The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After Biden’s wife died in a crash 50 years ago, Richard Nixon called

A recording of Nixon’s condolence call survives at the Nixon Presidential Library

Hear President Richard Nixon call then Senator-elect Joseph Biden after his wife and daughter died in a car crash on Dec. 18, 1972. (Video: The Richard Nixon Library & Museum)
3 min

Joe Biden’s first wife, Neilia, and baby daughter, Naomi Christina, had just been killed in a car crash. His sons, Beau and Hunter, ages 3 and 2, had been critically injured. It was a week before Christmas and a tragedy for the young politician from Delaware.

“I could not speak,” the future president wrote in his autobiography, “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics,” and “only felt this hollow core grow in my chest, like I was going to be sucked inside a black hole.”

It was Dec. 18, 1972, 50 years ago on Sunday. The next day, President Richard M. Nixon called.

The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum has a recording of the brief call between two men whose lives were to take different arcs through American history. Nixon had just won reelection to a second term in a landslide victory over the Democratic candidate, George McGovern.

Americans under 21 first voted 50 years ago. It didn’t go as expected.

But six months earlier, a team of White House agents were arrested trying to break into Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, lighting the fuse on the Watergate scandal that would lead to Nixon’s demise.

Biden had just turned 30. He’d been elected a U.S. senator but had not yet been sworn in. He was on Capitol Hill in Washington with his younger sister, Valerie, in a borrowed office, interviewing staff.

His wife was home in Wilmington, Del., intending to have breakfast with Biden’s brother, James. She planned to do some Christmas shopping and buy a tree, the future president wrote in his book. It was a Monday.

“Val and I were sitting in the office … when Jimmy called from Wilmington,” Biden wrote. “He wanted to talk to Val. When she hung up the phone, she looked white. ‘There’s been a slight accident,’ she said. ‘Nothing to be worried about. But we ought to go home.’”

He had a sudden sense of dread about his wife. “I could already feel Neilia’s absence,” he wrote. “‘She’s dead,’ I said, ‘isn’t she?’”

His wife’s car had collided with a truck on a rural road in Hockessin, Del. The Bidens had been married for six years.

Nixon, who had expressed admiration for Biden’s campaign, read about the crash in the newspaper the next morning, according to White House recordings. “Good God,” Nixon said.

A plane crash 50 years ago changed the course of U.S. history

He had lost an older brother, Harold, to tuberculosis at age 24, and a younger brother, Arthur, to tubercular encephalitis at age 7, according to the Nixon library.

Nixon telephoned Biden at 12:21 p.m. It’s not clear where Biden was at the time. He may have been at the hospital, where, he wrote, he was a constant presence in his sons’ room.

Courtesy of the Nixon library, this is a transcript of the call, which lasted for one minute and seven seconds:

Operator: Mr. President, Senator-Elect Biden for you.
Nixon: Yes
Nixon: Hello?
Operator 2: Just one minute Mr. President.
Biden: Hello, Mr. President, how are you?
Nixon: Senator, I know this is a very tragic day for you, but I wanted you to know that all of us here at the White House were thinking about you, and praying for you and also for your two children, and —
Biden: I appreciate that very much.
Nixon: I understand you were on the Hill at the time, and your wife was just driving by herself.
Biden: Yes, that’s correct.
Nixon: In any event, looking at it as you must in terms of the future, because you have the great fortune of being young, I remember I was two years older than you when I went to the House. But the main point is you can remember that she was there when you won a great victory, and you enjoyed it together. And now, I’m sure that she’ll be watching you from now on. Good luck to you.
Biden: Thank you very much, Mr. President. I appreciate your call. I appreciate it.

Biden was sworn in as senator a month later in his sons’ hospital room in Wilmington.

Two years later, on Aug. 9, 1974, facing impeachment over the Watergate scandal, Nixon resigned from the presidency in disgrace.