“I know,” he replied, but Biden characteristically did his best to look forward while speaking of better days ahead. Richard Ben Cramer’s classic work on the 1988 presidential campaign, “What It Takes: The Way to the White House,” movingly described how Joe Biden’s departure from that contest would be followed by even more harrowing events in the coming months.
In February 1988, Biden would suffer a brain aneurysm and find himself at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where his doctor told the senator that his chance of survival was less than half. Even if Biden lived, the doctor continued, a long list of physical and mental limitations were likely.
Fifteen years after losing their mother and sister in a shattering car accident, Biden’s sons, Beau and Hunter, were called to their father’s bedside after a priest delivered last rites. Cramer wrote that there was no need for the critically ill man to make things right with his boys or to even say that he loved them. Joe Biden had made that obvious his entire life, refusing to let anyone step in to help raise them after his young wife died.
“Joe didn’t want anybody else raising his kids,” Cramer wrote. “He was there every night, every weekend. They had stories at bedtime, games of catch on the lawn, outings, trips, places to go. . . . The boys never saw the air out of Joe’s lungs. Not once. He would not allow that.” From his hospital bed, Biden let his boys know that he didn’t need to see them grow into men to know that he would be proud of them; he was proud of them already.
When the surgeons cut into Biden’s head, the aneurysm exploded outward and was clamped immediately. Had it gushed toward his brain, Biden would have been dead in an instant. But he survived and continued raising his children, while passing landmark legislation in the Senate and then later serving as Barack Obama’s vice president.
More than 25 years later, the awful grace of God would demand that Biden bury his oldest son; fate would require that it be the father carrying the son’s memory with him through the long days and nights that followed. Last month, while in Iowa, Biden quietly wept as he told me on-air of how Beau pushed him forward every day on the campaign trail. That made sense because it was young Beau, after all, who pushed back against his father leaving the presidential race in 1987. A few months later, he would be in the front seat of his dad’s ambulance driving through a fierce February snowstorm. It was Beau’s memory that also helped move Joe Biden to enter the 2020 presidential race.
Friends and longtime aides feared that the former vice president wasn’t up to the challenge of running yet again for president; that the pain and hardship Biden had endured over his adult life left him too wearied to absorb the hits that would surely come his way. But Jill Biden, whom Joe credited with helping him “dream again” after his first wife’s death, supported his decision and helped him pick up the pieces of his life once more.
That faith initially seemed to pay off, with Biden racing to the top of most Democratic national polls throughout 2019. His losses in the first contests of 2020, held in overwhelmingly white states, discounted his support among black voters and has put his candidacy at risk. Whether his campaign can survive the body blows delivered by Iowa and New Hampshire remains to be seen, but Joe Biden has endured worse.
Like that gravely ill father comforting his sons so many years ago, millions of Americans do not need to see how this political race ends to know that they are already proud of Joe Biden. And you can put me at the top of that list.