REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. — The new house is on the edge of Cape Henlopen State Park, just north of the boardwalk: three stories, six bedrooms, three fireplaces and an expansive view of the Atlantic Ocean.
The new owners are Joe and Jill Biden, rich for the first time in their lives, thanks to a three-book publishing deal — two by him, one by her — that allowed them to purchase the $2 million vacation home in this beachiest of beach towns.
Red-white-and-blue bunting hangs from the second-floor balcony. There’s a small wooden sign, “A Promise Kept,” over the entrance, and two others on either side: “Forever Jill” on one, “Beau’s Gift” on the other. One is a tribute to Joe’s wife of four decades, the other to the elder Biden son, who died of brain cancer two years ago at age 46.
“Throughout our careers, Jill and I have dreamed of being able to buy a place at the beach at home where we can bring the whole family,” Joe said when the sale made headlines earlier this summer. “We feel very lucky that we’re now able to make that happen and are looking forward to spending time with our family.”
But if you think that sounds like a man ready for that golden political afterlife where time is finally your own and nothing is on the line, you’re wrong. Since Joe left public life in January, the Bidens have never been more public.
The past six months have seen the formation of the Biden Foundation, a way for Joe and Jill to support their pet causes, and the Biden Cancer Initiative to honor Beau. The University of Pennsylvania inaugurated the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement to study international issues, and the University of Delaware the Biden Institute for domestic initiatives.
Last — but not least — there’s a new political action committee, American Possibilities, a vehicle for raising money for Democratic candidates.
And maybe for one last try at the White House in 2020.
Delaware’s favorite son and America’s favorite uncle decided not to run in 2016, a choice he made while he was still in mourning, and Donald Trump was just a political sideshow.
“Do I regret not being president?” Joe said this spring. “Yes.”
The story behind that decision — Beau’s illness, his death in May 2015, and the announcement that October that Joe would not seek the Democratic nomination — is the subject of “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose.” The memoir comes out Nov. 14, and every stop on the book tour will undoubtedly include a variation of “What if?”
With Washington in chaos and the Democrats without a standard-bearer, Joe Biden is arguably the most popular former vice president in history. His wife got a standing ovation when she appeared as a presenter at this year’s Tony Awards. Earlier this month, there was an excited buzz when the couple walked into Manhattan’s Music Box Theatre to see “Dear Evan Hansen.”
But there was also the recent bitter and very public divorce of their younger son, Hunter, and the scandalous news of his affair with Beau’s widow, Hallie, a stain on the perfect family portrait.
Conventional political wisdom says that Joe, now 74, is too old to run for president again. But American voters, it seems, don’t really care about conventional wisdom anymore.
So the real question is: What next?
The Biden saga reads like one of those big beach novels that pepper the sand every summer. Middle-class Joe makes good. There’s ambition, success, hope, tragedy — but always family first. Although the loquacious politician loves to talk about his parents and his wife and kids in speeches and memoirs, he declined to be interviewed for this story.
The Bidens have chosen this 144-year-old former Methodist camp site, a quintessential beach town that combines the upscale and the cheesy, for their family retreat. Joe, with at least one family member at his side, has been coming here for years and is a regular at the local bookstore and ice cream shop.
“He’s still a hometown boy,” says council member Paul Kuhns, who is running for mayor of the town of 1,500 full-time residents (30,000 in the summer). “That’s what a lot of people like about him. When he walks around the neighborhood, it’s not, ‘There’s the vice president.’ It’s, ‘There’s Joe.’ ”
When the Bidens celebrated his birthday in Rehoboth last November, they dropped by the Pond, an unpretentious sports bar with nine flat-screen TVs and $2 Bud Lights at happy hour.
“Word spread like wildfire,” says Pond owner Pete Borsari. “Everyone gave him a standing ovation. He is a beloved figure here. I would say the vast majority of people love Joe.”
He grew up in Scranton, Pa., but made his name in Delaware, which he served as a U.S. senator for 36 years, riding the train into Washington every day. In 2009, he became President Barack Obama’s vice president and trusted confidant. The two are so close that in January, Obama surprised him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
Citing his “charm, candor, unabashed optimism and deep and abiding patriotism,” Obama called his friend “one of the most consequential vice presidents in American history, an accolade that nonetheless rests firmly behind his legacy as husband, father, and grandfather.”
But that storied career almost didn’t happen. Weeks after the 29-year-old was first elected to the Senate in 1972, his wife and infant daughter were killed in a horrific car accident while shopping for a Christmas tree. Sons Beau and Hunter, then 3 and 2, were severely injured.
Biden intended to resign his Senate seat, but congressional Democrats persuaded him to stay, and he was sworn into office at the boys’ hospital. The tragedy created an unusually close bond between Joe and his sons, a bond unaffected by his 1977 marriage to Jill and the birth of their daughter, Ashley.
Beau was his father’s political heir: He was attorney general of Delaware and served a year in Iraq as a member of the U.S. Army National Guard. He was widely expected to run for governor or the U.S. Senate, but it was not to be. In 2015, he died of brain cancer, a disease he had been secretly battling for more than two years.
The death devastated the family and kept Joe out of the presidential race. Grief, he said in announcing that he wouldn’t challenge Hillary Clinton, “doesn’t respect or much care about things like filing deadlines or debates and primaries and caucuses.”
