1. Joe Biden wells up when his opponent in his first senate race, long-time Republican senator J. Caleb Boggs, calls to concede
“Election Day was like a dream; the weather cleared, and we got the big turnout we needed. By the time I got to the suite at the Hotel du Pont for the election night party, I was pretty sure we stood a shot to win the Senate seat from Boggs and the Republicans…
“I’d won by 3,000 votes our of 230,000 votes cast statewide. I was still upstairs in the suite with my family and Neilia’s parents when Senator Boggs called to concede. ‘Good race, Joe,’ he said.
“And when he said it and I knew I’d won, it felt like nothing like I thought it would. It was supposed to feel great. I was supposed to be elated. But when Senator Boggs started to talk, I could feel myself filling up, like I might cry. I could feel the back of my throat constrict. It was like my old stutter was back. I didn’t think I’d be able to talk. So Boggs spoke again: ‘You ran a good race, Joe.’
“‘I’m sorry, Senator’ was all I could say. ‘I’m sorry.’”
2. In a car crash, Biden’s wife and daughter are killed, and his two sons are badly injured; Biden writes that he understood suicide as “a rational option”
“In moments of fitful sleep I was aware of the dim possibility that I would wake up, truly wake up, and this would not have happened. But then I’d open my eyes to the sight of my sons in their hospital beds — Beau in a full body cast — and it was back…Most of all I was numb, but there were moments when the pain cut through like a shard of broken glass. I began to understand how despair led people to just cash it in; how suicide wasn’t just an option, but a rational option. But I’d look at Beau and Hunter asleep and wonder what new terrors their own dreams held, and wonder who would explain to my sons my being gone, too. And I knew I had no choice but to fight to stay alive.
“Except for the memorial service, I stayed in the hospital room with my sons. My life collapsed into their needs. If I could focus on what they needed minute by minute, I thought I might stay out of the black hole. My future was telescoped into the effort of putting one foot in front of the other. The horizon faded from my view. Washington, politics, the Senate had no hold on me. I was supposed to be sworn into the Senate in two weeks, but I could not bear to imagine the scene without Neilia.”
3. After the crash, older senators take the time to check in on Biden — “a rare thing in the Senate,” writes Biden
“My colleagues all knew my story, what the newspapers liked to call my ‘personal tragedy.’ I could see that some of my new colleagues didn’t know what to say to me, but others went out of their way to engage me in the business of the United States Senate and to make me feel included in its community. Senator Mansfield asked me to come by his office at least once a week to see how I was handling my Senate duties. He tried to make it seem like he did this with all the freshman senators, but I knew better. He was taking my pulse. Senator Hubert Humphrey [pictured above] would grab me on the Senate floor with his fast-talking enthusiasm and tell me I was going to have a great career. He would also stop by my office unannounced, which is a rare thing in the Senate, and sit down on my couch to talk about how I was doing, how the boys were doing, how my family was doing. There were times he’d end up literally in tears because he felt so bad for me, and I’d find myself consoling him.”
4. Biden’s young sons inform dad that it’s time “we should marry Jill”
“One morning the next year, Beau and Hunter walked into my bathroom while I was shaving, and I could tell they had something serious they wanted to talk about. Beau had just turned seven; Hunter was six. And they were having trouble getting started. ‘You tell him, Hunt,’ Beau said to his brother. ‘No. You tell him.’ Finally, Hunter spoke up: ‘Beau thinks we should get married.’
“‘What do you mean, guys? Beau?’
“‘Well,’ Beau said, ‘we think we should marry Jill. What do you think, Dad?’
“‘I think that’s a pretty good idea,’ I told them. I’ll never forget how good I felt at that moment.
“‘But, Dad,’ Beau said in all earnest, ‘d’ya think she’ll do it?’
“They were observant, my sons.”
5. Biden says he’ll give up the Senate if Jill will marry him; when Biden calls to tell a reporter the news, Jill stops him — “Don’t do that.”
“As far as politics went, well, Jill did not want to be a public person. I didn’t stop asking, but the more I pushed, the more she resisted… Jill says I must have asked her to marry me five more times, and she kept saying she needed more time. I was as patient as I knew how to be. But in 1977, as I prepared to leave on a ten-day trip to South Africa, I finally broke: ‘Look,’ I told her, ‘I’ve waited long enough. I’m not going to wait any longer. Either you decide to marry me or that’s it. I’m out. I’m too much in love with you to just be friends.’ I told her to think about it while I was gone.
“The ten days in Africa felt like forever. I had gotten through worse, but I knew that if Jill said no, it was going to hurt like hell. I had even decided to make her a deal: If she agreed to marry me, I wouldn’t run for the Senate.
