As Vice President Biden considers whether to enter the 2016 presidential race, the potential effect of a campaign on his family is high among his concerns. A look back at his 2007 memoir, “Promises to Keep,” offers insight into how he has made such decisions in the past and the role his family plays in his deliberations. In the book, Biden describes the family meetings and discussions the Bidens held, and the personal and political trade-offs involved, when he weighed previous campaigns — the ones he decided to launch as well as the races he chose to skip. Excerpts:
1972 U.S. Senate race, Delaware
[Henry] Topel and [Bert] Carvel turned the tables on me. Joe, you’ve asked all of us to run for Senate. We think you should run. Now, nobody in my family had ever known a United States senator; I’m not sure anybody in my family knew anybody who had known a United States senator. My initial reaction was: I don’t think I’m old enough. I had to do the math. The election would be November 1972. I’d turn thirty at the end of that month, which qualified me to be sworn in when the new session opened in January 1973. I’d qualify with five weeks to spare. . . .
There were plenty of reasons not to run for the Senate. I was building the law firm. Neilia and I had three children. I needed spare time to fix up [the Biden home]. I planned to paint the barn, plant around the pool, and make little repairs, I had told Neilia I could do most of it myself with help from my brothers and a few friends. And the race itself was an uphill battle. If J. Caleb Boggs, the Republican incumbent, ran, he’d be nearly impossible to beat. . . . So I told the delegation sitting on the twin beds at the Hub [Motel] that I’d have to think about it.
And from that moment forward I couldn’t stop thinking about it. How many twenty-eight-year-olds ever get in the position to even consider such a move? As a senator I knew I could have an effect on the issues that mattered to me: war and peace, the environment, crime, civil rights, women’s rights. As a senator, I believed, I could help make Delaware and the rest of the country a better place. I could really help people in the way I believed I was supposed to. So I started talking to people about running. . . .
Neilia thought we could do it, too. . . . And she knew it was time for us to focus. The time for keeping every option open was gone. “Joey, I think you should be all the way in or all the way out. You’re working forty-plus hours a week building your law firm. You’re working forty-plus hours a week on the county council business. You’re going to kill yourself trying to do both jobs. If politics is what you want to do, let’s do it — full time.”
The big thing I had going for me in the Senate race was the big thing I had going for me my whole life: the Bidens. . . especially my brothers and sister.
Val had run every campaign I was ever in, from high school to college to county council, and she would manage the Senate campaign, too. I didn’t have to ask. Frankie was still in high school, so he could help bring in the young volunteers. Jimmy, who was in his last year at the University of Delaware, took on the toughest job: He had to raise money.
At our family meeting in the summer of 1971, my mom voiced the only reservation in the family. “Joey,” she said, “Judge Quillen says you’re such a good young lawyer. You’re not going to run for Senate and ruin your reputation, are you?” But the way I saw it — and the way I could explain it to her — the race for the Senate was risk-free. Only a handful of people outside the family thought I had a real shot to win, so I figured even if I lost, people were going to say, “That’s a nice young guy. That’s a serious young guy.” I couldn’t see anything about the race that could hurt me. I was confident I could be a solid candidate. And I actually believed I could win.
1980 Democratic presidential nomination
As the 1980 presidential campaign got underway, I knew we Democrats were in trouble. Everything Carter touched seemed to turn to dust in his hands: the energy crisis, the recession, inflation, the Iran hostage crisis. His triumphs in the Middle East peace process paled. . . . I campaigned hard for Carter in two elections, but I thought he had a dangerous penchant for moralizing. “You thump that Bible one more time,” I told him once, “and you’re going to lose me, too.”
I wasn’t the only Democrat uncomfortable with Jimmy Carter; there was a long line. In the run-up to the 1980 presidential election , a small group of Democratic political consultants came to The Station and pitched me on the idea of taking a run at the nomination. . . . The way they saw it, Carter was in trouble. Ted Kennedy had already declared his candidacy. The consensus among these consultants was that Kennedy and Carter would bloody each other, and neither could win the general election. They said I could be the compromise candidate. There was already an organization in place in New Hampshire looking for a new face.
When they started in, I remember thinking: I have no business making a run for president. I was thirty-seven years old. I still had nights when I was brought up short by my life. . . . Holy God, I’d think, is this me? Have I made a mistake here? Am I flying too close to the sun? Tempting fate? And now we were talking about making a run at the White House?
