Joe Biden’s life in politics has been marked from its inception by its seismographic lurching from success to setback. Victories were followed by unthinkable personal tragedy. Self-inflicted wounds crippled nascent campaigns. And yet he has survived—36 years in the Senate, eight years in the Obama administration—becoming along the way the ultimate political wingman and the nation’s unofficial consoler in chief. His third run for the White House was playing out true to form—a frontrunning collapse into oblivion. Then came Super Tuesday.
What do voters need to know about the man who just pulled off one of the most improbable political comebacks ever? (Read POLITICO’s compilation of key facts about Bernie Sanders.) Culled from books, extensive media coverage and the archives of POLITICO Magazine, this is a quick primer on the life of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., the eldest of four children born to Joseph Sr. and Catherine Eugenia “Jean” Finnegan, who is closer than he has ever been to achieving his lifelong ambition.
He spent his childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where his father struggled to find a steady job after a series of business setbacks.
When “Joey” was 10, the Biden family moved to Wilmington, Delaware, after his father got a job selling cars. The family lived in a 3-bed, 1½-half-bath tract house. The three Biden boys shared one bedroom with their uncle, Edward Blewitt Finnegan, whom they affectionately called “Boo-Boo,” so nicknamed because he stuttered; the four of them piled into two sets of bunk beds.
As a child, Biden had a debilitating stutter. Classmates mockingly called him “Dash,” likening his staccato to Morse code, and “Bye-Bye,” on account of his attempt to say his last name. He tried to avoid stuttering by playing out conversations in advance in his head, practicing speaking while holding pebbles in his mouth, and memorizing paragraphs instead of reading them aloud from textbooks in class.
During his junior and senior years at Archmere Academy, a Catholic prep school, he was elected class president but was crestfallen when school administrators blocked him from running for student body president because he had received too many demerits.
He played wide receiver and halfback on Archmere’s undefeated 1960 football team, catching 19 touchdown passes.
While a student at the University of Delaware, he got probation for a prank in which he sprayed the dorm director with a fire extinguisher.
He met his future wife, Neilia Hunter, on spring break in the Bahamas during his junior year of college.
On the couple's second date, Joe didn’t have enough money to pay the bill at the restaurant. Neilia slipped him a $20 under the table.
When he first met Neilia’s mother, she asked what he wanted to do for a living. Biden informed her he intended to become president of the United States.
He and Neilia married in 1966. Their son Beau was born in 1969, followed by Hunter one year and one day later. “I’m not a ‘keep ‘em barefoot and pregnant’ man,” Biden said in a 1970 interview. “But I am all for keeping them pregnant until I have a little girl. The only good thing in the world is kids.” Their daughter, Naomi, was born the following year.
In 1967, while he was a law school student at Syracuse University, he bought a puppy for Neilia and named it “Senator.”
He was drafted after finishing law school but failed the physical because he had asthma. “I’m not big on flak jackets and tie-dye shirts,” Biden said when asked later why he didn’t join in anti-Vietnam War protests. “Other people marched. I ran for office, got elected to the United States Senate at 29, and came down here and was one of those votes that helped stop the war.”
As a public defender in Delaware, he defended a 25-year-old fisherman who stole a prize-winning Holstein cow.
He claimed that he received racist phone calls over his support for public housing during his 1970 campaign for New Castle County Council. “The first time the phone rang and someone said, ‘You n----- lover, you want them living next to you?’ I was shocked. I said, ‘If you’re the alternative, I guess the answer is yes.’”
In 1972, at 29, he defeated incumbent Republican Senator Cale Boggs, becoming the fifth-youngest person ever elected to the U.S. Senate.
If elected in November, Biden, now 77, would be the oldest president ever inaugurated.
Biden’s father died at 86. His mother died at 92.
Just a few weeks after Biden won his Senate seat, a tractor-trailer carrying corncobs struck the family’s station wagon as his wife and three children were driving home from picking up a Christmas tree. Neilia and their 13-month-old daughter, Naomi, died before they reached the hospital. His two young sons, Beau and Hunter, were hospitalized with serious injuries.
He was sworn into the Senate in his son Beau’s hospital room.
After the crash, he remained in his home in Wilmington, Delaware. He took the 75-minute Amtrak train to and from Washington each day for more than 30 years. He has called the Amtrak crews “family,” and has even hosted barbecues for conductors and attendants at his home.
In 1974, he told a reporter that “when it comes to issues like abortion ... I’m about as liberal as your grandmother. I don’t like the [Roe v. Wade] 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.” In 1981, he voted for a constitutional amendment that would let states overturn Roe v. Wade. He has since reversed his position.
In the 1970s, Biden opposed court-ordered school busing as a method of desegregating public schools. He has said that he favored other methods of desegregation, such as in housing, and that he supported voluntary busing.
Biden remarried in 1977, to Jill Tracy Jacobs, an English teacher who met Biden on a blind date arranged by his brother.
As the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1984, he led efforts to block then-Alabama U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions from a federal judgeship over racism allegations. Sessions denied the accusations.
He is a self-described “gaffe machine” who has falsely said he was shot at in Iraq (he later clarified he “was near where a shot landed”), that he met survivors of the 2018 Parkland, Florida, school shooting while he was vice president (the shooting happened after he left office) and that he was arrested while trying to visit Nelson Mandela in apartheid-era South Africa (he later said he was just detained).
He owns a 1967 Corvette Stingray that his father (who worked at a car dealership) gave him as a wedding gift.
