News & Politics

Death and the All-American Boy

Joe Biden was a lot more careful around the press after this 1974 profile.
Photograph by Barbara Hadley.
Photograph by Barbara Hadley.

Joseph Robinette Biden, the 31-year-old Democrat from Delaware, is the youngest man in the Senate, which makes him a celebrity of sorts. But there’s something else that makes him good copy: Shortly after his election in November 1972 his wife Neilia and infant daughter were killed in a car accident. Suddenly this handsome, young man struck down in his moment of glory was prey to scores of hungry reporters clamoring to write soul-searching stories.

According to his staff he was hounded for weeks by the media. “It was awful in the beginning,” says Chazy Dowaliby, a press aide. “A few weeks after Neilia’s death we got a call from Sally Quinn of the Post. She wanted to do a story on the Senator as Washington’s most eligible bachelor. Naturally we said no but it wasn’t easy because she kept calling all the time. She wasn’t the only one. Women’s Wear Daily ca lled morning, noon, and night. And so did every female magazine in the country. They all wanted to write some kind of weeping willow story on him and he knew it. So he told us to refuse all press calls.” Biden wouldn’t even talk to journalists like the Post‘s David Broder, and he wouldn’t appear on the “Today” show or “Face the Nation” or “Meet the Press.”

Although time has softened the pain of those early months in the Senate, Biden’s staff still protects him. The few reporters admitted in the past eighteen months have been asked to concentrate on Joe Biden, Senator, rather than Joe Biden, tragic figure. But the combination of youth, death, and a Kennedy-style upset victory continues to fascinate the press. How did an unknown attorney with only two years’ experience as a county councilman manage to topple Delaware’s firmly entrenched 63-year-old Republican Senator Caleb Boggs? Boggs, a two-term Congressman, two-term governor, and two-term Senator, wanted to retire in 1972; President Nixon persuaded him to run for a third term, suggesting that he resign after a year. Then Nixon planned to appoint Congressman Pierre DuPont to Boggs’ seat, keeping Delaware on the Republican side of the aisle. Biden spoiled the game plan. He was unknown—his statewide recognition factor was eighteen percent, compared to Boggs’ 93 percent—but he defeated Boggs in 1972.

Biden had little time to savor his victory. The week before Christmas 1972 he was in Washington putting a staff together. His wife, baby daughter, and two young sons were driving home on a highway west of Wilmington after shopping for a Christmas tree when a hay truck hit their station wagon. The car was thrown over an embankment, and Biden’s wife and daughter were killed. The sons lived—four-year-old Joseph, known in the family as Beau, was in traction for weeks. Two-year-old Hunt was hospitalized with a serious head injury.

Biden was devastated. He wanted to resign. Majority Leader Mike Mansfield persuaded him to stay, promising him several prestigious committee assignments. The Senate passed a resolution allowing him to be sworn in at the hospital bedsides of his sons. That was more than a year ago, and at the time he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stay in the Senate through 1973. He said he would resign if his Senate duties took too much time away from his sons. “They can always get another Senator, but my boys cannot get another father.”

Biden says he no longer allows himself the luxury of long-range planning, but he enjoys the prestige of being a Senator and seems committed to finishing his six-year term. In fact, he says he might consider running for President. “My wife always w’anted me to be on the Supreme Court,” he says. “But while I know I can be a good Senator, and I know I can be a good President, I do know that I could never be another Oliver Wendell Holmes. I know I could have easily made the White House with Neilia. And my family still expects me to be there one of these days. With them behind me anything can happen.”

***

Neilia, the beautiful blonde he met during a college vacation in Nassau and married during law school at the Universityof Syracuse, still dominates his life.

His Senate suite looks like a shrine. A large photograph of Neilia’s tombstone hangs in the inner office; her pictures cover every wall. A framed copy of Milton’s sonnet, “On His Deceased Wife,” stands next to a print of Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty.”

In his office in the New Senate Office Building surrounded by more than 35 pictures of his late wife, Biden launched into a three-hour reminiscence. It wasn’t maudlin—he seemed to enjoy remembering aloud. He was the handsome football hero. She was the beautiful homecoming queen. Their marriage was perfect. Their children were beautiful. And they almost lived happily ever after. “Neilia was my very best friend, my greatest ally, my sensuous lover. The longer we lived together the more we enjoyed everything from sex to sports. Most guys don’t really know what I lost because they never knew what I had. Our marriage was sensational. It was exceptional, and now that I look around at my friends and my colleagues, I know more than ever how phenomenal it really was. When you lose something like that, you lose a part of yourself that you never get back again.

