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US Election 2020: Who is Joe Biden, president-elect?

US Election 2020: Who is Joe Biden, president-elect?Close

It is third time lucky for Democrat Joe Biden, who has won the race to become the next US president.

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Theres always hope

How Joe Biden overcame public and personal adversity

By Anthony Zurcher

Joe Biden

This article was first published on 18 August, 2020

It was the winter of Joe Biden’s discontent. After a disappointing finish in the Iowa caucuses in February, his support in the upcoming New Hampshire primary was collapsing and his 2020 presidential campaign was in serious jeopardy.

He was, for all appearances, a defeated man.

The White House hopes Biden had been harbouring during his nearly half-century in public service were slipping away again, perhaps for the last time.

At a campaign rally ahead of the New Hampshire vote, Biden was reflective – and at times visibly emotional. He spoke of the death of his son, Beau, almost five years earlier.  He recounted stories from his childhood, of his family’s economic hardships. But he reassured the audience.

“There’s always hope,” he said. “There’s always hope.”

It wasn’t a typical rally speech – and given his subsequent fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, probably not an effective one. But it offered a glimpse into the psyche, the emotional scar tissue, of a politician who has faced devastating personal, professional and political adversity over the course of his life.

“I have an incredibly high regard for fate,” Biden told the National Journal back in 1989. “I have never been able to plan my life. Every time my personal life has been how I wanted it, something has intervened.”

Biden has witnessed the untimely deaths of the closest of loved ones. He’s built platforms for his political ambitions, only to watch them crumble, then built them again. His hard-earned rhetorical skills have won him the adoration of crowds, and his propensity for malaprops and gaffes have made him the object of ridicule.

Biden frequently says that the main lesson he learned from his father was that the measure of a man isn’t how many times he’s been knocked down, but how quickly he gets back up. After losing in New Hampshire, Biden’s campaign regrouped in the southern states and turned what appeared to be impending defeat into a convincing march to the Democratic nomination.

That was only the latest example of Biden facing challenges – some beyond his control, others resulting from his own mistakes and miscalculations – and soldiering on. 

“We have choices when we suffer like Joe,” says former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, who served with Biden in Congress during the 1990s. “He’s a man of faith. He chose not to quit. He chose to keep doing the work, even though he didn’t have to.”

Biden, if nothing else, is a survivor. Five pivotal days in his life put this in stark relief – days casting shadows that stretched for decades.

den was in Washington on 18 December, 1972, when the telephone rang. It was his brother Jimmy in Delaware, asking to speak to his sister, Valerie.

There had been a “slight accident” involving Biden’s family, his sister relayed. “Nothing to be worried about,” she said. “But we ought to go home.”

His wife Neilia, he would learn later that day, had been killed, along with their infant daughter, Naomi, when the car she was driving was hit by a lorry. His two young sons, Beau and Hunter, were also seriously injured.

The family had been shopping for a Christmas tree while Biden – who had just been elected to the Senate – was off interviewing staff for his congressional office and finalising the purchase of a new home for the family.

Now, that family was shattered.

“I could not speak, only felt this hollow core grow in my chest,” Biden wrote in his memoir, “like I was going to be sucked inside a black hole.”

He considered giving up the Senate seat he had just won. He contemplated joining the priesthood. He found himself taking evening walks in rough neighbourhoods, looking for a fight.

“I had not known I was capable of such rage,” he wrote. “ I felt God had played a horrible trick on me, and I was angry.”

Up until that day, Biden’s life had been on a remarkable upward trajectory.

Just over a month earlier, the then-29-year-old Democrat had become the second-youngest person elected to the US Senate, defeating a two-term Republican incumbent in a race few thought he had a chance of winning.

He was considered a golden boy in a Democratic Party that had been trounced across the nation by Richard Nixon and the Republicans.


Biden’s childhood was relatively challenging. While his father had his share of business successes, mostly before Biden was born, the ups were inevitably followed by downs, and young Biden spent much of his youth living with his extended family in a modest home in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

“Even today I can remember the dread, the shame, the absolute rage, as vividly as the day it was happening”Joe Biden

“The values that Vice-President Biden was exposed to as a young man were values rooted in the Church, rooted in Catholic education, rooted in the culture we were growing up in, which was Irish-American,” says Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, whose family has lived in Scranton for generations.

His biggest childhood challenge was overcoming a speech impediment – a stutter – that afflicted him well into high school. In his memoir, Biden recalls memorising a reading to avoid tripping up during class and, when he once did, how a teacher mocked his disability, calling him “buh-buh-Biden”. That teacher, a Catholic nun, received a tongue-lashing from Biden’s mother, who threatened to “knock your bonnet off your head”, in Biden’s retelling.

His high-school classmates gave him nicknames that made references to his stutter.  

“Even today I can remember the dread, the shame, the absolute rage, as vividly as the day it was happening,” Biden wrote. 

By the time he finished high school, however, he had overcome the stutter – the result, he says, of months of training himself to relax his face while he practised speaking in front of a mirror. It still reveals itself on occasion, however, when he’s under pressure or fumbling for words.

“A stutter does not get worse as a person ages, but trying to keep it at bay can take immense physical and mental energy,” wrote John Hendrickson, in an Atlantic Magazine article about Biden’s stutter. No-one is ever truly cured, he says, they simply find ways around the problem.

After high school, Biden went on to attend the University of Delaware and then law school at Syracuse University, in part to be near Neilia, whom he had met during a college holiday.

They eventually married, and Biden’s political career began shortly after their return to Wilmington. He briefly practised law at a major firm, but disillusioned with representing the rich and powerful, he switched to being a public defender. From there, he ran for – and won – a seat on the New Castle county council. This became his unlikely springboard to the US Senate after no other Democrat expressed interest in challenging the entrenched Republican incumbent.

“Joe Biden looks like the photograph of a great statesman in his youth,” a local newspaper columnist gushed. “His eyes sparkle blue, and his teeth shine when he smiles, his cheeks glow, and his body is still boyishly slim.”

