It could’ve easily been a completely different tale for Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., in the form of two major events in his life that nearly ended his political career, and life.
Barely 41 days after winning a fiercely contested Senate election, the 30-year old Biden was confronted with the shocking news that his wife and one-year-old daughter were tragically killed in an automobile accident just a week before Christmas in 1972. His two sons, who were also in the vehicle at the time, were critically injured and placed under intensive care.
Faced with the task of looking after his boys, and the enormous pressure of his new job in Washington, Biden had to make a backbreaking, daily, 400km, 3 hour, roundtrip commute from Dover. More than that, Biden was facing a serious crisis of faith.
“I liked to go at night when I thought there was a better chance of finding a fight. I was always looking for a fight. I had not known I was capable of such rage. I knew I had been cheated of a future, but I felt I'd been cheated of a past, too. The underpinnings of my life had been kicked out from under me... and it wasn't just the loss of Neilia and Naomi. All my life I'd been taught about our benevolent God. This is a forgiving God, a just God, a God who knows people make mistakes. This is a God who is tolerant. This is a God who gave us free will to be able to doubt. This was a loving God, a God of comfort. Well, I didn't want to hear anything about a merciful God. No words, no prayer, no sermon gave me ease. I felt God had played a horrible trick on me, and I was angry. I found no comfort in the Church. So I kept walking the dark streets to try to exhaust the rage.”
Promises to Keep, by Joe Biden (ISBN: 9780739383902)
Rumors were swirling thick and fast that the young Senator was on the verge of resigning. Congressional aides were even placing wagers on the date of his resignation. But one man worked hard to keep Biden in check, the late Senator Mike Mansfield, who was also the Senate Majority Leader at the time.
“Washington & the Senate had no hold on me. I was supposed to be sworn in two weeks, but I could not bear to imagine the scene without Neilia. I told the Senate majority leader, Mike Mansfield, that I wasn’t going to be a Senator. Mansfield was relentless. He called the hospital every day to tell me he needed me in the Senate and to keep me up to date.... It was late and the boys were asleep, so I was mainly listening while the leader told me I owed it to Neilia to become one of the 1,680 men and women who had ever been sworn into the United States Senate ... My wife had worked too hard for me to kick it away. I owed it to her. I owed it to my sons. Give me six months, Joe, Senator Mansfield kept saying. So I agreed. Six months.”
Promises to Keep, by Joe Biden (ISBN: 9780739383902)
The second twist to the Biden story occurred in 1988. Unbeknownst to Biden and his physicians, there was a time bomb inside his head. For several months since the late 1987, Biden had been suffering acute neck pains. It became so bad, his physicians, who wrongly diagnosed it as a pinched nerve, ordered the Senator to wear a neck brace.
However, the pain persisted, and it began to make him nauseous – so much so, he struggled throughout the hearings for the nomination of future Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in January 1988. He failed to show up for the vote. At the urging of friends and family, he agreed to go for some tests at the Wilmington Memorial Hospital in Delaware, where doctors finally discovered that Biden had a brain aneurysm that was so advanced, the blood vessel was literally moments away from exploding. It was a miracle that he was still alive.
He was immediately rushed to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. The situation deteriorated so rapidly, that a priest was called to the hospital to administer the last rites for the then 46-year old (this was recounted by his second wife, Dr. Jill Biden, in an interview with the Washington Post in 2008). The surgeons made a last-ditch attempt, and successfully repaired the aneurism - the tough Irishmen, on his part, pulled through, surviving the night against all odds. A second aneurism (possibly benign) was discovered shortly thereafter, and Biden went under the knife again three months later in May 1988.
Fast forward 20-years later, and Biden made an unsuccessful challenge for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. However, despite some harsh words directed at Senator Barack Obama during the early stage of the contest, he was immediately tapped by the Obama team not long after announcing his withdrawal from the race. Biden initially rejected the advances, but Obama slowly won him over.
On August 22, 2008, Biden was eventually announced as the running mate for Barack Obama. Observers were almost unanimous in their opinion that his selection was designed to buttress Senator Obama’s weak foreign policy credentials. After all, Biden was by far the most experienced foreign policy wonk within the Democratic fold.
Despite their marked differences, both men had one thing in common – they were phenomenally strong campaigners. Biden, especially, was in his element among the blue-collar middle class. His gruff, no holds barred styled proved to be popular amongst the masses. Concerns over Biden’s perceived lack of fit with the cerebral Obama all but dissipated as the two men overcome a rocky beginning to forge a solid partnership.
Four years on, and Biden has proven to be an effective member of the Obama administration. Reports from the White House suggest that Biden has taken the role of a devil’s advocate within the administration, something that the President apparently values greatly.
“The best thing about Joe is that when we get everybody together, he really forces people to think and defend their positions, to look at things from every angle, and that is very valuable for me… I also know, when he gives me his advice, he gives it to me straight.”
September 16, 2009: President Barack Obama in a written interview with Politico
Biden’s input on the foreign policy front and his leadership of the Democrats in Congressional strategies has also proven to be successful. Biden is credited by many as one of the key players behind the last minute compromise in the 2011 debt-ceiling battle and the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts in 2010.
Since last year, however, Biden has once again taken on one of the traditional roles of the Vice President – he is leading the President’s campaign offensive against the opposition, similar to his role against Senator John McCain in 2008. There is a growing consensus that Biden has no plans to contest the 2016 Democratic nomination. In lieu of this, Biden’s second term as Vice President will be his last chance to create a legacy – something foremost on the minds of almost every politician.