all,” Biden said. “But I didn’t ever get in the car and do it or wasn’t ever even close.”
“I don’t drink at all,” he also said. “I’ve never had a drink in my life, but I remember taking out a fifth of, I think it was gin, and put it on the kitchen table. But I couldn’t even make myself take a drink. What saved me was really my boys.”
Biden has acknowledged his fragile state at the time, sharing that he used to purposely take walks in unsafe neighborhoods around the hospital his sons were recovering in.
“I liked to go at night when I thought there was a better chance of finding a fight,” Biden wrote in his 2007 memoir, Promises to Keep. “I was always looking for a fight. I had not known I was capable of such rage. I felt God had played a horrible trick on me.”
“The first few days, I felt trapped in a constant twilight of vertigo, like in the dream where you’re suddenly falling … only I was constantly falling,” he also wrote. “I began to understand how despair led people to just cash it in; how suicide wasn’t just an option but a rational option. But I’d look at Beau and Hunter asleep and wonder what new terrors their own dreams held, and wonder who would explain to my sons my being gone, too. And I knew I had no choice but to fight to stay alive.”
Biden was sworn in to the Senate in January 1973 at Beau’s bedside at the hospital, where he and Hunter were still recovering at the time. The tragedy he suffered drew national attention.
“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.”
Following the accident, he began taking the 90-minute Amtrak trip to and from Washington, D.C., every day so he could be at home with his sons in Delaware, earning him the nickname “Amtrak Joe.” To this day, he does not work on Dec. 18 to commemorate the day Neilia and Naomi died.
Can't take Amtrak without running into its most frequent traveler, @JoeBidenpic.twitter.com/N1H1XXPCe8
In his 2015 Yale commencement speech, Biden once again talked about how the love of his sons helped him persevere through tragedy.
“Many people have gone through things like that. But because I had the incredible good fortune of an extended family, grounded in love and loyalty, imbued with a sense of obligation imparted to each of us, I not only got help,” he said. “By focusing on my sons, I found my redemption.”
“The incredible bond I have with my children is the gift I’m not sure I would have had, had I not been through what I went through,” he continued.
In 1975, Biden began dating his current wife, Jill. In a 2016 Vogue interview, Jill noted how it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.
“I was a senior, and I had been dating guys in jeans and clogs and T-shirts, he came to the door and he had a sport coat and loafers, and I thought, ‘God, this is never going to work, not in a million years,'” she recalled. “He was nine years older than I am! But we went out to see A Man and a Woman at the movie theater in Philadelphia, and we really hit it off. When we came home … he shook my hand good night … I went upstairs and called my mother at 1 a.m. and said, ‘Mom, I finally met a gentleman.'”
Jill said he actually proposed five times before she said yes, always keeping his young sons in her mind.
“I said, ‘Not yet. Not yet. Not yet.’ Because by that time, of course, I had fallen in love with the boys, and I really felt that this marriage had to work,” she explained. “Because they had lost their mom, and I couldn’t have them lose another mother. So I had to be 100 percent sure.”
Jill has never forgotten the importance of Neilia. In her 2019 autobiography, Where the Light Enters: Building a Family, Discovering Myself, she talked about actually meeting her husband’s first wife just weeks before her death, and recalled her “easy, natural beauty.”
“To take a mother from her children; to take a daughter from her father,” she wrote of the deaths, “Joe Biden had had everything, and in a horrible second, it was gone.”
“In our family, Neilia would always be Mommy, but I was Mom,” she added. “There was room enough, there was love enough, for us all. … I owed her so much: my loyalty, my gratitude for the gift of these beautiful boys, and yes, my love.”
She and Biden eventually tied the knot on June 17, 1977, and they welcomed their daughter, Ashley, in 1981.
“She gave me back my life,” Biden said of Jill in his memoir. “She made me start to think my family might be whole again.”
During her speech at the Democratic National Convention, Jill noted of meeting her husband, “I fell in love with a man and two little boys standing in the wreckage of unthinkable loss. We found that love holds a family together.”
“How do you make a broken family whole? The same way you make a nation whole. With love and understanding, and with small acts of compassion. With bravery. With unwavering faith,” she continued. “Joe’s purpose has always driven him forward. His strength of will is unstoppable. And his faith is unshakable — because it’s not in politicians or political parties — or even himself. It’s in the providence of God. His faith is in you — in us.”