Joe Biden, 1972

The article concluded on a surprisingly sombre note, however: “He had the look – both triumphant and sad – of a young man who believes the world is his, and knows he is yet to be tested.”

Those tests would come – none more daunting than the one on that December day, just a few years later.

Biden would ultimately accept his Senate seat, taking the oath of office from the Delaware hospital where his two sons were recovering. It marked the beginning of 44 consecutive years in national politics – a stretch that ended, as it began, with the untimely death of a child.

In May 2015 Beau Biden died of brain cancer at the age of 46.

Like his father, Beau had pursued a career in politics, serving as Delaware’s attorney general, with the prospect of higher offices to come.

“He had all the best of me, but with the bugs and flaws engineered out,” Biden wrote of Beau in his 2017 book about his son’s illness.

Biden details how close he came to announcing his own presidential bid in 2015, but that the rawness of his son’s death – and the toll a campaign might take on his family – pushed him to stay out.

“I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find the emotional energy, and I knew from previous experience that grief is a process that respects no schedule and no timetable,” he wrote. 

A lifetime of loss was something Biden learned to live with and overcome, like his stutter – a piece of himself that he found a way to build on.

“It’s my belief that your empathy is informed by your experience, but you’re either born with that sense or you’re not,” Senator Casey says. “In Biden’s case, it was both a quality he was born with but also one that was informed by his own personal tragedies that gave him an insight into loss and tragedy and pain that a lot of people never fully understand.”

“He had all the best of me, but with the bugs and flaws engineered out,” Biden wrote of Beau in his 2017 book about his son’s illness.

Biden details how close he came to announcing his own presidential bid in 2015, but that the rawness of his son’s death – and the toll a campaign might take on his family – pushed him to stay out.

“I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find the emotional energy, and I knew from previous experience that grief is a process that respects no schedule and no timetable,” he wrote. 

A lifetime of loss was something Biden learned to live with and overcome, like his stutter – a piece of himself that he found a way to build on.

“It’s my belief that your empathy is informed by your experience, but you’re either born with that sense or you’re not,” Senator Casey says. “In Biden’s case, it was both a quality he was born with but also one that was informed by his own personal tragedies that gave him an insight into loss and tragedy and pain that a lot of people never fully understand.”

3 September 1987, Joe Biden stood before a crowd of reporters and announced that he was abandoning the presidential bid he had launched just three months earlier.

“I’m angry with myself for having been put in this position – for having put myself in this position of having to make this choice,” he said. “And I am no less frustrated at the environment of presidential politics that makes it so difficult to let the American people measure the whole Joe Biden and not just misstatements that I have made.”

It was an ignominious end to Biden’s first attempt at the White House, after his campaign ran aground amid charges of plagiarism and dishonesty. It was a particularly bitter pill to swallow for a man who liked to offer his “word as a Biden” as an iron-clad guarantee of honesty and trustworthiness.

“It really ate me up. It was the core of who I thought I was”Joe Biden

The first blow came in a debate in Iowa where Biden, in his closing statement, recited – nearly word for word – a passage from British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock’s speech about his working-class upbringing. Although he frequently quoted those lines with attribution, this time Biden didn’t – and an operative from a rival Democratic campaign took note.

A plagiarism charge against Biden for a law school paper also resurfaced. He explained that it was the result of an improper citation, but combined with the Kinnock mistake and further allegations of unattributed speech quotes, it cemented for many the perception that there was no substance beneath Biden’s style.

“Here I was, getting out of the race with my integrity being questioned,” Biden would later tell his biographer, Jules Witcover.  “It really ate me up. It was the core of who I thought I was, who I know I am, actually.”

During his first 14 years in Washington, Biden rebuilt his personal life after the deaths of his wife and daughter. He committed to giving his two living children some semblance of a normal life, and commuted each day from their home in Delaware to Washington. He eventually remarried, to a schoolteacher named Jill Jacobs, with whom he had a child, Ashley. He established himself on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and began to build a national presence.

After entertaining a run in 1984, he took the plunge four years later, with a campaign that played heavily on Kennedy-esque themes of generation change.

“We must rekindle the fire of idealism in our society, for nothing suffocates the promise of America more than unbounded cynicism and indifference,” he said at his campaign kick-off. “The clarion call for my generation is not, ‘It’s our turn,’ but rather, ‘It’s our moment of obligation and opportunity’.”

The plagiarism row ensured this wouldn’t be Biden’s moment.

At the same time he was attempting to keep his presidential campaign afloat, Biden was also chairing Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for a conservative Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork – a high-profile battle over the ideological direction of the nation’s highest court. It was after a morning session of these hearings in Washington that Biden announced the end to his campaign.

The decision turned out to be somewhat of a blessing, however, as a few months later – the night of the Iowa caucuses – he collapsed in a hotel room in Rochester, New York, the result of an intracranial aneurism. For the next six months, he was in and out of hospital. For a time, doctors feared he would have lasting brain damage. 

It would be 20 years before Biden ran for president again – this time as an elder statesman, not a fresh face.

He promised to run the 2008 race on his own terms, after concluding that his 1987 campaign was too heavy on rhetorical flourishes and image-consultants. It was almost as if he was trying to right the wrongs of 20 years earlier.

“Any of you who take a look at my life will not be able to conclude that I am not an honourable man,” he said at an Iowa campaign rally in June. “And that’s why I wasn’t afraid to get back into this thing.”

The end result – defeat – was the same, however. And right out of the gate, it was Biden’s tongue that betrayed him.

The day before he formally announced his candidacy, Biden told a New York Observer reporter that one of his opponents, Barack Obama, was “the first mainstream African American, who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”.

Biden was quickly forced to explain that he did not mean to disparage previous black presidential candidates or belittle Obama personally.

It was cited as yet another of Biden’s propensity for gaffes – off-the-cuff remarks that would embarrass or distract from his intended message – which would bedevil his national efforts throughout his career.

Although Biden eventually steadied his campaign, he never broke into the top tier. The Democratic race boiled down to a two-way battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton.

