Joe Biden: Life Before the Presidency

Joe Biden: Life Before the Presidency

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was born on November 20, 1942, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, as World War II raged overseas. The first child of Catherine Eugenia “Jean” Finnegan Biden and Joseph Robinette Biden Sr., Joey, as he was known, was a scrappy kid from a working-class Irish Catholic family. Biden’s father prospered during the war when an uncle gave him a job in his lucrative manufacturing company that provided sealant for merchant marine ships. Joe Sr. left Scranton to run the Boston office; he lived the high life, driving fast cars, hunting, and haunting the polo fields. But after the war, his fortunes reversed, and Joe Sr. found himself adrift. After a couple of failed business ventures, he returned to the coal-mining town of Scranton where he took what work he could get to support the family. By now, Joe Jr. had been joined by his sister Valerie; two brothers, James and Frank, would complete the family. 

As a child, Joe Jr. suffered from a severe stutter. He endured bullies and the shame that accompanies the affliction. Kindergarten speech therapy did not work so he decided to fight his battle on his own. The effort toughened him and endowed him with prodigious confidence that sometimes veered into recklessness. In industrial Scranton, at around age ten, he accepted a $5 dare from a local kid to climb to the top of a culm mountain. The two-hundred-foot mountain—made up of waste material from coal mine shafts—was hot and dangerous; along its surface were invisible ash pockets that could collapse with a footstep, dropping a foolhardy young kid into the burning center. But Joe took the gamble and scrambled up the side of the black mountain. As author Richard Ben Cramer told the story, “By the time he got to the top, the five bucks wasn’t the point anymore. It was more like . . . immortality.” 

In 1953, Joe Sr. landed a job selling cars in Wilmington, Delaware, and moved the family into an apartment in the suburb of Claymont. Joe Jr.’s tribulations dogged him into high school at the Archmere Academy, a private Catholic school for boys. His classmates tarred him with the nickname “Dash,” for the way sounds came off his lips. “I talked like Morse code,” Biden explained in his memoir, Promises to Keep. “Dot-dot- dot-dot-dash-dash-dash-dash.” His stutter put the fighting spirit in him, and he shouted down the bullies: “You gu-gu-gu-gu-guys sh-sh-sh-sh-shut up!” He practiced hard in his bedroom, watching his lips in the mirror with a flashlight while memorizing Yeats and Emerson so he could speak flawlessly in class. “Other kids looked at me like I was stupid,” Biden recalled. “I wanted so badly to prove I was like everybody else.” At Archmere, Biden was outgoing and athletic and relied on sports to distract attention away from his stutter. He turned himself into a star halfback known for his skill at reeling in passes and earned the nickname “Hands,” which replaced the bullying epithets. By sheer will, he conquered the stutter, though it has crept back on him now and then throughout his life. 

When Biden began his freshman year at the University of Delaware in 1961, he already had law school in his sights and a dream of becoming “an esteemed public figure,” as he put it in his memoir. During college, Biden took a summer job as a lifeguard at a public swimming pool near a housing project. He was the only white lifeguard among a dozen inner-city African Americans who were students at historically Black colleges. The job opened Biden’s eyes to the stark difference in the lives of Black and white Americans: “Every day, it seemed to me, Black people got subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that they did not quite belong in America,” Biden wrote in his memoir. 

On his spring break in 1964, he met Neilia Hunter, a Syracuse University student. They married in 1966 and had three children, Beau (1969), Hunter (1970), and Naomi (1971), who was known as Amy.

After graduating from Syracuse University Law School in 1968, Joe first took a job with a corporate law firm defending big businesses but soon realized the work was not right for him, and he became a public defender whose clients were nearly all African Americans from Wilmington’s East Side. By 1970, he had his first taste of politics, winning election to the New Castle County Council, where he served until 1972, when he challenged the likeable, 63-year-old, two-term Senator J. Caleb Boggs, a Republican. It was an audacious gamble by the cocky 29-year-old unknown. Even if he won, Biden would have to wait by law until his 30th birthday to take his seat. 

