Joe Biden: “Everyone Calls Me Joe”

Joe Biden is now a heartbeat away from the presidency. His life has been full of surprising highs and extraordinary lows.

By: Nancy Doyle Palmer

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.

Until now. 

Get Up!

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.

House by house, the Biden family went to work. There were coffee klatches across the state that included Joe’s mother, Jean, his sister, Val, and his brother and chief fundraiser, Jimmy, then a senior at the University of Delaware. With wife Neilia and three children along—son Beau was born in 1969, Hunter in 1970, and Naomi in 1971—the Bidens made a runfor it.

A former Biden staffer and Delaware native puts it this way: “Delaware is not a big media market like New York or Pennsylvania. You can practically shake the hand of everyone in the state. It’s all about personal contact. And a lot of it is working-class. You have to deal with people face to face, and you can’t be fake because they’ll figure it out. It requires a personal touch.”

Veteran News Journal reporter Ron Williams, who has covered every Biden election since 1972, remembers that first race: “He was such a long shot, and there was this whole idea of this young whippersnapper from the county council running against an incumbent as well liked as Boggs, so what Joe did was get this button that said I LOVE CALE and he put it on the inside of his jacket lapel, and when he ran into a bunch of Boggs supporters he would just flip his lapel back. So they could see he was like anybody else.”

On November 7, 1972, a 29-year-old Joe Biden defeated Boggs in an upset victory. “I never believed the Senate was my destiny, but it had been a big part of my dreams,” he said in his memoir. When he entered the US Capitol after his victory, he wrote, he was stopped by a Capitol police officer. It was the same officer who had apprehended him as a 21-year-old college student when, during a visit to DC, he had wandered all the way into the Senate chamber in a reverie of awe. “Senator Biden,” asked the officer, “do you remember me? . . . I’m the fellow that stopped you ten years ago. . . . I’m retiring tomorrow. But, Senator, welcome. I’m happy you’re back.”

Neilia and Naomi

On December 18, 1972, six weeks after the election win, it all came to a heartbreaking stop. While running Christmas errands in Delaware, Neilia Biden’s car was hit by a truck in an accident that killed her and baby Naomi and seriously injured both little boys.

Biden described his state after the accident as a black hole of numbness, devastation, and anger. It lasted a long time. But he moved into his boys’ hospital room until they were discharged. His primary role in life as a parent began then.

His son Beau, now Delaware’s attorney general, recounts his father’s statement at the time: “Delaware can get another senator, but my boys can’t get another dad.”

His sister Val, recently described by Vogue as “a glamorous, tough, working-class version of Jane Fonda,” moved in to take care of the boys once they were home. Biden calls his sister his best friend in life.

The 30-year-old senator-elect wanted to resign before taking office, but the phone calls from Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey were relentless, the conversations with Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield insistent—and finally Joe Biden agreed to be sworn in at his sons’ hospital bedside. Ted Kennedy persuaded him to join him at the Senate gym. And thus began a bond with members of the United States Senate that has a lot to do with Biden’s view of it as his second family.

He recalls in his memoir the moment when he met Arkansas senator John McClellan. “ ‘Oh, you’re the guy from Delaware. Lost your wife and kid, huh?’ He said it without a hint of sympathy. . . . I felt the urge to smack him across his round pink cheek, but he just kept talking: ‘Only one thing to do. Bury yourself in work.’

“I couldn’t speak, but he could tell I didn’t appreciate his advice. ‘You’re mad at me, aren’t you, son? But I know what you’re going through.’ Then he told me his own story. He’d lost a wife to spinal meningitis during his first term in the House of Representatives; one son died of the same illness eight years later. He had since lost two more sons. ‘Work,’ he told me. ‘Work. Work. Work.’ ”

And that’s what Biden did—but on his own terms with Washington. He returned home to Wilmington every night—by car, plane, or, often, Amtrak—to be with his family. He did it for the next 36 years.

Amtrak Joe

Amtrak’s conductors and porters like their celebrity passenger. Their eyes get a faraway look when they talk about him. Having been admonished not to discuss the Vice President–elect, they speak of him as a quiet secret. One cafe-car attendant talks about looking very hard to find him a cheeseburger when staff thought they had run out. Another smiles as she recalls barbecues the Bidens host for Amtrak employees at their home. On occasion the train has left the station a few minutes late so he could catch the last train home.

