Personal tragedy strikes the Biden clan again

Personal tragedy revisited Vice President Joe Biden and his family over the weekend with the death at only 46 of his older son, Beau, the former attorney general of Delaware, leaving behind his wife and two children.

Nearly 43 years earlier, Joe Biden had lost his own wife and an infant daughter in a car accident as they were Christmas shopping, only weeks after his election to the Senate. The same Beau and brother Hunter were hospitalized but survived, and their father was sworn into the Senate at their bedside.


It's political lore now that Mr. Biden thereafter commuted almost daily by train between Wilmington and Washington, taking the boys to school each morning and returning from the Senate each night in time to put them to bed. He remarkably continued the routine for the next 36 years, as the two boys grew to manhood.

In the first difficult years, Mr. Biden's sister Valerie stepped in to care for them until Joe married his current wife, college professor Jill Biden, in 1977, at the urging of Beau and Hunter to their father that "we think we should marry Jill." The boys even went along on the couple's honeymoon.

With Joe Biden's life repaired, he and Jill added daughter Ashley, as he proceeded to assume heavier responsibilities as chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees. Through all this time, he often brought Beau or Hunter to his Senate office as he conducted important government business.

Beau later told about the time a self-important visitor chafed at having to make his pitch to Senator Biden while his kid was sitting there thumbing through a book or doing homework. Beau recalled his father telling his caller simply: "He stays."

Joe Biden got re-elected every six years but stumbled as a presidential candidate in 1987, suffering but surviving two brain aneurysms along the way, and then being run over again in 2008 by Democratic rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. During that election, however, Mr. Biden so impressed Mr. Obama in the Democratic primary debates that he turned to him to be his running mate and then vice president.

In subsequently writing a biography of Mr. Biden, I interviewed separately and at length Beau, Hunter and Ashley. What resulted was an endless recitation of how each of them always came first with their father, whatever the problem they brought to him, he offering wise counsel or just parental affection. Kissing in public was never a problem, whether with daughter or sons.

Beau related on incident that told it all about this special father-son relationship. As attorney general, he was rushing home from his office in Wilmington one night, his head full of concerns about a case he was prosecuting. As he pulled into his driveway, his own son, also named Hunter, ran out, eager to tell him something.

Beau recalled that his first impulse was to put the boy off, but then remembered his own father's standard procedure. He put aside his own thoughts, picked up his son, hugged him and listened patiently to what the boy was in such a rush to say. In doing so, Beau Biden remembered whose son he was -- his hero he resembled not only in physical appearance but also, it was abundantly clear, in heart and soul.

In a Yale Law School speech to graduates only weeks before Beau's death, his father repeated the familiar story of his personal trials and confessed: "In focusing on my sons, I found my redemption. The incredible bond I have with my children is the gift I'm not sure I would have had, had I not been through what I went through."

Of his endless commuting, the vice president said: "I did it because I wanted to kiss them good night and kiss them the next morning, the next day. The real reason I went home every night was that I needed them more than they needed me."

With son Beau gone now, Joe Biden and family in their grief can take comfort in the knowledge that the bond of which Joe spoke at Yale remains intact, in all the surviving members of this uncommonly loving and supportive old Irish clan.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is