In speeches throughout the 1980s, he repeatedly claimed to have “marched in the civil rights movement,” and cited “Bull Connor and his dogs” as what “galvanized” his political awakening. There is no evidence of Biden joining civil rights marches during this era, though he did take part in a picket outside downtown Wilmington’s segregated Rialto movie theater in the 1960s.
In 1987, he ran for president for the first time. He quit the race after it was revealed he incorporated into a speech of his parts of a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock—falsely referring to ancestors of his who worked in the coal mines.
That same year, as chair of the Judiciary Committee, he led the opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, a conservative legal scholar, and federal judge. Biden’s strategy, in part, was to give Bork ample time to express his views, teeing up questions in clear and relatable language, and baiting Bork into airing his politically controversial views (on, for instance, Griswold v. Connecticut) in dense legalese. Bork’s nomination failed in the Senate, 42-58, and some historians cite it as the start of a new era of political wars over the judiciary branch.
In February 1988, after complaining about headaches for several weeks, Biden underwent surgery for a brain aneurysm. Three months later, he had surgery for a second brain aneurysm.
As Judiciary Committee chairman, Biden presided over Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation, at which Anita Hill testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her. It was Biden’s decision not to call as witnesses several women who had provided depositions corroborating Hill’s testimony. Thomas was confirmed by the Senate in a 52-48 vote.
In 2019, as he prepared to run for president, Biden expressed regret privately to Anita Hill for what she had endured in 1991. Hill said she did not consider it an apology. “To this day, I regret I couldn’t give her the kind of hearing she deserved,” he said. “I wish I could have done something.”
In 1991, Biden, along with a majority of Senate Democrats, voted against the use of force to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.
While on a tour of the Balkans in 1993, Biden met with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. Biden says he called Milosevic a “damned war criminal” to his face, though others present at the meeting recall it was phrased more diplomatically.
He wrote the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which hardened federal prison sentences and has been criticized by lawmakers today for disproportionately incarcerating black and brown Americans.
He co-sponsored the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. The law, which was incorporated into the larger crime bill, provided $1.6 billion to investigate and prosecute violent crimes against women, imposed automatic and mandatory restitution on those convicted, and allowed victims to sue their attackers in civil court even if prosecutors didn’t proceed criminally.
He voted for the Iraq War in 2002, and was present at the White House when then-President George W. Bush signed the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. Biden has since called the vote a “mistake.”
He was known on Capitol Hill for his long-winded, rambling speeches and off-the-cuff remarks. While listening to one of his lengthy Senate speeches, then-Senator Barack Obama reportedly wrote in a note to an aide: “Shoot. Me. Now.”
A close friend of John McCain dating back to McCain’s time as the Navy’s liaison to the U.S. Senate, Biden and his wife Jill were with McCain at a Navy reception in Hawaii in 1979, where he first saw his future wife, Cindy. They urged him to go over and talk to her.
McCain requested Biden deliver a eulogy at his funeral in 2018.
Biden neither smokes nor drinks alcohol, referring to those behaviors as “a crutch.” Instead, Biden said in a 1970 interview, “I use football as a crutch, and motorcycle jumping and skiing … but those are crutches over which I have some control.”
In 2008, Biden ran for president a second time but dropped out after coming in fifth in the Iowa caucus. Seven months later, Barack Obama selected him as his running mate.
At the infamous 2009 “beer summit” at the White House, involving Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge (Mass.) police Sgt. James Crowley, Biden drank a Buckler, the non-alcoholic brand of Heineken.
He infuriated then-President Obama by publicly declaring his support for gay marriage as Obama’s reelection campaign was ramping up in 2012.
In early 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, which was part of Ukraine, Vice President Biden became the Obama administration’s “highest-ranking emissary” to Eastern European nations, such as Ukraine, that were alarmed at Russian aggression.
In May 2014, Biden’s youngest son, Hunter, joined the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company whose owner was being investigated in a corruption probe. Hunter Biden received monthly compensation of as much as $50,000 during his approximately five-year tenure. In December 2015, Vice President Biden was among many Western leaders calling for the ouster of Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, over allegations that he was not rooting out corruption in the country. “My son did nothing wrong,” Biden said in October 2019. “I did nothing wrong.”
Biden’s oldest son, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015.
In 2014, Joe Biden was listed as one of America’s least wealthy government officials, ranking 577 of 581.
He considered running for president in 2016, but Obama persuaded him not to, believing Hillary Clinton had a better chance to defeat the Republican nominee.
Biden and his wife, Jill, made more than $15 million combined in 2017 and 2018.
His favorite movie is Chariots of Fire.
He has a known penchant for ice cream.
He once challenged a reporter to a wrestling match.
He’s a gearhead and auto enthusiast who receives notifications from Car and Driver magazine on his iPhone.
Until Saturday’s South Carolina primary, Biden had won zero presidential nominating contests across three campaigns and 32 years. Four days later, his total was 11.
Sources: The Atlantic, New York Times, POLITICO Magazine, What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer, Promises to Keep by Joe Biden, Mediaite, Wilmington News Journal, HuffPost, Wilmington Morning News, CNN, Politifact, Washington Post, Washington Post Magazine, Washingtonian, ABC News, New York magazine, Huffington Post, CNBC, NPR, Opensecrets.org, The Hill, Vox, Reuters, C-SPAN, The New Yorker.
Date Posted: Thursday, March 5th, 2020 , Total Page Views: 557
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