“My wife was the brains behind my campaign. I would never have made it here without her. It’s hard to imagine ever going through another campaign without her. She was the most intelligent human being I have ever known. She was absolutely brilliant. I’m smart but Neilia was ten times smarter. And she had the best political sense of anybody in the world. She always knew the right thing to do.

“Let me show you my favorite picture of her,” he says, holding up a snapshot of Neilia in a bikini. “She had the best body of any woman I ever saw. She looks better than a Playboy bunny, doesn’t she?

“My beautiful millionaire wife was a conservative Republican before she met me. But she changed her registration. At first she didn’t want me to run for the Senate—we had such a beautiful thing going, and we knew all those stories about what politics can do to a marriage. She didn’t want that to happen. At first she stayed at home with the kids while I campaigned but that didn’t work out because I’d come back too tired to talk to her. I might satisfy her in bed but I didn’t have much time for anything else. That’s when she started campaigning with me and that’s when I started winning. You know, the people of Delaware really elected her,” he says, “but they got me.”

Some detractors accuse him of shrouding himself in widower’s weeds, of dredging up his late wife in every speech. But Biden prides himself on being candid and honest—”That’s the only way I could be with the wife I had.” He understands the accusations: “I’m not the kind of guy everyone likes. My personality either grabs you or it doesn’t. My sister says I almost lost the campaign because ofmy personality, and my brother-in-law says you either love me or you hate me. I’m not an in-between type.

“I have no illusions about why I am such a hot commodity, either. I am the youngest man in the Senate and I am also the victim of a tragic fate which makes me very newsworthy. I’m sure that’s why I get so many invitations all the time. I don’t accept them and most people understand why. Rose Kennedy is always calling me to come to dinner. She has invited me at least ten times and I’ve only gone once. Most guys would kill to get invitations like that but I don’t accept them because I like to be with my children as much as possible. Whenever Ted and Joan Kennedy call me for dinner—and they call quite a bit—I usually say I have to go home. They are great because they understand why.”

His 29-year-old sister Valerie and her husband Bruce have moved into the Senator’s house to take care of the children. He commutes from Wilmington every day to be with them when they wake up in the morning and go to bed at night. They like visiting him here, and it is not unusual to see two little blondes streaking through Biden’s reception room. Both seem adjusted to the loss. Beau, now five years old, explains the situation with simplicity: “My father works in his office with the Senators and my mother is in heaven.”

***

Named one of the ten best-dressed men in the Senate, Joe Biden looks like Robert Redford’s Great Gatsby in natty pin-striped suits, elegant silk ties, and black tassled loafers. He dresses rich. “I’m a suit-and-tie kind of guy,” he says. “I’ve been this way all my life. I even wore a tie in college. My wife thought I dressed too conservatively and so she would buy a lot of my clothes which is probably the only reason I look so good.” He looks like a Senator—complete with receding hairline and gravelly voice. He has immense self-confidence. He doesn’t smoke and doesn’t drink. Although he makes deprecating noises about some senators and calls Congress an antiquated nineteenth-century institution, he still is proud of his position. He thoroughly enjoys being a politician. “I am proud to be a politician. There is no other walk of life which can do more good for mankind than politics. It influences every thing that happens to the American people. You might think I’m off the wall when I say this, but I believe what Plato said 2,000 years ago: ‘The penalty good men pay for not becoming involved in politics is being governed by men worse than themselves.”

He defines politics as power. “And, whether you like it or not, young lady,” he says, leaning over his desk to shake a finger at me, “us cruddy politicians can take away that First Amendrnent of yours if we want to.” There’s no time to pursue the point—Biden is summoned o the floor for a vote. On the way over to the Capitol he channels the conversation away from politics, talking about his family: “This is really a big deal for them. I’m the only Senator any of us have ever known. We never even knew anyone who knew a Senator before. At first my dad tried to talk me into running for governor but I told him I didn’t want to be a damn old administrator. I wanted to come to Washington and get something accomplished. He calls me champ now. He and Mike Mansfield are probably the most decent men I’ve ever known. My dad never went to college [he’s an automobile sales manager in Wilmington] and he had never been involved in politics until I started campaigning. But he loves it.”

