Caleb Boggs was a second world war hero who had never lost an election. The Republican senator for Delaware enjoyed a 30-point lead in the polls against an unknown, untested Democrat who was just 29 years old. Yet he was outplayed, and outworked, and lost by 1%. The David who slayed this Goliath was a good-looking lawyer with a love of fast cars. His name was Joe Biden.
The year was 1972 and Biden’s astounding win would make him the second youngest senator in American history. A few weeks later, he endured the unimaginable: his wife, Neilia, and baby daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash. In a phone call that was recorded, President Richard Nixon told Biden: “She was there when you won a great victory. You enjoyed it together, and now, I’m sure, she’ll be watching you from now on. Good luck to you.”
Nearly half a century later, Biden has again been touched by personal catastrophe – the death of his son, Beau, 46, from brain cancer – and again stands on the brink of an election race in which his age is front and centre. Now a remarried father and grandfather and former vice-president, he is expected to announce soon a third bid for the White House despite concerns that, at 76, if he won, he would overtake Donald Trump as the oldest person ever elected US president
“His career began when he was often criticised as too young to run,” said Jeff Wilser, author of The Book of Joe. “How cool would it be to bookend his career by winning another election where his age is an issue?”
Age, however, is not the only question. With Michael Bloomberg and Sherrod Brown opting out of presidential bids, Biden is seen as the flag-bearer for Democratic centrists at a moment when the party is tilting to the left.
He is a white man at a moment when the party has a record number of women and candidates of colour. He is an evangelist for bipartisanship at a moment of polarisation. He is a foreign policy stalwart at a moment when expertise has fallen into disrepute. He is famously tactile with women at a moment when #MeToo has redrawn the boundaries of personal space.
And yet, he might just pull it off.
If the Charcoal Pit, a roadside diner in Wilmington, Delaware, was deciding the Democratic primary, it would already be game over. Biden is a regular customer and beloved figure who never turns down a selfie request. His favourite meal is plain cheesesteak with a $4.75 black and white milkshake (like Trump, he is a teetotaler). Staff remember him showing off his new car, huddling with them late at night to talk about foreign policy and bringing President Obama for a meal.
Joseph Grabowski, 67, part of the restaurant management team, has known Biden most of his life. “One night in the 90s he came in when we were cleaning up and sat down with us for an hour. He was talking about the Taliban, how they live, how they eat, everything. He’s brilliant. I would like to see him give the presidency a shot. I think that was his son’s dying wish.”
Such views are typical in Delaware, the second smallest state in the union after Rhode Island, where “Amtrak welcomes you to Wilmington’s Joseph R Biden Jr Railroad Station” and at least one “Joe Biden scented candle” can be seen. Its adopted son, admirers say, has walked with kings (and presidents and prime ministers) yet shown the common touch. The latter is often attributed to Delaware’s size, where retail politics is king, and his prior upbringing.
Biden was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a hardscrabble city known for two things: coal and The Office. When Ricky Gervais’s hit comedy series was looking for the US equivalent of the UK’s Slough as a symbol of dead-end ennui, it settled in Scranton. But Biden mused last year: “If you listen to Barack, you’d think I climbed out of a coalmine with a lunch bucket from Scranton in my hand. It’s not true.” His father was “a white-collar worker”, he added, who moved the family to Delaware to work as a car salesman when Biden was 10.
The young Biden had a stutter but, Wilser’s book notes, spent hours in front of a mirror, memorising and reciting poems as well as the declaration of independence. Eventually he conquered the stutter and found that all the practising made him an accomplished public speaker.
Biden married Neilia Hunter in 1966; they had a son, Beau, in 1969, followed by another son, Hunter, and daughter Naomi. Having studied at Syracuse Law School, finishing 76th in a class of 85, Biden worked as a lawyer, joined the county council and got known in Democratic politics in Delaware. Then came that longshot Senate race against Boggs in 1972.
Wilser writes in The Book of Joe: “The Democratic party bigwigs knew they couldn’t beat Caleb Boggs. So they needed someone expendable, a sacrificial lamb.” Biden himself writes in his memoir, Promises to Keep: “The smart guys covering Delaware politics didn’t give me a snowman’s chance in August.”
It now seems hard to believe that Biden was the young, scrappy and hungry Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of his day, pounding the streets, holding coffee sessions and giving speeches as he battled a seemingly unassailable incumbent. Mike Castle, a former governor of Delaware, recalled: “I remember going to a house and picking up this brochure for Joe Biden. It was all these senators endorsing him. I was very impressed by that.”
Biden won by little more than 3,000 votes. He would serve in the Senate for the next 36 years, commuting from Wilmington by train and building a reputation for reaching across the aisle to Republicans such as John McCain. It was an approach shaped by Delaware pragmatism. Castle, a Republican, said: “Delaware has been that way for some time now … We worked very hard as an administration to make everyone feel comfortable, whatever we were trying to do. That’s carried over to a lot of the dealings in Washington.”