But these were smart guys sitting there in my office, and I respected them, and I was flattered. We sat by the fireplace and gamed out the primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire. It wasn’t impossible, my winning the nomination. This could be 1972 all over again. And then John Marttila broke the spell.
“You know, Senator,” he said, “you should not run for president because tactically you can win. The questions you have to ask are why you’re running for president and what will you do when you are president. You shouldn’t run until you know the answers to those questions.”
1984 Democratic presidential nomination
The same people who talked to me about running in 1980 came at me again in 1984, and then some. My old friend Pat Caddell, the talented young political strategist and writer who had been an important part of my 1972 race, led the charge. Nobody could divine the meaning hidden in polls like Pat could. And he had new numbers that foretold the story of 1984. Former vice president Walter Mondale was the likely Democratic nominee, but he would never beat President Ronald Reagan. Voters were hungry for a new young face with new ideas — somebody like me, Pat suggested, who wasn’t tied to the tired old politics of the liberal Great Society wing of the Democratic Party. Pat and I agreed that the big force that could reinvigorate the party was the baby boom generation. If a bright new candidate could harness that boomer power, he could win the presidency and change the country. . . .
The gurus were thrilled, and they kept coming up to Wilmington to push me to run. Caddell would pull from his briefcase the dot-matrix printouts that showed the latest polling data, and then he’d make a hard case as to why I could win this in ’84, why this was the time. Sitting in my library at The Station that winter, just before the filing deadline, I kept saying, “Dammit, Pat, I don’t want to do this thing.” But he kept at me. Just in case, he said, sign the filing papers to compete in the New Hampshire primary. So I signed them, almost as a lark, but I told everyone in the room that the papers were to remain in Val’s possession. Nobody else could touch them. If I decided to run, Val could fly north to file the papers. Then Jill and I got on a plane to take a short vacation.
I had no intention of running in 1984, and the people closest to me knew that. But Jill and I had a serious talk on the flight down the islands. I wasn’t worried so much about getting beat. Nobody would expect me to win in the first place. The chances of my winning were minuscule. But what if, unlikely as it was, I did win? I still had not answered the big questions: Why run? To do what? I simply could not visualize myself running the bureaucracy of the federal government. I didn’t think I knew enough about how the government functioned, and I wasn’t sure I knew the people to call. Even after eleven years in the Senate, I didn’t know and trust enough of the right people. And the right people did not know and trust me. Who would I pick to run the budget office? Who would I pick for secretary of state, treasury, defense? I wasn’t like Sam Nunn or other senators who had personal relationships with generals. By my own standards, I wasn’t ready to be president.
By the time our plane touched down in the islands, I knew what I had to do. I called Val: “Don’t file that thing,” I told her. “I’m not running.”
1988 Democratic presidential nomination
After President Reagan won a second term in 1984, the question of my running was back on the table. It would be a wide-open field in 1988 — no incumbent and no heir apparent on the Democratic side. I was pretty sure the most formidable Democrat, New York’s governor, Mario Cuomo, wasn’t going to run. And when I took a look at the likely candidates — Gary Hart, Richard Gephardt, Jesse Jackson — I felt I measured up. I was just 42 years old, but after a decade on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and nearly that long on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I knew the world and America’s place in it in a way few politicians did. . . .
But in 1986 I was not pining for the White House. I didn’t think that I had to change the world and that now was my time. I had decided that someday I was going to run for president of the United States of America, but I knew I couldn’t string along the political operatives forever. The men and women who were with me were the best in the business, and they were hot to go. I knew if I didn’t make some moves soon, they’d find other candidates who were in all the way for 1988. So now was the time to show them I was serious, to begin to lay the groundwork. . . .
Jill was more skeptical than I was and more worried about the personal price we might pay in running for the nomination. . . . But I’d tell her that I didn’t have to actually end up running in ’88. I could go out, meet the people I’d have to know, show some appeal as a candidate, and get talked about. I could make the sort of friends I’d need in the future and meet the people who could help me raise money. “Look, let’s just start down the road,” I told Jill. “This can’t hurt us.”
The big questions Marttila had asked — Why are you running? What will you do as president? — still loomed, but I held them in abeyance. I had a series of more practical personal questions to ask myself: Could I be the sort of husband and father I wanted to be while running for president? And could I be the sort of senator I wanted to be while running? . . . .
But things went so much better than I had expected when I first went out to campaign; wherever I traveled people seemed hungry for a candidate who believed in the same basic things I did. People were so tired of the old Reagan cant that government was the enemy. When I’d tell a roomful of people that together we had the opportunity to build a political majority committed to the idea that government has an obligation to play a constructive role in improving the lives of all Americans, I could see people lean toward me. And Pat Caddell and I were right about this much: The boomer generation seemed the hungriest of all. . . .