We get to the Senate in time for him to vote. When lie leaves the Senate chamber a young schoolteacher from Georgia grabs him. “Please come and say something to my students,” she begs. “You’re their Jack Kennedy.” One student asks him how he likes his job. He says, “Considering what Nixon has done to the employment situation in this country, I’m damn grateful to be employed.” The kids lap it up.

***

In the “Senators Only” elevator he says hello to several colleagues. Senator William Proxmire pops the question: “Hi, Joe, how are you? I understand you’re going to be getting married soon.” The Wisconsin Senator obviously read the recent UPI story about Biden and Francine Barnard, a Capitol Hill reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Since he has another reporter with him—me—Biden is flustered. He tries to make a joke out of it: Turning to Senator Thomas Eagleton, he says, “Be careful, Tom. Ms. Kelley’s with the press and she’s here to check out those rumors about your marriage bust-up.” Eagleton smoothly changes the subject as we walk back to the office. Biden tells him a joke with an antisemitic punchline and asks that it be off the record.

Later he talks about remarriage. “I do indeed want to get married again. I hate the image of the gay, young bachelor about town. That’s just not my style. I am not a womanizer. I would like very much to fall in love and be married again because basically I am a family man. I want to find a woman to adore me again.

“And I would like very much to fall in love and marry someone exactly like Francie Barnard. I think she is bright, pretty, and engaging. I like her quiet kind of style. She’s like my wife in that way. She does not come on strong. She is the only woman I have dated and I am with her every chance I can. We spend a lot of time in Delaware because I am more comfortable at home. The first time I took her to meet my family everyone started talking about heavy romance. They didn’t understand, I guess, that I would never take out anyone my mother didn’t meet first. That might sound weird but that’s the way I am.

“In spite of all the rumors around town right now, I can look you straight in the eye and say that I have no present or future plans of getting married. Besides, why should someone like Francie marry a guy like me who is still in love with his wife, who has a political constituency and a readymade family. She deserves better than that.

“We have been seeing each other steadily since Christmas but all this press speculation is making her very nervous. She is worried that her friendship with me will jeopardize her professional status as a reporter. And, I can tell you one thing for sure: She’s not as high on the press as she used to be as a result of all the questions she’s been getting lately.”

Ms. Barnard, a pretty, 28-year-old version of Natalie Wood, admits as much in a telephone interview. She won’t talk about her romance. ‘It is an extremely personal matter,” she says. Once married, twice shy, she admits she is “very fond” of Senator Biden but says, “I don’t want to get married. I also don’t think it is good for this to get around and be talked about so much because it is not very professional for me as a journalist.”

Nothing in the First Amendment prohibits a reporter from socializing with a Senator. It’s been going on for years, and no one seems to have suffered any professional embarrassment. In fact, it’s said that Nancy Dickerson never would have become a television star had it not been for her friendship with Senator Lyndon Johnson. Syndicated columnist Marianne Means might still he just another scrambling Hearst reporter if John F. Kennedy hadn’t insisted that she cover him in the White House. And CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl frequently sees Senator Robert Dole, while writer Barbara Howar credits Senator Birch Bayh with her inside view of politics.

In spite of Ms. Barnard’s protests, romance rumors persist. Some of her friends say she is considering converting to Catholicism, and predict the couple will be married within the year. Others say she won’t consider marriage again. “Why should she?” says one woman. “She is pretty enough to attract any man she wants, smart enough to hold him, and rich enough not to need him.” Originally from Texas, where her grandfather once owned the El Paso Times, she worked for Sissy Farenthold’s first gubernatorial campaign before coming to Washington as a reporter. Here, she has worked for Jack Anderson and Sarah McClendon.

Senator Biden’s friends say he is looking for more than a wife and mother. “He also needs to find a First Lady,” says one, “a woman who enjoys politics and will help him get to the White House. I don’t know if he’ll end up marrying Francie Barnard but I do know that the woman he marries will he as rich and as pretty as she is.”