Joe was recently asked by a reporter what the secret is to his and Jill’s marriage, and his answer was simple.
“I adore her,” he replied. “It sounds, gonna sound so stupid, I was saying to her the other day, when she comes down the steps and I look at her, I still, my heart still skips a beat.”
Meanwhile, despite the upheavals in his personal life, Biden continued to rise politically through the years. Following his first election win in 1972, Biden was reelected to six more Senate terms. Although he had failed 1988 and 2008 presidential campaigns, he was eventually asked by Barack Obama to be his vice president in 2008, and the two won the election against then-senator John McCain and Sarah Palin. They were reelected in 2012 when they won against Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, and became known for their heartwarming friendship.
Happy #BestFriendsDay to my friend, @BarackObama. pic.twitter.com/JTd1t7NtyL
It is a beautiful to see President Barack Obama and Vice President joe Biden jogging together in the Obama White House. Please vote for President joe Biden https://t.co/DZLph9uDOC
omgg @BarackObama and @JoeBiden just ate lunch together in dc. miss them so much 😩 @DogTagBakerypic.twitter.com/kl4Tf8zO8k
Obama memorably surprised Biden with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in January 2017.
“To know Joe Biden is to know love without pretense, service without self-regard, and to live life fully,” Obama said of Biden, calling him “the best vice president America’s ever had.”
I ugly cry every time I watch Obama suprise Joe Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Every single time! pic.twitter.com/QlYIlUkWiU
Still, Biden faced yet another heartbreaking tragedy during his vice presidency when his eldest son, Beau, died in 2015 after a private battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. He was 46 years old. Beau was survived by his wife, Hallie, and their two children — Natalie, who was 11 at the time, and Hunter, who was 9.
Beau’s accomplishments in life were also notable. For nearly a decade, he worked as a prosecutor in Philadelphia before becoming Delaware’s attorney general in 2006, a position he had for two terms. He also served a one-year deployment in Iraq in 2008 and was awarded the Bronze Star.
“It is with broken hearts that Hallie, Hunter, Ashley, Jill and I announce the passing of our husband, brother and son, Beau, after he battled brain cancer with the same integrity, courage and strength he demonstrated every day of his life,” Biden said in his statement about Beau’s death. “Beau embodied my father’s saying that a parent knows success when his child turns out better than he did.”
In 2017, the family did face a scandal when Beau’s widow, Hallie, began dating his younger brother, Hunter, who was then separated from his wife. Still, Biden showed his unconditional love for the two at the time, though Hallie and Hunter eventually broke up in 2019.
“We are all lucky that Hunter and Hallie found each other as they were putting their lives together again after such sadness,” Biden said in a statement to Page Six in March 2017. “They have mine and Jill’s full and complete support and we are happy for them.”
Clearly, Beau has never been far from Biden’s mind. During his August 2018 eulogy for the late senator John McCain — who also died after a battle with brain cancer — he reflected on his late son.
“[McCain and I] both knew then from our different experiences … that there are times when life can be so cruel — pain so blinding, it’s hard to see anything else,” Biden said. “The disease that took John’s life, took our mutual friend Teddy [Kennedy]’s life nine years ago, and three years ago, it took my beautiful son Beau’s life.”
“It’s brutal, it’s relentless, it’s unforgiving,” he continued. “And it takes so much from those we love and the families who love them that in order to survive, we have to remember how they lived, not how they died.”
During Biden’s CNN Town Hall meeting in February, he talked about how his faith helped him through Beau’s death and also shared some of the touching last words his late son said to him.
“I’ve found that there’s that famous phrase from Kierkegaard, ‘Faith sees best in the dark’ … For me, it’s important because it gives me some reason to have hope. And purpose,” he said. “But the only way I’ve been able to deal with when my wife was killed and my daughter were killed and that my son died, I’ve only been able to deal with it by realizing they’re part of my being. My son Beau is my soul.”
“Because he asked me when he was dying, ‘Promise me, Dad. … Promise me, you’ll stay engaged,” he continued. “He knew I’d take care of the family, but he worried what I would do is I would pull back and go into a shell and not do all the things I’ve done before. It took a long time for me to get to the point to realize that that purpose is the thing that would save me. And it has. And every morning I get up and I say to myself … I hope he’s proud of me.”