“I still hope to ride when I can,” says the Vice President today. “It’s still the fastest way to travel. . . . Someone once estimated that I’ve taken over 7,000 round trips, so the folks who work on the train have become like family to me.”

One former staffer remembers preparing briefing books for the train ride home, books that often returned the next day unmarked: “There were so many people who wanted a piece of him—the porter, the passengers, people who knew his mother, not fancy-pants lobbyists, ordinary people—he loves, love, loves talking to ordinary people.”

One other lesson for the young senator that forged his political persona happened after an ugly speech by North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, known for condemning Communists, minorities, homosexuals, and Martin Luther King Jr. Biden complained to majority leader Mike Mansfield, who told him, “Your job here is to find the good things in your colleagues . . . and not focus on the bad. . . . And, Joe, never attack another man’s motive, because you don’t know his motive.”

“Look for the good” is a mantra he credits with getting him through the next 34 years in the Senate.

By 1977 Biden had met and married Jill Jacobs after seeing her picture on an airport billboard promoting Delaware tourism. Among the many things that attracted him to the blond schoolteacher, one stood out: “Jill had odd little mannerisms that charmed me. If she’d been working in the kitchen, she almost always left a cabinet door open, and she rarely got a lid properly sealed. In that way she was exactly like Neilia. Rationally, I knew better,” he wrote in his memoir, “but there was a small part of me that wanted to believe that somehow Neilia had sent Jill to me—that these were the signs.”

Knocked-Down Joe

A new family in the making—daughter Ashley was born in 1981—Joe Biden once again started to run. He loved to talk, and by 1987 he was a ranking senator on the important Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees. He decided to run for president in 1988.

But he had developed a reputation in some circles for being more of a show horse than a workhorse as well as being long-winded. A sometimes uneasy relationship with the press got more adversarial. He recalls that liberal columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. said to him, “You’ve always had it easy, haven’t you?”—referring to Biden’s gift of gab and ease with voters—and Biden had a premonition he was headed for trouble.

Dionne says he now realizes Biden struggled more than he realized. “While I’m not somebody who believes that a politician’s personal life predicts what kind of leader they’ll be,” he says, “I can’t help but have my view of Biden influenced by what he went through and what he did.”

Newsweek’s Howard Fineman says the early Biden had a reputation for being “a loquacious loudmouth. . . . He has always had a desire to show how much he knows about something, and that’s part of the problem because he’s not from Harvard or Yale—it bothers him a little.”

Part of Biden’s regular stump speech in the 1988 presidential campaign included a quote adapted from British politician Neil Kinnock that went something like “Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to university? . . . The family of coal miners. Were they not smart? . . . Were they weak? . . . No. They didn’t have a platform upon which to stand.” Kinnock’s pitch was that anyone can rise in society and everyone has a voice—and while Biden attributed this to Kinnock most of the time, he didn’t at an Iowa State Fair debate. An operative from the Michael Dukakis campaign sent a videotape around to reporters, including Maureen Dowd, who gave the story big play. The media picked up on the fact that Biden began with “I started thinking, as I came over here” and continued with the Kinnock lines without attribution. Then and there Biden was saddled with the label Plagiarizing Joe.

Soon after, an investigation revealed that Biden had been accused of lifting passages from a Fordham Law Review article for a law-school paper at Syracuse—an error that was eventually deemed an academic mistake of improper citing and carelessness. Biden admits to having been a slapdash student with a lot going on outside of his studies and insists the mistake was genuine.

A free fall began. Faced with plunging poll numbers and aggressive press scrutiny that threatened his stature as the Judiciary Committee chair overseeing the contentious Robert Bork Supreme Court hearings, Biden stepped out of the presidential race in September 1987. He recalls that when he offered to step aside as chair of the Judiciary Committee, fellow senators, including Ted Kennedy, Alan Simpson, and Strom Thurmond, wouldn’t let him. “You don’t have to explain anything,” Simpson said to him. “We know you.”

More Life-and-Death Moments

Biden had been plagued with headaches for years. After he dropped out of the presidential race, he was in Rochester to give a speech when he collapsed in a hotel room and woke up hours later unable to account for the lost time. After testing, he was diagnosed with an incipient brain aneurysm and given last rites. Both he and his wife are certain today that had he continued to seek the nomination, he would have died on the campaign trail.

