The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Biden has been imagining this moment for more than 50 years. It’s not exactly the triumph he had in mind.

Sen.-elect Joe Biden and wife, Neilia, cut his 30th birthday cake at a party in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 20, 1972. Their son Hunter waits for the first piece. (Bettmann Archive)

A 21-year-old Joe Biden was in the Bahamas for spring break, smitten by the blond woman he saw sunbathing outside the British Colonial Hotel.

The beach was open only to guests at the luxury resort, so Biden, unable to afford a room there, snatched a hotel towel and pretended to belong.

He introduced himself, took a seat at the end of her chair — and, before long, he was revealing his aspirations, with a fair amount of youthful bluster.

“He’s going to be a senator by the time he’s 30,” his future wife, Neilia, later told one of her close friends of the 1964 encounter. “And he’s going to be president of the United States.”

As newlyweds, they named their German shepherd puppy Senator, and Biden quickly set about accomplishing that first goal, winning his seat in the Senate in 1972, on schedule at the age of 29.

The second goal proved more elusive. Nearly every four years since 1980, Biden considered a presidential run — and yet it never seemed like his time.

He ran in 1988 in his mid-40s as a champion for a new generation, then dropped out in humiliating fashion over allegations that he plagiarized a speech. He tried again in 2008 as an experienced insider, only to watch in frustration as all the attention focused on the party’s two biggest celebrities, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. As the outgoing vice president in 2016, Biden pondered a run but bowed out as establishment support coalesced around Clinton.

On the second night of the DNC on Aug. 18, former vice president Joe Biden celebrated his formal nomination as the Democratic presidential nominee. (Video: The Washington Post)

Now, in 2020, Biden finally stands on the brink of realizing the ultimate achievement he predicted 56 years earlier, preparing to address the nation Thursday night as the Democratic nominee for president. But it is hardly the triumph he might have imagined as a starry-eyed college student.

At 77, he faces questions of whether he could serve two full terms. His life has seen tragedy — Neilia and their baby daughter would die in a car crash a few weeks after he won his first Senate race, and his eldest son, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015. Biden, who married his current wife, Jill, in 1977, once thought he was heading into retirement and that Beau — whom he has referred to as Joe 2.0 — would be the one to realize the goal of the presidency, not him.

But the chaotic Trump era has thrust Democrats, and the nation, into crisis mode. The pandemic has sidelined Biden from the rope-line bear hugs he craves and denied him a traditional convention. An emerging racial justice movement has exposed old policies Biden backed that now feel off-key.

And yet, in many ways, if not for all of these factors — the ones that compelled Democratic voters to put aside the notion of nominating a newcomer in favor of a familiar, even comforting presence — Biden may well not have gotten this close to achieving his goal at all. To those who know him best, including some who have been by his side for decades, Biden’s improbable ascent so late in his life and during this unsteady period for the country can at times feel less like a man seizing the moment than the moment finally coming around to him.

“With his life, he is rolled up into one person as the luckiest person I have ever met in my entire life, and he’s also the unluckiest person I have ever met in my life,” said Ted Kaufman, Biden’s longtime chief of staff and one of his closest friends.

“I don’t know people that have had the incredible ups and the incredible downs he’s had in his life,” he added. “That’s one of the reasons why he’s ideally suited for this moment.”

Friends say Biden has been increasingly reflective about the odd confluence of events that may, so late in his life, transform his legacy from lawmaker and loyal vice president to the 46th president of the United States.

At a Philadelphia Flyers game a year or two ago, Biden raised it with Fred Sears, one of his best friends in college who went with him on the spur-of-the-moment trip to the Bahamas. They talked about their lives and Biden’s reaction to tragedy.

“I’ve come to realize it’s all about fate,” Biden said, according to Sears. “It’s not about anything else. There’s a plan, and there’s fate. And that matters more than anything else.”

“He would tell you right now, ‘I’m in the right place at the right time,’ ” Sears added. “You can think of any number of things that, had it gone differently, this wouldn’t be happening. If Hillary won, he wouldn’t be running right now. There’s so many things that you can point to as to why now is the time. I’m sure he’s thought about it thousands of times.”

It was not a given that Biden would even enter the 2020 race.

In early 2019, before jumping in, he sat down with Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a longtime confidant who now holds the seat Biden did for 36 years, to discuss what he should do. Already there were a dozen candidates in the race, many of them younger and running as the agents of generational change that Biden once was.

“He was wrestling whether this was a moment that called for a person of his skills and service and character, or whether he should step aside and say it’s someone else’s time,” Coons said. “But on some level, he felt a sense of obligation. . . . To say that he ran out of a sense of service and duty doesn’t even capture the depth of it.”

Coons and others warned him that the race would be painful, especially for his family, but also said he would be uniquely positioned to defeat President Trump.