A riveted US public watched on 11 October, 1991, as Anita Hill, then a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, testified before Joe Biden’s Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her on multiple occasions when they both worked for the Reagan administration.

Hill accused Thomas of repeatedly making “ugly”, “disgusting”, “dirty” comments to her, creating an intolerable workplace.

Thomas, in his testimony, accused his critics of engaging in a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks” – alluding to a term that has historical racist connotations.  

“Unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you,” he said. “You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US Senate rather than hung from a tree.”https://www.bbc.co.uk/indepthtoolkit/smallprox/include/datapres/idt/news-vj-video-embed-iframe/1.0.1/video_iframe.html#vpid=p08nkr9y&title=Biden%20Hearing&poster_image=https%3A%2F%2Fichef.bbci.co.uk%2Fimages%2Fic%2F640x360%2Fp08nkrtb.jpg&autoplay=false&include_preroll_and_analytics=false

Biden chairs the Clarence Thomas hearings, 1991

Biden, as chair, presided over this spectacle – trying to provide what he described as a fair hearing for both sides.

The committee had already voted once on Thomas’s nomination, during which Biden objected to Thomas on ideological grounds. This, however, was different. As the committee reopened its inquiry, the issue was Thomas’ moral character – and two distinct and conflicting accounts of what had taken place a decade earlier.

Biden was conscious that he and his fellow senators – all men, all white – were open to charges of racism against only the second black nominee to the Supreme Court, and charges of sexism if they didn’t give Hill’s allegations a full airing.

“The Democrats were deathly afraid of seeming to gang up on a black Supreme Court nominee, there’s no doubt about that,” says journalist Jill Abramson, who covered the hearings for the Wall Street Journal and co-wrote a book, Strange Justice, on the topic.

Instead of being fair, Abramson says, Biden and the Democrats allowed themselves to be “woefully outmanoeuvred” by the committee’s Republican minority, leaving many liberal supporters feeling betrayed.

“As the Democrats are wont to do, they wanted to be seen as playing fair,” she says. “But it wasn’t playing fair, it was two days of hearings where Anita Hill was trashed by the Republicans who portrayed her as a fantaciser or an erotomaniac.”

If Biden was trying to find balance on issues of race and sex during the hearings, it’s a challenge he’s faced throughout his career, with varying levels of success.

When Biden first ran for the Senate, he presented himself as an advocate of the civil rights movement. He recalled how, as a teenage volunteer at a swimming centre in a predominantly black neighbourhood of Wilmington, he learned about the unfair treatment ethnic minority groups frequently received in the US.

“Every day, it seemed to me, black people got subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that they didn’t quite belong in America,” Biden wrote in his memoir.

One of Biden’s first high-profile political battles upon entering the Senate, however, was fought alongside pro-segregation southerners in opposition of the court-ordered practice of transporting students to schools in different neighbourhoods in an effort to address racial segregation.

“I do not buy the concept, popular in the ‘60s which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years, and the white man is now far ahead in the ‘race’ for everything our society offers’”Joe Biden

It was a subject that would open Biden to attacks during his run for the 2020 Democratic nomination. 

“Biden at one time called the issue of bussing a ‘domestic Vietnam’,” says Jason Sokol, a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire. “He meant that it was an issue that was tearing the country apart culturally. That’s why he shied away from taking a strong stance against integration at that point. He saw that this politically was not a smart thing to do.”

While Biden fought conservative judicial and executive appointees he thought were insufficiently dedicated to civil rights, he viewed the role of government as preventing discrimination in the current era, not offering remedies for past wrongs.

“I do not buy the concept, popular in the ‘60s which said: ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years, and the white man is now far ahead in the ‘race’ for everything our society offers,” he told a newspaper interviewer in 1975. “In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a ‘head start’ or even hold the white man back to even the ‘race’. I don’t buy that.”

Biden’s record on crime and law-enforcement issues also opened him up to accusations that he supported policies – designed to address a spike in violent crime and drug offences in the 1980s and early 1990s – that disproportionately affected ethnic minority groups.

Sokol says Biden has spent his career inhabiting a “very conflicted, messy middle ground” on racial issues, where he weighed in angering some of his white constituents against ”honouring claims for racial justice”.

In 1988, Biden enthusiastically backed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established tougher mandatory sentences for narcotics like crack cocaine that were more frequently used by ethnic minority groups. 

He was the architect of a 1994 anti-crime bill that expanded mandatory minimum sentences and greatly increased federal funding for police departments and prisons – a push that since has been seen as a contributing factor in the US having one of the world’s largest incarcerated populations.

According to Bob Kerrey, who was one of the 95 senators who voted for the crime bill, being labelled “soft on crime” was politically dangerous in the 1990s.https://www.bbc.co.uk/indepthtoolkit/smallprox/include/datapres/idt/news-vj-video-embed-iframe/1.0.1/video_iframe.html#vpid=p08nwjyn&title=Biden%20Crime&poster_image=https%3A%2F%2Fichef.bbci.co.uk%2Fimages%2Fic%2F640x360%2Fp08nxwrb.jpg&autoplay=false&include_preroll_and_analytics=false

Joe Biden speaks about crime and “predators on our streets”, 1993

“I didn’t know how controversial the crime bill would become,” he says. “The problem with that crime bill is it worked – crime went down. The larger problem is we tolerated racist attitudes of police forces way too long.”

Attached to that 1994 crime bill was one of Biden’s most cherished legislative accomplishments – the Violence Against Women Act. The topic of domestic abuse – and how to address it on a federal level – was always among Biden’s top of priorities.

“We ripped the Band-Aid off a shameful secret and exposed the ugly truth of domestic violence to the public eye,” Biden told the Huffington Post in 2019.

While Biden has offered his legislative efforts as evidence of his support for women’s issues, it has been his personal conduct that has drawn the sharpest attacks.

In the days before the formal launch of his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden was accused by a number of women of unwanted physical contact.

