Joe Biden: Family Life

Joe Biden: Family Life

Joe Biden has suffered two significant family tragedies that have shaped his personal and political life. As a University of Delaware student on spring break in 1964, Biden on a whim flew from Fort Lauderdale to Nassau—it was his first plane flight—and, as he told biographer Jules Witcover, “that trip changed everything.” In Nassau, he met Neilia Hunter, a Syracuse University student, and fell in love at first sight. The next weekend, he showed up at Neilia’s dorm in Syracuse and sat in the lobby until he saw her. “You know what he said,” Neilia revealed afterward to a friend. “He told me he’s going to be a senator by the time he’s thirty. And then, he’s going to be president.” They married in 1966. Their son Beau was born in 1969, followed by Hunter in 1970, and Naomi, or Amy as the family called her, who arrived in 1971. 

On December 18, 1972, after Biden won an unexpected victory in his bid for a US Senate seat, he was in Washington making preparations for his term when Neilia took the kids shopping in Wilmington. As she pulled the station wagon into an intersection, a tractor trailer packed with corncobs smashed into the driver’s side, knocking the car 150 feet down the road and into a ditch. Neilia and baby Amy were dead on arrival at Wilmington Medical Center. Beau, who had many broken bones, was put in a full body cast. Hunter had suffered head injuries.

Biden was wasn’t sure he could take up his seat in the Senate, prompting his Senate colleagues to embrace him and ease him through his emotional crisis. Biden’s love of the institution can be traced back to the compassion both Republican and Democratic senators showered upon him: the Senate became his family. Biden agreed to a six-month trial as a new senator, but he would live at home in Delaware and return each evening by train to be with his sons, earning himself a sobriquet that has stuck to this day: “Amtrak Joe.”

In 1975, Biden met Jill Jacobs, a student at the University of Delaware eight years his junior. She embraced the Biden family, and Beau and Hunter adored her, prompting the boys to advise their father: “We think we should marry Jill.” The couple was married in 1977. Their daughter Ashley was born in 1981. Jill was instrumental in rebuilding the family, raising Beau and Hunter as her own.

Biden’s second family tragedy came in 2015 when Beau died of brain cancer in May. Biden, who had been considering a presidential bid in 2016, wavered on whether he had the strength for a campaign. In August 2015, Biden had gained his strongest position in the polls in six months. His favorability numbers were higher than those of anyone running in either party, including the likely Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. He scored high on trustworthiness, honesty, and empathy, and he thumped Clinton in voter surveys in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. Momentum was building, and the media speculated heavily about a Biden candidacy. But as he was still in mourning and Obama favored Clinton, Biden announced on October 21, 2015, that he had decided not to run. 

Biden’s father imparted an important lesson to his son from his life of hard knocks as the family’s breadwinner. From the example of his father, Biden learned the art of resilience. Through his tragedies in life and his disappointments in politics, he fondly repeated one of his father’s favorite maxims. “Champ,” his father used to tell him, “it’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how quickly you get up."