Last year, during a Senate hearing, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy scribbled a note and passed it to his colleague Joe Biden.
“Are you going to be the VP?” Leahy asked the Delaware senator.
Biden passed back the note with this response: “Hope not—remember the story about the two brothers?”
The joke about the two brothers is that one goes off to sea and the other becomes vice president—and neither is ever heard from again.
This time around, that’s unlikely.
Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. has never been one to sit silently.
His life story, in fact—a story of luck and tragedy and resolve—has been one of boldfaced headlines and dramatic events: entering the Senate as one of its youngest-ever members, losing a beloved wife and daughter in a car accident, surviving a near-fatal brain aneurysm, failing at two presidential campaigns, and now, at age 66, becoming the 47th vice president of the United States.
Washington has been the backdrop to most of the ups and downs in Biden’s life. But with a 36-year Senate career and 14,000 train trips between the Capitol and Wilmington under his belt, he may be the ultimate insider who has never really been a Washingtonian.
In the prologue to his book, Promises to Keep, Biden offers his credo.
“The art of living is simply getting up after you’ve been knocked down. . . . After the surgery, Senator, you might lose the ability to speak? Get up! The newspapers are calling you a plagiarist, Biden? Get up! Your wife and daughter—I’m sorry, Joe, there was nothing we could do to save them? Get up! Flunked a class at law school? Get up! Kids make fun of you because you stutter, Bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-Biden? Get up!”
“Get up” came from his parents. Biden’s father, Joseph Robinette Biden Sr., was fond of saying, “The world doesn’t owe you a living.”
The elder Biden had grown up well-to-do, but a financial downturn made college unaffordable, and he spent most of his life earning modest wages in auto sales after moving his young family of five from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to Wilmington in search of better jobs. Biden Sr. quit one dealership after an office Christmas party at which the owner tossed silver dollars onto the dance floor for employees to scramble after. “The thing he couldn’t stand,” writes his son, “was people who lorded it over the less fortunate.. . . And he couldn’t stand people who abused power of any kind.”
His mother, Jean Biden, taught her children to care, but she also taught them to fight back. Young Joe had a stutter, which he eventually conquered by memorizing passages from books and speaking to a mirror. When a nun at school once imitated his stammering, Mrs. Biden came for a visit. “My mother,” he wrote in his book, “who was so timid, so respectful of the church, stood up, walked over in front of the nun, and said, ‘If you ever speak to my son like that again, I’ll come back and rip that bonnet off your head.’ ”
Biden today says he that while he never feels his stutter coming back, “I have never forgotten what it was like and how tough it is for anyone who’s had to face it. Overcoming my stuttering taught me one of the most important lessons in my life—that if you put your mind to something, there’s nothing you can’t do.”
A Man in a Hurry
Joe attended the prestigious Archmere Catholic preparatory school in Claymont, Delaware. It was his personal Rosebud: He could see the stately grounds from his boyhood split-level home and dreamed of going there. He then went to the University of Delaware and on to law school at Syracuse University.
Why Syracuse? Because Neilia Hunter was teaching school in town, and he planned to marry her. On their first date, he recounted, he was mortified to realize he didn’t have enough cash to pay the bill. “Don’t be,” she said. “That happens a lot to my dad. You shouldn’t be embarrassed.”
He wrote, “That was her special touch, the way she made everybody feel okay about themselves. Nobody ever felt smaller around Neilia.”
After they married in 1966, the Bidens’ life together took off—Joe was a man in a hurry. Finding work as a trial lawyer and public defender for a law firm in Wilmington, he supplemented his income by managing properties, including a neighborhood swimming pool.
Delaware, the nation’s second-smallest state, is about 100 miles from Washington and is a microcosm of the country with farmers, blue-collar workers, DuPont Chemical, Dover Air Force Base, mansions, ghettos, beaches, Catholics, WASPs, Jews, Baptists.
In the early days, Joe Biden met all of them, and in 1972 he decided to run for the US Senate. When he entered the race against popular Republican incumbent Caleb “Cale” Boggs, it seemed like tilting at windmills. Biden had been putting in his time as a member of the county council, and the local Democratic bosses decided to let him run because no one else would challenge Boggs.