***

The Senator shows a healthy respect for money: “Politics is a damn expensive business. I had one hell of a time trying to raise money as a candidate. I had to put a second mortgage on roy house to get that campaign started, and I ended up spending over $300,000 to get elected. I believe that public financing of federal election campaigns is the only thing that will insure good candidates and save the two—party system. It is the most degrading thing in the world to go out with your hat in your hand and beg for money, but that’s what you have to do if you haven’t got your own resources.’

He feels the indignity is compounded by the temptation to sell out to big business or big labor for financial help, and says it’s almost impossible for a candidate to remain true to his conscience in this situation. He admits that more than once he was tempted to compromise to get campaign money. “I probably would have if it hadn’t been for the ramrod character of my Scotch Presbyterian wife,” he say’s. “I am not a rich man. And my family does not have money. If I sold every thing I own, including my house and cars, I could probably’ scratch up S200,000, but that’s nothing compared to most of the guys in the Senate.”

Unlike most other senators, Biden makes no bones about saving he is underpaid. Last September, when the Senate was debating a pay raise for itself, he said, “I dont know about the rest of you but I am worth a lot more than my salary of $42,500 a year in this body. It seems to me that we should flat out tell the American people we are worth our salt.” Before he finished his speech, the Associated Press was banging out a dispatch later picked up by William Loeb, the right-wing editor of the Manchester Union Leader. “Can you imagine the conceit and stupidity of a young man of 30 who would say that?” said Loeb in a front-page editorial. “The voters of Delaware who elected this stupid, conceited jackass to the Senate should kick him in the rear to knock some sense into him, and then kick themselves for voting for such an idiot.” Mr. Loeb ignored the rest of the speech, in which Biden said, “I believe we should strive to reach the point where members of Congress give up the right to all income but their annual salaries and we can come to that point only when our annual salaries fully reflect the magnitude of our duties and responsibilities.” Biden framed Loeb’s editorial and hung it in his office. “When you get a blast like that you really know you’re worth something,” he laughs. “I feel I’ve really paid my dues now. Some thing like that makes me know that I’ve finally arrived.”

***

Getting there was not easy. Sitting in her parents’ modest white house in Delaware, his sister Valerie talks about Biden’s 1972 campaign against Senator Boggs. In many ways it resembled John F. Kennedy’s 1952 campaign against Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Both looked like impossible dreams to everyone but the Irish Catholic families of the candidates. “We knew Joey could win, so everyone in the family worked seventeen hours a day for eighteen months to make sure he did. I was his campaign manager and Neilia was his chief political strategist. My husband was his financial manager, and my younger brother was his chief fundraiser. It was really a family operation.”

When Joe Biden could afford professional campaign consultants they wanted to get rid of his wife and kid sister as campaign advisors and throw out the literature filled with family pictures. “They said that people don’t equate strength with a family man,” recalls Valerie, “and they said Joey needed to look strong in order to have a chance to win.”

Joey didn’t agree. He listened to the pros, and said, “It’s been very nice talking to you and I’ll see that someone gets you to the airport in time to get a plane out of here this afternoon.” He refused to change his style. “I am a family man, and I’d rather lose with my family than win without them.” In spite of the endorsements Boggs received from President Nixon, Vice President Agnew, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and Senator Charles Mathias, the family man still won by 2,300 votes.

That Senate campaign may have been the most exemplary in the nation. It was free of personal attacks. The worst thing Joe Biden ever said about his opponent was, “He’s a nice guy but he’s just not an innovative Senator.” Months later when Biden attended a dinner for the defeated Senator, he said, “1 hope that I will live to have what Caleb Boggs has tonight—an unblemished reputation for integrity.”

Joe Biden reeks of decency. But he is beginning to realize now how hard it is to be innovative. “My kids are going to talk about me fifteen years from now as being a member of the House of Lords if the Senate keeps on going the way it is today,” he says. “There used to be great Senators here who really made a difference, men like Patrick Henry, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay. But the system is so totally warped now that I doubt if even they could change things. We don’t have any of those great men anymore. There are still a few guys you can trust and respect. But just a few. Guys like Senator Bill Proxmire are great. And Hubert Humphrey is no slouch. He’s a fine Senator—articulate, bright, and knowledgeable. So is Jacob Javits. I don’t agree with him on every issue but I respect him because he talks about the issues, And Alan Cranston is a bright guy. He does his homework. He feeds the cannon and lets someone else shoot the load and take the credit. As the kids say, ‘He’s heavy.’ And Senator James Buckley has a certain intellectual consistency I respect. I’m glad he’s in the Senate. But I’m dismayed that someone like Carl Curtis is a Senator. Someone like Adlai Stevenson is a good man but he’s much more liberal than I am.”