“I had never experienced anything so blatantly inappropriate and unnerving before,” wrote Lucy Flores, a Nevada Democratic politician, of an encounter she had with Biden in 2014. “The vice-president of the United States of America had just touched me in an intimate way reserved for close friends, family or romantic partners – and I felt powerless to do anything about it.

While not admitting to any specific misconduct, Biden released a video in which he said he would be “more mindful and respectful” of future conduct that might make women uncomfortable.

Lucy Flores and Joe Biden, Las Vegas, 2014

In March, one of the women who accused Biden of misconduct, Tara Reade, expanded her allegation to sexual assault, saying the then-senator had attacked her in an empty hallway when she worked in his office in 1993. Acquaintances of Reade said she told them about the alleged incident at the time.

Two months later, Biden directly addressed the accusation, referencing his support for the Violence Against Women Act.

“I recognise my responsibility to be a voice, an advocate and a leader for the change in culture that has begun but is nowhere near finished,” he said. “So I want to address allegations by a former staffer that I engaged in misconduct 27 years ago. They aren’t true.”

Reade called on Biden to quit the race.Subsequent investigations by journalists, including a New York Times report, found inconsistencies in Reade’s accounts. The episode, however, raised uncomfortable issues for Democrats, especially women in the party who had backed the rallying cry of the #MeToo movement, Believe Women.

It also drew parallels to the doubts and aspersions directed at Anita Hill decades earlier

In recent years – and in light of the Me Too movement that has increased awareness of sexual harassment and assault – Biden has expressed regret over his handling of the Hill episode.

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Theres always hope

How Joe Biden overcame public and personal adversity

By Anthony Zurcher

Joe Biden

This article was first published on 18 August, 2020

It was the winter of Joe Biden’s discontent. After a disappointing finish in the Iowa caucuses in February, his support in the upcoming New Hampshire primary was collapsing and his 2020 presidential campaign was in serious jeopardy.

He was, for all appearances, a defeated man.

The White House hopes Biden had been harbouring during his nearly half-century in public service were slipping away again, perhaps for the last time.

At a campaign rally ahead of the New Hampshire vote, Biden was reflective – and at times visibly emotional. He spoke of the death of his son, Beau, almost five years earlier.  He recounted stories from his childhood, of his family’s economic hardships. But he reassured the audience.

“There’s always hope,” he said. “There’s always hope.”

It wasn’t a typical rally speech – and given his subsequent fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, probably not an effective one. But it offered a glimpse into the psyche, the emotional scar tissue, of a politician who has faced devastating personal, professional and political adversity over the course of his life.

“I have an incredibly high regard for fate,” Biden told the National Journal back in 1989. “I have never been able to plan my life. Every time my personal life has been how I wanted it, something has intervened.”

Biden has witnessed the untimely deaths of the closest of loved ones. He’s built platforms for his political ambitions, only to watch them crumble, then built them again. His hard-earned rhetorical skills have won him the adoration of crowds, and his propensity for malaprops and gaffes have made him the object of ridicule.

Biden frequently says that the main lesson he learned from his father was that the measure of a man isn’t how many times he’s been knocked down, but how quickly he gets back up. After losing in New Hampshire, Biden’s campaign regrouped in the southern states and turned what appeared to be impending defeat into a convincing march to the Democratic nomination.

That was only the latest example of Biden facing challenges – some beyond his control, others resulting from his own mistakes and miscalculations – and soldiering on. 

“We have choices when we suffer like Joe,” says former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, who served with Biden in Congress during the 1990s. “He’s a man of faith. He chose not to quit. He chose to keep doing the work, even though he didn’t have to.”

Biden, if nothing else, is a survivor. Five pivotal days in his life put this in stark relief – days casting shadows that stretched for decades.

Adversity and loss

Biden with his wife Neilia. Biden's daughter Naomi

Joe Biden was in Washington on 18 December, 1972, when the telephone rang. It was his brother Jimmy in Delaware, asking to speak to his sister, Valerie.

There had been a “slight accident” involving Biden’s family, his sister relayed. “Nothing to be worried about,” she said. “But we ought to go home.”

His wife Neilia, he would learn later that day, had been killed, along with their infant daughter, Naomi, when the car she was driving was hit by a lorry. His two young sons, Beau and Hunter, were also seriously injured.

The family had been shopping for a Christmas tree while Biden – who had just been elected to the Senate – was off interviewing staff for his congressional office and finalising the purchase of a new home for the family.

Now, that family was shattered.

“I could not speak, only felt this hollow core grow in my chest,” Biden wrote in his memoir, “like I was going to be sucked inside a black hole.”

He considered giving up the Senate seat he had just won. He contemplated joining the priesthood. He found himself taking evening walks in rough neighbourhoods, looking for a fight.

“I had not known I was capable of such rage,” he wrote. “ I felt God had played a horrible trick on me, and I was angry.”

Up until that day, Biden’s life had been on a remarkable upward trajectory.

Just over a month earlier, the then-29-year-old Democrat had become the second-youngest person elected to the US Senate, defeating a two-term Republican incumbent in a race few thought he had a chance of winning.

He was considered a golden boy in a Democratic Party that had been trounced across the nation by Richard Nixon and the Republicans.


Biden’s childhood was relatively challenging. While his father had his share of business successes, mostly before Biden was born, the ups were inevitably followed by downs, and young Biden spent much of his youth living with his extended family in a modest home in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

“Even today I can remember the dread, the shame, the absolute rage, as vividly as the day it was happening”Joe Biden

“The values that Vice-President Biden was exposed to as a young man were values rooted in the Church, rooted in Catholic education, rooted in the culture we were growing up in, which was Irish-American,” says Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, whose family has lived in Scranton for generations.

His biggest childhood challenge was overcoming a speech impediment – a stutter – that afflicted him well into high school. In his memoir, Biden recalls memorising a reading to avoid tripping up during class and, when he once did, how a teacher mocked his disability, calling him “buh-buh-Biden”. That teacher, a Catholic nun, received a tongue-lashing from Biden’s mother, who threatened to “knock your bonnet off your head”, in Biden’s retelling.