Supported by his sister Valerie, who served as campaign manager, his brother Jimmy, who was his chief fundraiser, and his wife, Neilia, Biden barnstormed the state, going door to door in the suburbs and at the shore, and won by less than 3,000 votes out of a total 228,000 cast. In his victory speech, the young Senator-elect graciously called the defeated incumbent “a real gentleman.” 

But tragedy soon followed. On December 18, 1972, Neilia set out to do some Christmas shopping with the three kids when a tractor trailer plowed into her station wagon, killing Neilia and Amy. Beau and Hunter were badly injured. Biden considered giving up his Senate seat before he even arrived, but Democratic and Republican colleagues persuaded him to give the new job a try. He was sworn in as senator in the chapel at Wilmington Medical Center with Beau, Hunter, and other family members. 

As a freshman senator, Biden raised his voice in protest over President Richard Nixon’s violation of the public trust and strongly criticized President Gerald Ford for pardoning Nixon after his resignation. Even in his early years as a senator, Biden sought prominence as a national figure, though he kept his focus on the needs of his constituents in Delaware, a task made easier by his daily commutes home. He also developed an early reputation for candor, acknowledging in the second year of his term what many senators kept to themselves: that the presidency was the place to be if you wanted to have the biggest national impact. “You’re being phony to say you’re not interested in being president if you really want to change things,” he acknowledged in 1974. “But I’m certainly not qualified at this point. I don’t have the experience or background.”

In 1975, Biden met Jill Jacobs, a student at the University of Delaware eight years his junior, and they were married in 1977. Their daughter Ashley was born in 1981. 

During 36 years in the Senate, Biden served in leading roles on both the Judiciary Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee. He was chairman or ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee for 17 years. He chaired the confirmation hearings of five justices, the most contentious being the hearings over the nominations of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas.

In 1987, Biden presided over the confirmation hearings of Robert Bork, a US Appeals Court Judge and former US solicitor general, who was a declared opponent of civil rights and whose originalist views presupposed his adversity to Roe v. Wade; he also favored maximum powers for the executive branch. Biden prepared arduously and conducted prolonged, painstaking hearings that probed not only Bork’s judicial record but also his judicial philosophy. The Senate rejected Bork’s nomination by a vote of 58 to 42.

During the Thomas hearings in 1991, Biden failed to conduct a full investigation into sexual harassment allegations against the nominee. The committee called on Thomas’s accuser, Anita Hill, to testify, and she provided a vivid account of the nominee’s conduct, but Biden did not allow corroborating testimony from other witnesses. Ever since the staunchly conservative Thomas won confirmation, liberals have criticized Biden for shutting down the hearings before the harassment debate was fully aired. When his handling of the hearings became a presidential campaign issue, Biden told ABC News in 2019 that "Hill did not get treated well. I take responsibility for that." 

As Judiciary Committee chairman, Biden was a leading advocate for massive tough-on-crime legislation such as the 1994 federal crime bill that stiffened sentences, widened application of the death penalty, added police officers to the streets, and provided funding for new prisons. Crime in America had tripled between 1960 and 1990, inflamed by a crack-cocaine epidemic in the 1980s. Working with police groups, Biden wrote the Senate version of the bill, which he used to proudly call the Biden Crime Bill. When Congress passed the new law with bipartisan support, it was not considered terribly controversial. But in recent years, it has been seen as contributing to the plague of mass incarceration. The passage of time has changed the public’s perspective of the law, and the quarter-century-old legislation surfaced as a point of controversy in the 2020 Democratic primaries, forcing Biden to defend his role in shaping it.    

Ever since his stumble over the Anita Hill accusations, Biden has worked to improve his record on issues important to women. In 1990, appalled by the lack of attention given marital rape and moved by the killing of 14 women in Montreal who were targeted because the shooter believed they were feminists, Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act that promised federal penalties for crimes against women. Stalled by Republicans, the bill went nowhere until 1994 when Congress finally passed it. Biden has called the law his “proudest legislative accomplishment.” Biden further advanced his recognition of women and their issues when he selected Senator Kamala Harris of California as his running mate. 