***

Biden resents being called the bright young liberal of the New Left. “I hate that picture,” he says, “and I don’t care how that damn Americans for Democratic Action rates me. Those ADA ratings get us into so much trouble that a lot of us sit around thinking up ways to vote conservative just so we don’t come out with a liberal rating. When it comes to civil rights and civil liberties, I’m a liberal but that’s it. I’m really quite conservative on most other issues. My wife said I was the most socially conservative man she had ever known. I’m a screaming liberal when it comes to senior citizens because I really think they are getting screwed. I’m a liberal on health care because I believe it is a birth right of every human being—not just some damn privilege to be meted out to a few people. But when it comes to issues like abortion, amnesty, and acid, I’m about as liberal as your grandmother. I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion. I think it went too far. I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body. I support a limited amnesty, and I don’t think marijuana should be legalized. Now, if you still think I’m a liberal, let me tell you that I support the draft. I’m scared to death of a professional army. I vote my own way and it is not always with the Democrats. I did vote for George McGovern, of course, but I would have voted for Mickey Mouse against Richard Nixon. I despise that man.”

Senator Biden doesn’t believe issues make much difference in an election—personality and presentation are the key. He said as much the night he addressed the Democratic Forum, a small group of Washington liberals who meet with politicians on a regular basis. “I don’t think the issues mean a great deal in terms of whether you win or lose. I think the issues are merely a vehicle to portray your intellectual capacity to the voters . . . a vehicle by which the voters will determine your honesty and candor. The central issue of my campaign—and I used all the issues from busing to the war to the economy, crime, and prison reform—was to convince the people that I was intelligent and to convince them that I was honest.

“Assuming for a moment that I was here like most of the other people you have in here who are candidates for President. If we assume I am a candidate for President and you are deciding whether or not to work for me, I could stay here all night answering your questions about how I stand on the issues. But the fact remains that you will not have raised the issues which will be the ones I will be dealing with in my last year as President.”

The talk was theoretical, but no one in that audience doubted that Senator Biden would be coming back to them in a few years as a Presidential contender. “He really put on quite a show,” said one man after the speech. “He won the audience over by being so open. I’m not sure he doesn’t use candor as a calculated device. It’s probably more deliberate than spontaneous. But it works. His performance is so professionally orchestrated it seems natural and sincere. He knows he looks good and he knows he sounds good, and I must admit, compared to the rest of those tired old hacks on Capitol Hill, he is the best and brightest hope we have right now. I’d vote for him for President.”

His sister Valerie says we will all get that chance one of these days. “Joey is going to be President someday. He was made to be in the White House. There is no one else who can lead the country. Just you wait and see.” She believes her brother is another John F. Kennedy, and she’s not alone. Even before his election Time magazine compared Joe Biden and his beautiful young family to the Kennedys and talked about Presidential possibilities some day. The Irish Catholic similarities were obvious. Both campaigned with glamor. Both were sexy. Both were elected to Congress before the age of 30. And both were struck by tragedy.

Some veteran political reporters believe that Joe Biden is much more determined to be President than Jack Kennedy ever was at 31. “Biden knows what he’s doing and where he’s going,” said one. “Kennedy pussyfooted around at that age. I much prefer the Biden style to that JFK cat-and-mouse game.”

Most journalists I talked with agreed that Joe Biden would run for President some day. One said, “There isn’t a Senator alive who doesn’t secretly believe he should be enthroned next to that little red phone in the Oval office, and Bien is no exception. But I think he might win someday.” A wire service reporter sizes up Biden’s chances as “better than 60-40.” He added, Can you imagine what they’ll be when he’s old enough to run and people know who he is?”

Senator Biden does not dismiss the subject. “Let’s do wait and see,” he says. “Come back and talk to me in a few years. By then I’ll be old enough to run. Right now, I’m too young. I’m probably the only Senator you can really believe when he says he’s not planning on running for President, at least not in 1976.”

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