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

Nancy Benac
Associated Press

Washington — On the night before 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 Christmas 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.”

In this summer 1972 file photo, Joe Biden, carries both of his sons, Joseph, left, and Robert during an appearance at the Democratic state convention At center is his wife Neilia Biden, who was killed in an auto crash, Dec. 20, 1972. With them are Gov.-elect Sherman W. Tribbitt and his wife, Jeanne.

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 3 and 4, 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 to pick out a Christmas tree.

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

“You just felt it in your bones.”

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 health care policy.

As it turned out, Biden’s passage through hardship was not to be a one-time journey but a well-traveled path. His life was later rocked by serious illness, political setbacks, and, in 2015, the death of Beau from brain cancer at age 46. There were other, less public, trials, including son 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,” says 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 the boys.

Joseph Biden, the newly-elected Democratic Senator from Delaware, is shown in Washington on Dec. 12, 1972.

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

He debated relinquishing the Senate seat he’d yet to even occupy but eventually agreed to give the job a try for six months. He lasted 36 years.

Over those years, Biden’s personal tragedy shaped his public personal and his private relationships.

Biden makes a point of reaching out to grieving friends and strangers.

Often, these 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 cellphone 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.”

For one family, though, the famed Biden reputation for empathy comes up short.

Curtis Dunn was the driver whose truck struck Neilia’s car. By all accounts, Dunn was absolved of wrongdoing in the accident, with no evidence that speeding or alcohol was a factor. Dunn, who died in 1999, never forgot that awful day, wondering aloud in future years “how the little Biden boys are doing,” recalls his daughter, 54-year-old Pamela Hamill of Newark, Delaware.

But decades later, Biden on at least two occasions, in 2001 and 2007, offered an inaccurate version of Dunn’s role in the accident, referring publicly to a truck driver who “stopped to drink” before driving and describing the driver as “a guy who allegedly — and I never pursued it — drank his lunch instead of eating his lunch.”

Hamill, dismayed by the misrepresentations, crusaded to correct the record, and got some media attention for her efforts.

Biden later called her – at first agitated about the impact the controversy was having on his own mother, who he said “had to go on anxiety medication,” in Hamill’s recounting. Further, Biden told her it was his own son, Beau, who had had to retrieve the accident report.

“Then he was very apologetic,” Hamill continued. “By this time I was in tears. He said, ‘I’m sorry, don’t cry. I will come to your home with all your family there and apologize.’” But Biden told her he would not issue a public apology, telling Hamill that it would “end up in all the trashy magazines in the grocery store.”

Hamill never took him up on the offer to meet with her family, worried about how her mother would handle it. She never heard from him again.

Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting of the Cancer Moonshot Task Force in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington in October of 2016.

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 health care policy, saying he “couldn’t imagine” what it would be like if he hadn’t had good access to health care. He mentioned the accident during a speech to a firefighters union in March, six weeks before he announced his latest campaign.

“I’m going to repeat myself but we feel so deeply indebted,” he said. “In December of ‘72 when my wife was bringing home a Christmas tree, a tractor-trailer broadsided, killed my wife, killed my daughter. It took about an hour and a half, I’m told, for the jaws of life from my fire company to save my boys who in all likelihood, I’m told, would have died as well.”

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.

Still, it was somewhat unexpected to hear him invoke his history as he defended himself against criticism that he was too physical with women.

He tries to “make a human connection” with those trying to “get through tragedy,” Biden said in a video message in which he said he understood that the boundaries of personal space have been reset in recent years.

“Over the years, knowing what I’ve been through, the things I’ve faced, I’ve found that scores, if not hundreds of people have come up to me and reached out for solace and comfort.”

Soon after, Biden went on to crack jokes about the criticism, suggesting it was an overreaction of the #Metoo era.