His high-school classmates gave him nicknames that made references to his stutter.  

“Even today I can remember the dread, the shame, the absolute rage, as vividly as the day it was happening,” Biden wrote. 

By the time he finished high school, however, he had overcome the stutter – the result, he says, of months of training himself to relax his face while he practised speaking in front of a mirror. It still reveals itself on occasion, however, when he’s under pressure or fumbling for words.

“A stutter does not get worse as a person ages, but trying to keep it at bay can take immense physical and mental energy,” wrote John Hendrickson, in an Atlantic Magazine article about Biden’s stutter. No-one is ever truly cured, he says, they simply find ways around the problem.

After high school, Biden went on to attend the University of Delaware and then law school at Syracuse University, in part to be near Neilia, whom he had met during a college holiday.

They eventually married, and Biden’s political career began shortly after their return to Wilmington. He briefly practised law at a major firm, but disillusioned with representing the rich and powerful, he switched to being a public defender. From there, he ran for – and won – a seat on the New Castle county council. This became his unlikely springboard to the US Senate after no other Democrat expressed interest in challenging the entrenched Republican incumbent.

“Joe Biden looks like the photograph of a great statesman in his youth,” a local newspaper columnist gushed. “His eyes sparkle blue, and his teeth shine when he smiles, his cheeks glow, and his body is still boyishly slim.”

Joe Biden, 1972

The article concluded on a surprisingly sombre note, however: “He had the look – both triumphant and sad – of a young man who believes the world is his, and knows he is yet to be tested.”

Those tests would come – none more daunting than the one on that December day, just a few years later.

Biden would ultimately accept his Senate seat, taking the oath of office from the Delaware hospital where his two sons were recovering. It marked the beginning of 44 consecutive years in national politics – a stretch that ended, as it began, with the untimely death of a child.

In May 2015 Beau Biden died of brain cancer at the age of 46.

Like his father, Beau had pursued a career in politics, serving as Delaware’s attorney general, with the prospect of higher offices to come.

“He had all the best of me, but with the bugs and flaws engineered out,” Biden wrote of Beau in his 2017 book about his son’s illness.

Biden details how close he came to announcing his own presidential bid in 2015, but that the rawness of his son’s death – and the toll a campaign might take on his family – pushed him to stay out.

“I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find the emotional energy, and I knew from previous experience that grief is a process that respects no schedule and no timetable,” he wrote. 

A lifetime of loss was something Biden learned to live with and overcome, like his stutter – a piece of himself that he found a way to build on.

“It’s my belief that your empathy is informed by your experience, but you’re either born with that sense or you’re not,” Senator Casey says. “In Biden’s case, it was both a quality he was born with but also one that was informed by his own personal tragedies that gave him an insight into loss and tragedy and pain that a lot of people never fully understand.”

Biden and his son Beau, Camp Victory, Baghdad 2009

White House ambitions derailed

Biden with his wife Jill

On 23 September 1987, Joe Biden stood before a crowd of reporters and announced that he was abandoning the presidential bid he had launched just three months earlier.

“I’m angry with myself for having been put in this position – for having put myself in this position of having to make this choice,” he said. “And I am no less frustrated at the environment of presidential politics that makes it so difficult to let the American people measure the whole Joe Biden and not just misstatements that I have made.”

It was an ignominious end to Biden’s first attempt at the White House, after his campaign ran aground amid charges of plagiarism and dishonesty. It was a particularly bitter pill to swallow for a man who liked to offer his “word as a Biden” as an iron-clad guarantee of honesty and trustworthiness.

“It really ate me up. It was the core of who I thought I was”Joe Biden

The first blow came in a debate in Iowa where Biden, in his closing statement, recited – nearly word for word – a passage from British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock’s speech about his working-class upbringing. Although he frequently quoted those lines with attribution, this time Biden didn’t – and an operative from a rival Democratic campaign took note.

A plagiarism charge against Biden for a law school paper also resurfaced. He explained that it was the result of an improper citation, but combined with the Kinnock mistake and further allegations of unattributed speech quotes, it cemented for many the perception that there was no substance beneath Biden’s style.

“Here I was, getting out of the race with my integrity being questioned,” Biden would later tell his biographer, Jules Witcover.  “It really ate me up. It was the core of who I thought I was, who I know I am, actually.”

Biden with his wife Jill

During his first 14 years in Washington, Biden rebuilt his personal life after the deaths of his wife and daughter. He committed to giving his two living children some semblance of a normal life, and commuted each day from their home in Delaware to Washington. He eventually remarried, to a schoolteacher named Jill Jacobs, with whom he had a child, Ashley. He established himself on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and began to build a national presence.

After entertaining a run in 1984, he took the plunge four years later, with a campaign that played heavily on Kennedy-esque themes of generation change.

“We must rekindle the fire of idealism in our society, for nothing suffocates the promise of America more than unbounded cynicism and indifference,” he said at his campaign kick-off. “The clarion call for my generation is not, ‘It’s our turn,’ but rather, ‘It’s our moment of obligation and opportunity’.”

The plagiarism row ensured this wouldn’t be Biden’s moment.

At the same time he was attempting to keep his presidential campaign afloat, Biden was also chairing Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for a conservative Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork – a high-profile battle over the ideological direction of the nation’s highest court. It was after a morning session of these hearings in Washington that Biden announced the end to his campaign.

The decision turned out to be somewhat of a blessing, however, as a few months later – the night of the Iowa caucuses – he collapsed in a hotel room in Rochester, New York, the result of an intracranial aneurism. For the next six months, he was in and out of hospital. For a time, doctors feared he would have lasting brain damage. 

Joe Biden and Barack Obama at the presidential debate, 2007

It would be 20 years before Biden ran for president again – this time as an elder statesman, not a fresh face.

He promised to run the 2008 race on his own terms, after concluding that his 1987 campaign was too heavy on rhetorical flourishes and image-consultants. It was almost as if he was trying to right the wrongs of 20 years earlier.