As the chairman or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 11 years, Biden influenced American foreign policy and led efforts on America’s response to terrorism and the shape of the post-Cold War world. He is prone to boast of his achievements overseas, sometimes exaggerating his role or impact, causing some critics to downplay his foreign policy acumen. Nonetheless, he had contact with a vast array of world leaders during his time in the Senate. He provided a list to The Washington Post after his selection as Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008 that showed Biden had met with 150 leaders from nearly 60 countries, territories, and international organizations such as NATO and the United Nations. 

Biden often favored humanitarian efforts overseas, and he pushed for US military intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s. In 1991, Biden voted against authorizing President George H.W. Bush to wage war against Iraq, arguing that too much of the burden of the anti-Iraq coalition fell on the United States. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Biden voted in favor of the Iraq War in 2002. Under his chairmanship before the vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard testimony contending Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, testimony based on unsubstantiated evidence that proved to be untrue. Biden later opposed the war and acknowledged his vote was a “mistake.” He also was strongly opposed to the US troop surge in Iraq in 2007, which many observers attributed to a subsequent decline in violence in Iraq.  

Throughout his Senate years, Biden had his sights set on higher office. After two failed presidential runs, he won a valuable second prize: the vice presidency. In August 2008, Barack Obama selected Biden as his running mate, inspired by Biden’s foreign policy expertise, his skill working with Congress, his resilience after his profound personal setbacks, and his devotion to his family. 

When approached as a potential running mate, Biden had a very clear idea of how he wanted to shape the vice presidency. He wanted to be Obama’s chief counselor, he wanted to be in attendance at every important meeting, he wanted his views considered on every crucial decision on both foreign and domestic policy, he wanted to advise and participate in legislative efforts, he wanted to be the last guy in the room whispering in Obama’s ear, and he wanted a private meeting, perhaps lunch, with the president every week. Perhaps most important, given Biden’s nature, he wanted to be able to speak with absolute candor. Obama recognized Biden’s talents, wanted the unvarnished truth, accepted his demands.

After the election, Biden played influential foreign and domestic roles in the administration, establishing himself as one of the most significant vice presidents in American history. A sign of his importance in foreign policy was a pre-inaugural trip he made to Afghanistan that set the stage for Biden’s advocacy of a more limited US military role in the country.  Obama encouraged Biden to stir debate in advisers’ meetings, so a range of voices and options were heard in arriving at decisions. While some national security advisers urged the president to increase troop levels in Afghanistan, Biden favored a drawdown of US forces, a position Obama ultimately followed when he decided to withdraw 30,000 troops by 2012. Asked to take on a key role in America’s military and diplomatic relationships with Iraq, Biden made repeated trips to meet with the nation’s leaders. Speaking on behalf of the president, Biden laid out the administration’s foreign policy ambitions when he spoke to a gathering of heads of state and ministers at the Munich Conference on Security Policy in February 2009, just weeks into the first term. 

Biden provided President Obama with crucial advice on legislative issues related to the 2009 Recovery Act, budget and tax negotiations, and the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty. Working with legislators, Biden helped wrangle the votes needed to pass the Affordable Care Act. He was tasked with overseeing implementation of the Recovery Act, a job that relied on his political and governmental skills in coordinating efforts by federal agencies with the needs of state and local jurisdictions. 

President Obama and Vice President Biden forged such a close partnership that the media took to calling it a “bromance” and featured the duo in photographs eating lunch out together, putting on the White House green, and horsing around in the Oval Office. Just days before the end of the Obama-Biden administration, the president surprised his vice president by awarding him the Medal of Freedom. At the ceremony, Obama extolled his relationship with Biden by reciting lines from William Butler Yeats: “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends / and say my glory was I had such friends.”   

Although Biden considered running for president in 2016, the death of his son Beau in 2015 diminished his appetite for the contest. In addition, President Obama quietly urged Biden to stay out of the race. Biden announced that he would not run on October 21, 2015. After leaving the vice presidency, Biden, together with his wife, created the Biden Foundation and the Biden Cancer Initiative, but both organizations suspended operations after Biden announced in 2019 that he would run for president.