Joe Biden on his faith: "For me, it's important because it gives me some reason to have hope. And purpose. … It took a long time for me to get to the point to realize that that purpose is the thing that would save me. And it has" #CNNTownHallhttps://t.co/RkiRzaASCspic.twitter.com/LVbnhjUfy4
In January, Biden got emotional during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and shed tears as he talked about Beau.
“Beau should be the one running for president, not me,” he said. “He is part of me, and so is my surviving son, Hunter, and Ashley.”
Biden later said his personal tragedies have led to a greater empathy with people who also are struggling.
“You’d be amazed at the number of people who come up to me,” he shared. “I mean hundreds of people over time. They’ll throw their arms around me, men and women, and say, ‘I just lost my son, I just lost my father, I just lost my wife.’ And all they want to know is that you’re going to make it.”
Last month, Biden reached out to President Donald Trump after the death of Trump’s brother Robert.
“Mr. President, Jill and I are sad to learn of your younger brother Robert’s passing,” Biden tweeted. “I know the tremendous pain of losing a loved one — and I know how important family is in moments like these. I hope you know that our prayers are with you all.”
Mr. President, Jill and I are sad to learn of your younger brother Robert’s passing. I know the tremendous pain of losing a loved one — and I know how important family is in moments like these. I hope you know that our prayers are with you all.
As Biden runs for president of the United States, it’s clear Beau’s memory has been at the forefront. During the closing night of the DNC, the convention took a moment to pay tribute to Beau with a video about his life and career accomplishments.
“Beau is with me every single day,” Biden tweeted after the video aired. “If he was here tonight, he would remind me ‘just be who you are.’ I’m a better person because of him.”
Beau is with me every single day. If he was here tonight, he would remind me ‘just be who you are.’ I’m a better person because of him. #DemConventionpic.twitter.com/MMP6gCDeJS
Jill talked about how he’s dealt with Beau’s tragic death in her DNC speech.
“Four days after Beau’s funeral, I watched Joe shave and put on his suit. I saw him steel himself in the mirror, take a breath, put his shoulders back and walk out into a world empty of our son,” she recalled. “He went back to work. That’s just who he is. There are times when I couldn’t imagine how he did it — how he put one foot in front of the other and kept going — but I’ve always understood why he did it.”
Vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris also spoke of Beau in her speech at the DNC, recalling how it was through her relationship with him that she first came to know the elder Biden.
Thinking of @JoeBiden, @DrBiden and the entire Biden family today. Beau Biden was my friend. We were AGs together, and you couldn’t find a person who cared more deeply for his family, the nation he served, and the state of Delaware. Four years after his passing, I still miss him. pic.twitter.com/b7lP3TwxYq
“Joe’s son Beau and I served as attorneys general of our states, Delaware and California,” she said. “During the Great Recession, we spoke on the phone nearly every day, working together to win back billions of dollars for homeowners from the big banks that foreclosed on people’s homes. And Beau and I would talk about his family.”
“How, as a single father, Joe would spend four hours every day riding the train back and forth from Wilmington to Washington,” she recalled. “Beau and Hunter got to have breakfast every morning with their dad. They went to sleep every night with the sound of his voice reading bedtime stories. And while they endured an unspeakable loss, these two little boys always knew that they were deeply, unconditionally loved.”
In Biden’s own message announcing Harris as his vice presidential pick, he mentioned her close connection to Beau.
“They were both Attorneys General at the same time,” he wrote. “He had enormous respect for her and her work. I thought a lot about that as I made this decision. There is no one’s opinion I valued more than Beau’s and I’m proud to have Kamala standing with me on this campaign.”
Meanwhile, during the DNC, Obama made an appearance to support Biden and talked about how he’s dealt with grief. His wife, Michelle Obama, also referred to Biden as “a profoundly decent man, guided by faith,” in her own DNC speech.
“Twelve years ago, when I began my search for a vice president, I didn’t know I’d end up finding a brother,” Barack said. “Joe and I came from different places and different generations. But what I quickly came to admire about him is his resilience, born of too much struggle; his empathy, born of too much grief. Joe’s a man who learned early on to treat every person he meets with respect and dignity, living by the words his parents taught him: ‘No one’s better than you, Joe, but you’re better than nobody.'”
“For eight years, Joe was the last one in the room whenever I faced a big decision,” he continued. “He made me a better president, and he’s got the character and the experience to make us a better country. That empathy, that decency, the belief that everybody counts, that’s who Joe is.”
Election Day is Nov. 3, 2020 — head over to Vote.org to register to vote and to get all the latest information.
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