“Any of you who take a look at my life will not be able to conclude that I am not an honourable man,” he said at an Iowa campaign rally in June. “And that’s why I wasn’t afraid to get back into this thing.”

The end result – defeat – was the same, however. And right out of the gate, it was Biden’s tongue that betrayed him.

The day before he formally announced his candidacy, Biden told a New York Observer reporter that one of his opponents, Barack Obama, was “the first mainstream African American, who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”.

Biden was quickly forced to explain that he did not mean to disparage previous black presidential candidates or belittle Obama personally.

It was cited as yet another of Biden’s propensity for gaffes – off-the-cuff remarks that would embarrass or distract from his intended message – which would bedevil his national efforts throughout his career.

Although Biden eventually steadied his campaign, he never broke into the top tier. The Democratic race boiled down to a two-way battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Race and sex collide

Anita Hill

A riveted US public watched on 11 October, 1991, as Anita Hill, then a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, testified before Joe Biden’s Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her on multiple occasions when they both worked for the Reagan administration.

Hill accused Thomas of repeatedly making “ugly”, “disgusting”, “dirty” comments to her, creating an intolerable workplace.

Thomas, in his testimony, accused his critics of engaging in a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks” – alluding to a term that has historical racist connotations.  

“Unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you,” he said. “You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US Senate rather than hung from a tree.”https://www.bbc.co.uk/indepthtoolkit/smallprox/include/datapres/idt/news-vj-video-embed-iframe/1.0.1/video_iframe.html#vpid=p08nkr9y&title=Biden%20Hearing&poster_image=https%3A%2F%2Fichef.bbci.co.uk%2Fimages%2Fic%2F640x360%2Fp08nkrtb.jpg&autoplay=false&include_preroll_and_analytics=false

Biden chairs the Clarence Thomas hearings, 1991

Biden, as chair, presided over this spectacle – trying to provide what he described as a fair hearing for both sides.

The committee had already voted once on Thomas’s nomination, during which Biden objected to Thomas on ideological grounds. This, however, was different. As the committee reopened its inquiry, the issue was Thomas’ moral character – and two distinct and conflicting accounts of what had taken place a decade earlier.

Biden was conscious that he and his fellow senators – all men, all white – were open to charges of racism against only the second black nominee to the Supreme Court, and charges of sexism if they didn’t give Hill’s allegations a full airing.

“The Democrats were deathly afraid of seeming to gang up on a black Supreme Court nominee, there’s no doubt about that,” says journalist Jill Abramson, who covered the hearings for the Wall Street Journal and co-wrote a book, Strange Justice, on the topic.

Instead of being fair, Abramson says, Biden and the Democrats allowed themselves to be “woefully outmanoeuvred” by the committee’s Republican minority, leaving many liberal supporters feeling betrayed.

“As the Democrats are wont to do, they wanted to be seen as playing fair,” she says. “But it wasn’t playing fair, it was two days of hearings where Anita Hill was trashed by the Republicans who portrayed her as a fantaciser or an erotomaniac.”

If Biden was trying to find balance on issues of race and sex during the hearings, it’s a challenge he’s faced throughout his career, with varying levels of success.

Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas

When Biden first ran for the Senate, he presented himself as an advocate of the civil rights movement. He recalled how, as a teenage volunteer at a swimming centre in a predominantly black neighbourhood of Wilmington, he learned about the unfair treatment ethnic minority groups frequently received in the US.

“Every day, it seemed to me, black people got subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that they didn’t quite belong in America,” Biden wrote in his memoir.

One of Biden’s first high-profile political battles upon entering the Senate, however, was fought alongside pro-segregation southerners in opposition of the court-ordered practice of transporting students to schools in different neighbourhoods in an effort to address racial segregation.

“I do not buy the concept, popular in the ‘60s which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years, and the white man is now far ahead in the ‘race’ for everything our society offers’”Joe Biden

It was a subject that would open Biden to attacks during his run for the 2020 Democratic nomination. 

“Biden at one time called the issue of bussing a ‘domestic Vietnam’,” says Jason Sokol, a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire. “He meant that it was an issue that was tearing the country apart culturally. That’s why he shied away from taking a strong stance against integration at that point. He saw that this politically was not a smart thing to do.”

While Biden fought conservative judicial and executive appointees he thought were insufficiently dedicated to civil rights, he viewed the role of government as preventing discrimination in the current era, not offering remedies for past wrongs.

“I do not buy the concept, popular in the ‘60s which said: ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years, and the white man is now far ahead in the ‘race’ for everything our society offers,” he told a newspaper interviewer in 1975. “In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a ‘head start’ or even hold the white man back to even the ‘race’. I don’t buy that.”

Biden’s record on crime and law-enforcement issues also opened him up to accusations that he supported policies – designed to address a spike in violent crime and drug offences in the 1980s and early 1990s – that disproportionately affected ethnic minority groups.

Sokol says Biden has spent his career inhabiting a “very conflicted, messy middle ground” on racial issues, where he weighed in angering some of his white constituents against ”honouring claims for racial justice”.

In 1988, Biden enthusiastically backed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established tougher mandatory sentences for narcotics like crack cocaine that were more frequently used by ethnic minority groups. 

He was the architect of a 1994 anti-crime bill that expanded mandatory minimum sentences and greatly increased federal funding for police departments and prisons – a push that since has been seen as a contributing factor in the US having one of the world’s largest incarcerated populations.

According to Bob Kerrey, who was one of the 95 senators who voted for the crime bill, being labelled “soft on crime” was politically dangerous in the 1990s.https://www.bbc.co.uk/indepthtoolkit/smallprox/include/datapres/idt/news-vj-video-embed-iframe/1.0.1/video_iframe.html#vpid=p08nwjyn&title=Biden%20Crime&poster_image=https%3A%2F%2Fichef.bbci.co.uk%2Fimages%2Fic%2F640x360%2Fp08nxwrb.jpg&autoplay=false&include_preroll_and_analytics=false

Joe Biden speaks about crime and “predators on our streets”, 1993

“I didn’t know how controversial the crime bill would become,” he says. “The problem with that crime bill is it worked – crime went down. The larger problem is we tolerated racist attitudes of police forces way too long.”