“Other candidates were the shiny new thing,” Coons said. “But it’s his strength and resiliency that make him perfect for this moment.”

Biden already has a unique role in history, given how many times he has sought the presidency and over such a long period of time.

Several candidates have run multiple times — William Jennings Bryan in the early 20th century, for example, and former California governor Jerry Brown in 1976, 1980 and 1992. But perhaps the one who best matches Biden’s longevity is Henry Clay, who starting in 1824 ran multiple times over a quarter-century. Biden has also identified with Clay, who, like him was elected to the Senate at 29 and earned a reputation as the “great compromiser.”

But none of those figures ever won the presidency. And as time goes on, it gets even harder for candidates to persuade their party they can win despite having lost multiple times.

Biden’s abilities were not always clear, and earlier in life, he thought about becoming a priest. He was a middling student at the University of Delaware — “I know our grades,” Sears said, “and our goal was just to get out of U of D” — and he largely avoided the movements of the 1960s, neither enthusiastic about the Vietnam War nor actively protesting it.

“I’m not big on flak jackets and tie-dyed shirts,” Biden once said.

“I was never an activist,” Biden said in 1987. “I didn’t march on Selma. Vietnam wasn’t a big issue in my college days. I was a middle-class kid in a sports coat.”

But not long after he graduated from law school, an opening came up on the New Castle County Council, and one of the outgoing members, John Daniello, came over to Biden’s house to try to convince him to run. Initially reluctant — Biden said he wanted a higher office, and he had little interest in local politics — he agreed a few days later.

Biden won and, a few weeks before taking office, asked Daniello to lunch.

“I thought he wanted to talk about what was pending on county council,” he said. “But he starts out saying, ‘I want to run for United States Senate.’ I was flabbergasted. I told him, ‘You haven’t served a day yet. Let’s build a record and plenty of time to consider that.’ He wouldn’t let up.”

Biden ended up running against Sen. J. Caleb Boggs, a popular two-term Republican, and he won by about 3,000 votes.

“It was just being in the right place at the right time. Running against the man who couldn’t be beat,” Sears said. “But by the grace of a number of things, he had a great campaign. . . and really won with the city of Wilmington, particularly the inner city. You talk about the Black vote now. That’s what won him his first Senate race.”

Soon after becoming a senator, Biden went to speak at Holy Rosary, a Catholic school he attended in elementary school, and one of the children asked whether he wanted to be president.

“Oh, no, no, no,” Biden responded, giving the falsely modest answer expected of a junior senator.

“Oh, Joey Biden,” a nun interjected from the back of the room, according to Kaufman. She pulled out a paper that she said he had written at age 7, in which Biden had declared that he wanted to be president even then.

Biden’s first presidential campaign, for the 1988 nomination, began with significant promise. The senator from Delaware was a fresh face in his 40s, an up-and-comer in Democratic politics, his campaign compared to a rising meteor. Even though he hadn’t run in 1984, he still won a delegate’s vote at the Democratic National Convention.

Former senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), then a member of the House, was an early supporter of Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign, recalling a trip to Iowa on a single-engine plane in bad weather shortly before Biden dropped out following the plagiarism controversy.

“It was so painful,” Boxer said. “He came over to Capitol Hill, and all of us supporters from Congress were in a room with him. He said, ‘What do you think I should do? Can I make it back from this plagiarism charge?’ We all went around the room and said, ‘We love you, we’ll do whatever you decide.’ But we told him it would be very hard to overcome it.”

He didn’t attempt to overcome it.

Twenty years after the first Biden presidential campaign came the second, when in 2008 he ran as the steady, experienced hand. But he dropped out after a dismal performance in Iowa, unable to inject himself into a primary battle focused almost entirely on Obama and Clinton.

He had thought about running in 2016 but was deeply conflicted and mourning the death of his son Beau. He ultimately announced in the Rose Garden that he would not run.

“I regret it every day,” he said later.

“He is no longer a fresh face. But he is a trusted face,” Boxer said. “I think in many ways this moment met Joe. Donald Trump’s America is a mess. And people are sick, people are suffering loss . . . I can’t think of anyone else who has that quality of being able to take pain and turn it into hope.”

For Daniello, he thinks back to Biden and that initial campaign, where he decided to run an unlikely race for Senate despite all advice that he wait.

“He said back to me, ‘John, you’ve just got to put it out there. If lightning is going to strike, you have to be where it is,’ ” Daniello said. “Joe’s been good at that. Sometimes not at his own choice. And I think this is one of those cases. If it wasn’t Trump in the presidency, I don’t know that we’d see Joe there running for the presidency.”

“All of these things happening late in his life, he’s a child of destiny really,” Daniello added. “If these things didn’t happen, he wouldn’t be in the position to make the decisions he’s made. He’s old. But he’s still a child of destiny.”