The truth was, it was invigorating. The speeches were key for me, both in the writing and the delivery. I’d made thousands of votes as a senator, and I could always explain a specific vote, but writing a speech was a way to sit back and think about the totality of those votes, about what animated my public service. In the beginning of 1987, I still felt my message was a bit opaque, like audiences were hearing me through a veil. I hadn’t yet boiled the speech down to words that felt absolutely authentic to me. But I was starting to find a rhythm and a cadence, and when I began to feel like I was getting traction and moving ground under my feet, I started looking at the race through the wrong prism. I looked around, judged myself against the other potential candidates for the nomination, and by the beginning of 1987 I decided I could beat them. . . .
Jill was sensitive to the demands of a presidential campaign. Now as it got more real, her instinct was to warn me off. She’d remind me of how perfect our life was now. Beau was about to graduate from Archmere, and Hunt was just a year behind. Ashley was just starting elementary school. They were all happy and comfortable, and they saw me plenty. I didn’t miss games, plays, birthdays, or big events. And they’d long since figured out how to be children of a public figure. But even as Jill suggested that our children’s lives would surely change if I got in, I convinced myself I could run for the nomination and still be the kind of father I needed to be.
Never underestimate the ability of the human mind to rationalize. I actually told myself that because the children were so young, it would be easier to run in 1988 than four or eight years down the road. In eight years it would be harder to shield Ashley from the worst things people were saying about her father. In eight years Beau and Hunt would be starting their careers, and people might say this guy is where he is today because of his father. I managed to convince myself that 1988 was the right time for the Biden family. . . .
The closer the announcement got, the more I was on edge. I had to fight off the campaign pros who didn’t understand why they had to schedule the announcement around Beau’s graduation from Archmere and Jill’s and Ashley’s birthday celebrations. The campaign was eating into my family’s life. . . . 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 member 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.
2008 Democratic presidential nomination
In the weeks after John Kerry’s defeat, Jill knew I was thinking about running in 2008, but we never really talked about it, even when we were alone. I didn’t dare bring it up at our annual Thanksgiving trip to Nantucket just a few weeks after the 2004 election. The trip was a tradition of Jill’s making; ever since we were first dating, that trip had been the time we got away as a family and closed off the world. . . .
The next time the entire Biden family was together was just before Christmas. Beau, Hunter, Ashley and the rest of the family always come home a few days early, so we can celebrate the birthday of our oldest granddaughter, Naomi. A few nights before Christmas, we had a big birthday party at the Lake House, and when Jill and I finished cleaning the kitchen and went upstairs to bed, she said to me, in an alarmingly nonchalant fashion, “We’re having a family meeting tomorrow morning in the library. We need to talk to you about something.” Then, as is her way, she rolled over and went to sleep.
Of course, I couldn’t sleep at all. I got up and went down the stairs in the dark and into the now-empty library and started pacing around. I knew what this meeting was going to be about — the presidential race. I had been making noise about running. There were things I believed I could do for the country — things I felt prepared to do for the country — and for the first time in my career I wasn’t sure I could do them as a United States senator. But I was already anticipating what my family would tell me the next morning. We have so much already. The family is so strong. Remember how they treated you in 1987. Why invite more pain and heartache? Why take the risk? . . . . I found myself sitting in the library getting a little angry. But I knew what I had to do the next morning. I kept telling myself I couldn’t lose my temper the next day. I couldn’t get angry. If they don’t want me to run, I thought, I can’t run. It’s not an arguable point. I’d be asking them to sacrifice too much privacy, too much time. I owed it to them to honor their wishes. When I trudged up to bed sometime later, I was calmer.
When I showered and dressed and went down to the library the next morning, everybody else had assembled. They put me in a wingchair next to a fireplace. Jill, my sister, Val, Beau, Hunter, and Ashley were arrayed on the couches around me. My longtime friend and advisor Ted Kaufman was there, too. In my head I kept reminding myself: You’re the father. Be graceful. No matter what, don’t lose your temper.
“We’ve been meeting,” Jill said, and I realized they’d really thought how to say this to me.
Then I heard Jill again. “I want you to run this time,” she said. “It’s up to you, but we’ll support it.”
For a second I couldn’t speak. “Why?”
“We think you can unite the country,” Jill said. “We think you’re the best person to pull the country together.”
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