Attached to that 1994 crime bill was one of Biden’s most cherished legislative accomplishments – the Violence Against Women Act. The topic of domestic abuse – and how to address it on a federal level – was always among Biden’s top of priorities.

“We ripped the Band-Aid off a shameful secret and exposed the ugly truth of domestic violence to the public eye,” Biden told the Huffington Post in 2019.

While Biden has offered his legislative efforts as evidence of his support for women’s issues, it has been his personal conduct that has drawn the sharpest attacks.

Joe Biden, 1993

In the days before the formal launch of his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden was accused by a number of women of unwanted physical contact.

“I had never experienced anything so blatantly inappropriate and unnerving before,” wrote Lucy Flores, a Nevada Democratic politician, of an encounter she had with Biden in 2014. “The vice-president of the United States of America had just touched me in an intimate way reserved for close friends, family or romantic partners – and I felt powerless to do anything about it.

While not admitting to any specific misconduct, Biden released a video in which he said he would be “more mindful and respectful” of future conduct that might make women uncomfortable.

Lucy Flores and Joe Biden, Las Vegas, 2014

In March, one of the women who accused Biden of misconduct, Tara Reade, expanded her allegation to sexual assault, saying the then-senator had attacked her in an empty hallway when she worked in his office in 1993. Acquaintances of Reade said she told them about the alleged incident at the time.

Two months later, Biden directly addressed the accusation, referencing his support for the Violence Against Women Act.

“I recognise my responsibility to be a voice, an advocate and a leader for the change in culture that has begun but is nowhere near finished,” he said. “So I want to address allegations by a former staffer that I engaged in misconduct 27 years ago. They aren’t true.”

Reade called on Biden to quit the race.Subsequent investigations by journalists, including a New York Times report, found inconsistencies in Reade’s accounts. The episode, however, raised uncomfortable issues for Democrats, especially women in the party who had backed the rallying cry of the #MeToo movement, Believe Women.

It also drew parallels to the doubts and aspersions directed at Anita Hill decades earlier

In recent years – and in light of the Me Too movement that has increased awareness of sexual harassment and assault – Biden has expressed regret over his handling of the Hill episode.

“To this day, I regret that I could not come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved, given the courage she showed by reaching out to us,” Biden said during a speech in March 2019. He later directly expressed this to Hill in a phone call.

But for her, it was not enough.

“He needs to give an apology to the other women and to the American public because we know now how deeply disappointed Americans around the country were about what they saw,” she told the New York Times. “There are women and men now who have just really lost confidence in our government to respond to the problem of gender violence.”

 was deja vu for Joe Biden. On 11 October, 2002, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee was once again deciding whether to authorise a Republican president to go to war with Iraq.

Eleven years earlier, on the eve of the Gulf War, Biden had voted against giving President George HW Bush the approval to use force against Saddam Hussein’s military.

“Before we ask Americans to die for the liberation of Kuwait, I would like to be sure we have tried every possible alternative,” he said during a Foreign Relations committee hearing. “So far, this has not been the case.”

Despite Biden’s warning that there could be tens of thousands of US casualties, the resolution passed 52-47 – and the Gulf War ended quickly, with only a handful of American deaths.

Biden, along with other Democrats who opposed the war, were frequently branded as “doves” who were soft on national defence. Robert Gates, defence secretary under George W Bush, typified these kind of attacks when he wrote in his 2014 memoir that Biden was “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades”.

He listed Biden’s support for withdrawal from South Vietnam, opposition to Ronald Reagan’s defence build-up and that fateful vote against the Gulf War resolution, among others.


In the years after that vote, Biden staked out more hawkish positions on international affairs, including backing US involvement in the Balkan civil wars, bombing in Iraq and the invasion of Afghanistan. When President George W Bush began moving toward a new war with Iraq, alleging it possessed weapons of mass destruction, Biden was a vocal supporter.

“I do not believe this is a rush to war,” he said. “I believe it’s a march to peace and security.”

Biden was among the 77 senators to vote for that Iraq War resolution – joining numerous other Democrats with presidential ambitions, including John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.https://www.bbc.co.uk/indepthtoolkit/smallprox/include/datapres/idt/news-vj-video-embed-iframe/1.0.1/video_iframe.html#vpid=p08nwjr7&title=Biden%20Iraq&poster_image=https%3A%2F%2Fichef.bbci.co.uk%2Fimages%2Fic%2F640x360%2Fp08nxwnx.jpg&autoplay=false&include_preroll_and_analytics=false

Biden speaks at the Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on Iraq, 2002

“It was kind of a simple calculation,” says Mark Weisbrot, who directed a documentary on Biden’s Iraq War support. “They knew there was a risk that if you were against the war and the war turned out to be a ‘success’ you could lose some swing votes. But if you voted for the war, and it turned out to be a disaster, which it did, you really didn’t lose much because your base didn’t have anywhere to go.”

As the war dragged on, however, Biden’s war vote did become a political liability – this time with Democratic voters who increasingly saw the US occupation as a quagmire. Biden, after initially defending his vote, began to back away.

He deals with this episode in a chapter on the Iraq War – titled “My Mistake” – in his 2007 memoir. Writing about those in the Bush administration who pushed for war, he wrote: “I vastly underestimated their disingenuousness and incompetence”.

If Biden in the years after his Gulf War vote tried to compensate for his perceived error by moving to the right, he moved left after the Iraq War. He opposed a surge of US forces in Iraq, calling for US withdrawal and partitioning of the nation.

As vice-president, he counselled against an increase in US forces in Afghanistan and advised against the Osama bin Laden raid. Shortly after announcing his 2020 presidential bid, Biden advocated ending US support for Saudi Arabia in the Yemen civil war.

During the Obama presidency, Biden had an active role in carrying out the administration’s foreign policy objectives. Senator Casey recalls meeting the vice-president during a visit to Iraq, where they discussed his efforts to work with the leaders of the various governing factions.