“When I got back from Africa, Jill said she couldn’t give me up. If it was marriage or end it, she was ready for marriage. I assured her I’d leave the Senate if she wanted me to. I was up for reelection in 1978, and now was the time to make a decision. We were sitting in the library at The Station one day when she said I wasn’t serious about giving up the Senate: ‘You don’t mean that.’
“I’d given her my word, and I was serious. I’d already let a few people in the state know they might want to be ready to run for the Senate in case I got out. But this was Jill I was talking to; I was going to have to show her I meant it. In the library that afternoon I picked up the phone and started dialing: ‘Okay,’ I told her. ‘I’ll call Bill Frank and tell him I’m not running.’ Frank was the chief political reporter at the Wilmington News-Journal, and once I’d told him, I was finished in 1978. I could hear Frank’s phone ringing on the other end. Then I heard a dial tone. Jill had her finger on the phone cradle. She’d cut off the call. ‘Don’t do that.’”
6. Joe Biden almost backs out of the 1988 race, but Jill tells him it’s too late to turn back
“The closer the announcement got, the more I was on edge….One morning just before the announcement, Jill and I retreated upstairs after one in a series of meetings. We were getting changed for the first public appearance of the day, and Jill was sitting at her makeup table. Sunlight was slanting through the window into our bedroom; it was a near perfect morning. I was thinking about how good our life was at that moment, and I was about to do something that would change everything. Up to now there had been an out for us, but I knew once I made the official announcement, there was no turning back.
“‘I don’t want to do this,’ I said to Jill.
“She turned to me and didn’t even hesitate: ‘You have to do this now. You have too many people’s lives on hold.’ Jill, who had been so wary, had come to appreciate the sacrifices other people were making on our behalf. One staff members was a Massachusetts political operative who had blown his relationship with his own governor, Michael Dukakis, who was also in the race. Another woman had left Senator John Kerry’s office, and John wasn’t happy about it. People on my campaign staff had turned down other candidates, left jobs, or left behind family in Boston or Washington to move to Wilmington. Jill didn’t have to say any of that. I knew what she meant. It was too late to change my mind.
“‘Too many people,’ she said.”
7. After withdrawing from the race, Biden returns to the Robert Bork hearings. “You have to win this thing,” Jill tells him.
“We didn’t have time to do postmortems. Jill was still at my side, and Ted [Kennedy] was there, too. My legs felt heavy as we walked, and I was surprised by a sensation of physical pain. Quitting hurt. As we neared the back door of the Caucus Room, I heard Ted say, ‘Just go in there and do your best.’ Jill must have heard Ted, too, because I felt her grab my arm and turn me toward her. She locked her eyes right into mine and then said something that sounded like profanity. Jill didn’t often use profanity, but she wanted my full attention. She wanted me to understand that doing my best wasn’t good enough now. ‘You have to win this thing!’
“As I settled back into my chair and took over the hearings, Ted Kennedy passed me a note reminding me that there was life after a presidential campaign. I looked up and saw Jill enter through the far door and stand with her back against the wall. She didn’t like to make appearances in these hearings, but she was there. Alan Simpson must have seen her come in. Simpson was a staunch defender of Bork, and he could not have been pleased with me. But Simpson looked down the committee dais at me, caught my eye, and pointed at Jill. ‘Nothing else matters, man. Nothing else matters.’”
8. Coming home to Wilmington after a long and hard race, Biden is greeted to a standing ovation at a favorite Italian restaurant
“In the car ride from the Amtrak station to our house, Jill suggested we stop and have dinner out. I didn’t have much of an appetite. The day had drained me, and I didn’t want to be seen. ‘I really don’t want to be out in public tonight,’ I told her.
“Jill said she was too tired to cook. She rephrased the question. In fact, it wasn’t a question anymore: ‘We’re going out to dinner tonight.’
“So I grudgingly agreed, and we drove to a favorite place of ours, Ristorante Attilio’s. Jill and I were sort of regulars at Attilio’s, so our presence was never a big deal, but I worried that this night would be different. People in Wilmington hadn’t seen me since I’d become a butt of jokes on ‘Letterman’ and the ‘Tonight Show’ or the subject of withering punditry on the Sunday news shows. Would I be their joke, too? Or, worse, would I be pitied? It was late when we got there, and it was hard to find a parking space. When we walked in, the bar and the dining room were full, and people were lined up waiting for tables. The minute we got inside I started to hear murmurs. Then it was more like a rumble. I could hear people say, ‘There’s Senator Biden. There’s Senator Biden.’ This, I thought, was exactly what I meant to avoid. And all of a sudden one guy int he dining room started clapping. Then there was a smattering, and then it seemed like everybody in Attilio’s was on their feet, giving me a standing ovation.”
- President Obama commuted the federal sentences of 111 prisoners, the most granted by a US president in a single month.