Two surgeries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center were performed, followed by months of recovery.

Not only had Biden’s integrity been challenged, but he had barely survived two brain surgeries. This period of darkness was familiar to him, filled with the same anger and despair that accompanied the earlier losses in his life. His family—both his real family and his Senate family—brought him back. Even though Jill had given strict orders for no visitors during Biden’s recovery, one summer day at the family home outside Wilmington Ted Kennedy showed up with his bathing suit and a funny picture of an Irish stag.

Biden confirms that since Kennedy’s own diagnosis of a malignant brain tumor early last summer they’ve had “special conversations.” He adds, “He’s helped me get through every significant moment of my life these past 36 years: the loss of my wife, the recovery of my sons after the accident, my personal recovery after the two cranial aneurysms I suffered, celebrating my marriage to Jill, the birth of my daughter—he’s been there as my friend. We’ve worked together closely in the Senate on the Judiciary Committee and a whole host of other special projects. I look forward to seeing him a lot when he comes back to the Senate.”

Biden has reached out to others grappling with traumas or losses.

When ABC correspondent Bob Woodruff suffered severe head injuries from a roadside blast in Iraq in 2006 and was hospitalized at National Naval Medical Center, his prospects of recovery—of even waking from a drug-induced coma—were bleak. One day Woodruff’s wife, Lee, returned to her hotel room and found a lengthy voice mail from Joe Biden. Even though she wasn’t talking to anyone outside the family, something made her call him back.

“We were on the phone for about an hour. I just listened. I felt like I’d known him forever, he was so warm, and he just talked. He did a wonderful job of sharing his story and his recovery without prying into ours,” she recalls. “Bob’s prognosis was dire, and there was a lot of media speculation about his prospects. And I just knew the senator wasn’t going to tell anyone he had spoken to me.”

She adds that when Biden found out she was hoping to take Bob to their lake home in the Adirondacks once he was better, he offered to fly up to visit him and left her his home, office, and cell numbers.

Senator Joe

What came after 1988 was a 20-year seasoning and maturation of the senator from Delaware that not only brought a different candidate to the 2008 election but also made him Barack Obama’s choice for running mate.

Today Washington Post political columnist David Broder looks back and says, “Biden was not a fully formed creature when he came to Washington, and he was certainly not a fully formed politician in ’88. . . . What I’ve always liked about him is the way he responds to real people—that’s been consistent throughout. And his ability to understand himself and deal with other politicians has gotten much much better.”

Says Newsweek’s Howard Fineman: “Joe Biden is not an academic, he’s not a theoretical thinker, he’s a great street pol. He comes from a long line of working people in Scranton—auto salesmen, car dealers, people who know how to make a sale. He has that great Irish gift. He went from being a prodigy politician getting elected at the age of 29 to the 1988 run that was sadly, almost comically bad, yet people around him saw something inspiring in him and are greatly devoted to him. And in the intervening 20 years he used that time to diligently educate himself; he has steeped himself in the street corners of the world.”

In the early 1990s Biden’s younger son, Hunter, was attending Georgetown University and asked his father to speak at the school. It was a time, Biden writes, when he found his voice once and for all. He laid out the premise that the lessons he received from the Catholic Church, from Catholic schooling, and from his parents had been the governing forces of his career. “The greatest sins on this earth are committed by people of standing and means who abuse their power,” he wrote.

He confirms that sentiment today. “Whether it’s a boss who is petty at the office or a dictator running roughshod over his people, I just can’t stand it when people abuse power. I do get angry about that, and I hope I always will.”

This certainty of message brought a stronger campaigner to the 2008 election. “My recollection is that he developed this self-deprecation about being long-winded,” says the News Journal’s Williams. “He had never addressed that until he got on the national stage this last time.”

E.J. Dionne, too, saw a different candidate: “The political world noticed, whether they liked him or not, that the Joe Biden of 2008 was a better candidate than he had been in ’88. He was clearer on why he was running and what mattered to him.”

But the double challenge of competing against his Senate friends Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama kept Biden a distant runner-up in the primaries, and he dropped out of the race last January.