“I could tell by listening to his recitations from the interactions that he had learned a lot about these people as personalities,” Casey says. “It was a really valuable lesson in diplomacy. It wasn’t just learning the substance of a white paper about a particular country or a particular foreign policy issue, but you literally have to get to know the individuals.”

Biden’s other responsibilities included pressuring Congress to back nuclear negotiations with Iran, building international support for the Paris climate accords, representing US interests in China and encouraging democratic reforms in Ukraine.

These last two areas – China and Ukraine – have become a focus for attacks from Donald Trump and Republicans, who have criticised Biden for being too close to China, and attempted to make a case that Biden’s Ukraine activities were to protect his son, Hunter, who had business ties to the nation. Last year, Hunter insisted he had done “nothing wrong” but admitted to “poor judgment”, leaving him open to political attacks.

Biden’s Iraq War vote again came up in the 2020 Democratic primary campaign, but nearly two decades later it lacked the political punch it once had.

f Biden’s 2008 presidential run, it seemed the senator would return to Washington and finish his career in Congress or, perhaps, as an official in a future Democratic administration. On 23 August, however, Barack Obama selected him as his vice-presidential running mate.

The choice surprised many. Biden’s home state, Delaware, was not an electoral battleground. With more than three decades in Washington, he wasn’t the kind of outsider who fitted with Obama’s message of change. 

“There was this sense that they were very, very different,” says Kate Andersen Brower, a journalist and author of a book on the vice-presidency. “Obama was very thoughtful and careful choosing his words, and Biden was always sticking his foot in his mouth. The one thing Biden told Obama when he agreed to do the job was that he wasn’t going to change his brand. He said, ‘I am what I am’.”

According to former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who ran for president in 2008 and was also on Obama’s vice-presidential short list, Obama and Biden developed a rapport on the Democratic primary campaign trail.

“I knew in the debates they had a personal chemistry,” Richardson says. “Obama needed a senior foreign policy person on the ticket, but also I could tell they liked each other a lot.”

A few hours after announcing his pick, Obama took the stage in Springfield, Illinois to introduce Biden to the gathered crowd.https://www.bbc.co.uk/indepthtoolkit/smallprox/include/datapres/idt/news-vj-video-embed-iframe/1.0.1/video_iframe.html#vpid=p08nwjvj&title=Biden%20running%20mate&poster_image=https%3A%2F%2Fichef.bbci.co.uk%2Fimages%2Fic%2F640x360%2Fp08nxwrz.jpg&autoplay=false&include_preroll_and_analytics=false

Biden is announced as Obama’s running mate, 2008

“Joe Biden is that rare mix – for decades he has brought change to Washington, but Washington hasn’t changed him,” he said. “He is uniquely suited to be my partner as we work to put our country back on track.”

Obama would tick through the pivotal moments of Biden’s life – his stutter, the death of his wife and child, his brain aneurysm, the 1994 crime bill and his involvement in negotiating an end to the Balkan civil war – all in support of his choice.

In the early days of the Obama presidency Biden frequently chafed at the White House’s directions. For more than 30 years, Biden – as a senator – ran his own political fiefdom. Now he was required to do someone else’s bidding.

“It was galling for him at first,” says Bower. “It was this kind of a push-and-pull relationship.”

There were moments when Biden broke from administration policy, most notably when he announced his support for gay marriage in 2012, frustrating a White House intent on message control. At other times Obama tasked Biden with important duties – shepherding the 2009 stimulus bill through Congress and overseeing the drawdown of US troops in Iraq.

“The president was convinced I could not beat Hillary”Joe Biden

By the time Biden finished his eight years in the vice-presidency, he and Obama had formed a strong friendship. 

Bower recounts an interview she had with Biden during which Biden became visibly emotional when talking about Obama speaking at Beau’s funeral.

“They were kind of, as hokey as it sounds, like a family during those eight years,” says Bower. “It was kind of a father-son relationship, too, because of their age difference.”

In a surprise ceremony in the final days of his presidency, Obama awarded Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honour. After joking about their “bromance”, Obama turned serious.

“To know Joe Biden is to know love without pretence, services without self-regard and to live life fully,” he said.

The speech had the tenor of a benediction, marking the end of a long career in public service. A year and a half earlier, Obama pressured Biden not to challenge Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination.

“The president was convinced I could not beat Hillary,” Biden wrote in his 2017 memoir, “and he worried that a long primary fight would split the party and leave the Democratic nominee vulnerable in the general election.”

The Democrats had a long and acrimonious primary fight anyway – between Clinton and Bernie Sanders. And a vulnerable Clinton lost the general election.

Four years later, Biden dispatched Sanders more easily than Clinton had and the former vice-president finally secured the Democratic nomination.

His success was due, in no small part, to his service as a dutiful deputy to Obama, which won him overwhelming support among black Democrats.

“Let me explain something to you about Joe Biden,” writes Laurie Goff in a Facebook post that captured this sentiment. “This old rich white man played second fiddle to a black man. Not just any black man but a younger black man, a smart black man. Not just for a day. Not one, not two but eight years.”

“This is what showing up and being an ally looks like,” she concludes. “When black people say they know Joe, this is how we know.

In what could be seen as an acknowledgement of this support, Biden selected a former presidential rival, Kamala Harris, to be his vice-presidential running mate, giving a black woman the kind of stepping stone to the presidency that Obama had provided him eight years earlier.

Once again the Democrats had a multi-generational, multi-ethnic presidential ticket. As Obama’s “wingman”, Biden was able to get a foothold in the White House. His third try for the top office, after more than 40 years of political ambition buffeted by public and personal adversity, was his last shot at the prize.

source:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/extra/o9naqcofhi/us-election-joe-biden

Comments (2)

  1. When there is life certainly there is hope, and every disappointment is a blessing….
    And in this life its not that the strong survive but those that survived they are strong!!!
    Congrat!!

  2. So much Epistle about him

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