But as Delaware goes, the nation does not necessarily follow in its current mood. In 2015, at a Capitol Hill ceremony unveiling a bust of former vice-president Dick Cheney, a jovial Biden said, “I actually like Dick Cheney”, and last week he praised Vice-President Mike Pence as “decent guy” but had to withdraw the remark after a backlash from the LGBT community.
Biden told an audience in January: “I read in the New York Times today that one of my problems is, if I ever run for president, I like Republicans. OK, well, bless me Father, for I have sinned!” For some moderate voters, however, bridge-building might appeal as the perfect antidote to the Trump era’s toxicity.
Leon Panetta, a former defence secretary who has known Biden since the 1980s, said: “I just think that if our democracy is ever going to get back to governing, as opposed to this partisan warfare we’ve been having in Washington, that it’s going to take a president who understands the benefits of bipartisanship and who also appreciates what it takes to govern the country. That’s a strength as far as I’m concerned, not a weakness.”
Biden fell in love with Jill Jacobs, a teacher, and remarried in 1977; the couple had a daughter, Ashley, in 1981. Contented at home, Biden’s career in the Senate blossomed and he began a long tenure on the foreign relations committee.
He ran for president but came unstuck in 1987 when he quoted the British politician Neil Kinnock but forgot to cite him (“he lifted Mr. Kinnock’s closing speech with phrases, gestures and lyrical Welsh syntax intact for his own closing speech at a debate at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 23 – without crediting Mr. Kinnock,” the New York Times reported). The plagiarism charge ended Biden’s hopes. Michael Dukakis won the nomination.
The following year Biden suffered headaches and nausea and finally collapsed in a New York hotel room. He wrote in his autobiography that it felt like “lightning flashing inside my head, a powerful electric surge – and then a rip of pain like I’d never felt before.” Doctors found a ruptured aneurysm and a priest was called in to administer last rites. But he survived this and a second aneurysm after surgery.
Biden chaired the 1991 confirmation hearings for the supreme court justice Clarence Thomas and was criticised for not doing enough to protect Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment. He has since apologised, but the incident still represents political baggage, as does Biden’s 2003 vote authorising the invasion of Iraq, though again he recanted. He could also face criticism from progressives over links to the financial services industry, a major presence in Delaware.
Biden’s second presidential bid, in 2008, went no better than the first. Asked about rivals Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, he gave a detailed reply and then could not resist a coda about Barack Obama: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” It was one of myriad gaffes for which Biden has become infamous.
But after Obama’s primary victory, he selected Biden as his running mate and the men’s close relationship is now the stuff of Twitter meme legend. Jake Sullivan, who served as Biden’s national security adviser and would like to see him run for president in 2020, said: “It’s funny, they are different in some really interesting ways but their relationship was genuinely mutually admiring.
“They were friends. They had the capability of finishing each other’s sentences. It was professionally effective but also personal and close in a way that maybe people would not have predicted when President Obama selected Vice-President Biden as his running mate in 2008.”
Sullivan, a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace thinktank in Washington, was also struck by Biden’s empathy. “One of the things that’s most remarkable about him is that he also cares passionately about helping people through their hard times, through their grief,” he said.
Tragedy came back to haunt Biden again in 2015 with the death of Beau, an Iraq war veteran and attorney general of Delaware who was tipped as a future state governor. The trauma was a factor in Biden’s decision not to run against Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary.
Matthew Albright, a reporter at the News Journal in Wilmington, said: “It is difficult to overstate how big of a deal Beau’s death was in this state. The whole state basically ground to a halt and mourned for weeks. People were hardly reading anything else on our website. Joe stood outside of Beau’s funeral where thousands and thousands of people came in the visitation and shook everybody’s hand and talked with everybody and there are all these photos and videos of him trying to console people.
“He calls people in Delaware apparently when they lose family and he talks in very real terms: ‘I went through this, I know how this feels.’ He would hate for it to be said that Beau’s death added gravitas to him, but the way that he dealt with his grief in public, particularly in Delaware, was an enormously gripping thing to watch.”
Biden, a Catholic, wears Beau’s rosary on his left wrist every day. He is arguably now more soulful as a public speaker than he has ever been. Panetta said: “It’s given his speeches not so much a political edge as an emotional edge because he shares a lot of what he’s been through with his audiences.”
Few politicians have known such soaring highs or searing lows. The former Delaware senator Ted Kaufman, who was Biden’s chief of staff and replaced him in the Senate, has observed: “If you ask me, who is the luckiest person I have ever known? I would say Joe Biden. If you ask me, who is the unluckiest I have known? I would say Joe Biden.”
Luck smiled on the young Biden against Caleb Boggs in 1972. Supporters contend that he can defy time’s arrow again to defeat Trump and begin healing a divided nation.
Biden’s book about Beau’s death, Promise Me, Dad, starts with a quotation from the philosopher Immanuel Kant, too long for a bumper sticker or yard sign, but pithy all the same: “Rules for Happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.”