Getting Up Again

“I was with the vice-presidential selection committee,” recalls Vermont senator Patrick Leahy, “and I told Barack Obama I saw three criteria. First and most obvious, God forbid if something happens to you, you have to have somebody who can take over on a second’s notice. Second, you’ve got to have somebody who can work with the House and Senate and get your programs through. In my experience only two vice presidents did that role really well: George H.W. Bush and Fritz Mondale. And third, when you think you’re doing everything right and you screw up, you gotta have one person come in, close the door, and say, ‘I think you screwed up and here’s why,’ and you know you will never read about it in the press. And Joe Biden would fit all three of these criteria.”

Biden’s addition to the ticket looked seamless. “He seemed to inherit some of the discipline that was so much a part of the Obama operation,” says Dionne.

Biden and John McCain apparently kept up a regular conversation throughout the campaign. Though Biden won’t confirm this, he does say, “John McCain is a very dear friend of mine. I’m not going to get into the conversations we’ve had; those are private. What I can say is that when the campaign was over, we immediately put it behind us.”

Staffers say Biden is more disciplined these days, more relaxed, but still has flashes of “black Irish moods,” especially on the anniversary of the loss of Neilia and Naomi—he always takes the day off from work. “He’s emotional; he absolutely has a temper,” recalls a former staffer. He recalls days when he’d approach the senator’s inner office, “and his secretary would just wave you off with ‘Not a good time.’ ” He adds, “I think he’s mellowed a lot.”

Like Bill Clinton, he will never be able to keep from schmoozing. Biden says, “I’m going to do my best not to get trapped in the ‘bubble.’ So far it’s worked. After Mass I still go to the same coffee shop. It’s been more cumbersome, but I know if I work hard at it I can still be available and approachable. The funny thing is in Delaware I’ve always been Joe, and everyone calls me that. And I hope they always will.”

Making Up for Lost Time

So what will it be like having the Bidens in town full-time? Those who know him doubt he’ll jump headfirst into the social scene, but he has expressed a desire to use the Naval Observatory vice-presidential residence on Massachusetts Avenue as a gathering place for people on all sides of issues, so there may be more of a Party Joe than in previous years.

He is looking forward to getting to know Washington. “The VP residence is, unlike the White House, smaller and more like a home,” he says. “It’s our hope, now that we’re in Washington, to make up for lost time by having our colleagues, both Democrat and Republican, as well as foreign leaders over for small dinners and special occasions . . . for people of different points of view to have a quiet place to share and discuss them.”

Both Bidens are physically active; Joe says he tries to eat healthily and lifts weights, walks, runs, and uses an elliptical machine. “The one who really works out is Jill,” he says. “She runs every day. She ran the Marine Corps Marathon here in Washington in 1998.” And to relax? “We do like to eat out; Italian restaurants are our favorites. We also like to go see movies. But relaxing for us is really relaxing at home.”

The Bidens, who are by Senate standards without great wealth, probably will continue to maintain dual residences. “As excited as we are about living in Washington, Delaware will always be home—that will never change. So we’ll get back as often as we can. . . . We’ve always lived close to our son Beau’s children in Delaware. Now we’ll also live close to Hunter’s girls—they’re already talking about how they need new bikes to ride to come see Nana and Pop’s new house.”

Beau, 40, Delaware’s attorney general, now serving in Iraq with the Delaware National Guard. Hunter, 39, is a lawyer in DC, and daughter Ashley, 27, is a social worker in Wilmington.

“The thing I most admire about my children is the respect they show everyone they meet,” says their father. “I know it will not sound unbiased, but they are the three most decent people I’ve ever met in my life.”

As for his relationship with President Obama, one former staffer admits, “If this had been 20 years ago, he would have trouble playing second fiddle. But now? He’s a different person.”

While E.J. Dionne thinks both Obama and Biden have equally strong people skills, “Biden is a more outwardly emotional guy. He’s a hugger. Obama is not a hugger. Joe Biden, and I mean this in the best sense, is good at malarkey, and malarkey is not something Obama is given to.”

David Broder guesses that Biden and Obama have already developed a good relationship. “And after the first crisis they go through together, President Obama will find, as others have found, that Joe Biden is a strong guy to have in the foxhole with you,” says Broder. “I’ll be very surprised if he crashes.”

This article is from the February 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from the issue, click here.