Whether the vice president could have bested the Clinton juggernaut is still up for debate. His family — especially Hunter — wanted him to run, but many of his closest advisers cautioned that he couldn’t raise enough money in time.
His fans in Rehoboth are convinced that was the wrong call.
“Had he run, he would be president right now,” says Borsari.
And the entire Biden clan would be in the spotlight — which can be both a blessing and a curse.
The triumphs and the tragedies are real, but as in a novel, everything is more dramatic and a bit romanticized in the telling.
Joe loves to tell audiences that Jill had no interest in politics when they met, but he never says that she worked in his Senate office for five months before they married. He ended his 1987 presidential campaign amid charges of having plagiarized a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock, something he now claims he never did. There’s nothing about his controversial role overseeing the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in his 2007 memoir, “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics.”
And so it is with the Biden sons. If Beau could do no wrong (“the finest man I’ve ever known in my life,” says Joe), his younger brother has struggled — but with his father always in his corner.
“We have an expression in our family: ‘If you have to ask for help, it’s too late,’ ” Joe told Popular Mechanics last year. “We’re there for each other.”
“We don’t have a complicated relationship,” Hunter said in the interview. “I know that no matter what, he loves me, and no matter what, I love him more than anything in the world.”
Hunter, 47, is the second son, with all the baggage that comes with having a perfect older brother. He has bounced from law to banking to lobbying. In 2014, he was kicked out of the U.S. Naval Reserves for cocaine use and spent some time in rehab. This spring, he became tabloid fodder when he divorced his wife of 23 years and went public with a love affair with his sister-in-law. Friends said that the two fell in love as they tended to the dying Beau.
“Hallie and I are incredibly lucky to have found the love and support we have for each other in such a difficult time, and that’s been obvious to the people who love us most,” Hunter said in a statement. “We’ve been so lucky to have family and friends who have supported us every step of the way.”
The relationship has the blessing of Joe and Jill, who also released a statement: “We are all lucky that Hunter and Hallie found each other as they were putting their lives together after such sadness. They have mine and Jill’s full and complete support and we are happy for them.”
There was no mention of Hunter’s estranged wife, Kathleen, a fact that didn’t play well with her friends, who privately complained that she had been neatly erased from the happy family portrait.
The news of the romance leaked out in the midst of a nasty divorce between Hunter and Kathleen, who have three daughters. The two officially separated in October 2015 — the same month Joe decided not to run for president, although there’s no indication that Hunter’s marital problems factored into that decision.
In public court filings, Kathleen alleged that her husband had blown a fortune on drugs, women, strip clubs and “other personal indulgences.” She requested that his access to their joint assets be limited because the couple had a double mortgage and owed more than $300,000 in back taxes. She also requested sole custody of their teenage daughter. (The other two girls are adults.) Hunter struck back, suggesting that it was his wife who had been unfaithful.
It was dirty laundry flying on a flagpole, a tactic they quickly came to regret. But a District judge rejected their bid to make the filings private retroactively, ruling that embarrassment was not sufficient reason to seal the records.
The divorce was finalized in April; the family’s Washington home was listed for $1.7 million soon afterward.
People fall in love every day, but falling in love with a sister-in-law is rare enough to raise eyebrows. Hunter’s childhood friend Lea Carpenter told People magazine that anyone critical of the relationship “doesn’t understand the Biden family. Anyone moved to judgment now has no knowledge of the grace and strength with which Hunter and Hallie have navigated the last four years.”
Hunter, who declined to be interviewed, is helping raise his brother’s young children: his 12-year-old niece, Natalie, and 11-year-old nephew, also named Hunter. There are reports of a strained relationship between Hunter’s daughters and their aunt.
So it’s unlikely that the entire Biden clan is, in fact, enjoying the new beach house together.
Hunter and Hallie have not been spotted in Rehoboth this summer. That doesn’t mean people aren’t talking about them — although not to the media.
“When I saw that, I was like ‘Wow,’ ” says Kuhns. “What I was really surprised about is that the story kind of came and went. If they were a controversial family, it would be a big deal, but they’re so well-liked. Things happen. I think that’s how a lot of people in Delaware look at it.”
“That’s a sensitive subject,” says Rehoboth councilwoman Kathy McGuiness. “Personal life is personal life. In my book, it’s off limits.”
In the protective embrace of Delaware, that may be true. In the wider world of politics, maybe not so much.
Once you dream of becoming president, it’s hard to let go. Joe has chased that elusive prize for more than three decades, and missed his best chance in 2016 for the worst possible reasons. He has made no secret of the fact that he thought Clinton ran a terrible campaign and that he believes he could have beaten Donald Trump.
Is he too old for 2020?
“Joe Biden has always been a man with boundless energy, and he’ll never quit,” says Bruce Reed, his former chief of staff. “He would be doing all he’s doing no matter what his plans are. He’s not the retiring kind.”
For now, it’s all talk, the endless stream of speculation and desperation that drives cable news 24-7.
“I have no intention of running for president, but I’m a great respecter of fate,” Joe told NPR. “I don’t have any plans to do it, but I’m not promising I wouldn’t do it.”
If Joe chooses the role of elder statesman, his family’s private life will probably be — for the most part — old news. If, on the other hand, Team Biden takes one last swing at the presidency, his entire family will be scrutinized, judged and otherwise pushed into the spotlight — including Hunter and Hallie.
The new conventional wisdom, one the public does seem to accept: You don’t elect just a president. You elect his family, too.