Joe Biden on a Potential 2020 Presidential Run, Losing His Son, and How to Keep Up the Fight
Former Vice President Joe Biden is in the office of his Virginia home, pulling framed pictures of his children from the bookshelves.
“This is my Beau,” he says as he picks up a photo of his late son, Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46. There are other pictures of Beau: with his brother, Hunter; “when Beau was in Iraq for a year in 2008, while we were running”; and when he and his brother were teens with an ’80s-era Biden (brown hair, a more vintage gleam in the eye).
The room is evidence of a fully lived life: There are photographs on mantels and around the floor as well as a raft of amusing political cartoons. There’s even a G.I. Joe Biden bobblehead, the inscription reading, “Don’t mess with Joe.” “Yup,” Biden affirms with boyish glee: “I’ve got bobbleheads too!”
I meet Biden for the first time in his kitchen—he makes us both coffee from an espresso maker. He’s taller than you would expect (around 6 feet), leaner and more imposing than his Rockwellian “Uncle Joe” caricature would suggest. He is at the same time intimate and statesmanlike, the residue from 44 years of public service impossible to leave at the front door. (One thing that punctures the image, however: a teenlike habit of saying, “For real!”)
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Biden and wife Jill’s satellite residence since he left office, in January, is far enough away from D.C. to breathe but close enough for them to reengage in person. And reengagement is where we will start. In his memoir Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, which comes out on November 14, Biden chronicles his life from 2014 through 2015. (He describes it as “from the time of Beau’s diagnosis to when I announced I wasn’t running for president.”)
In those years Biden dealt with his son’s illness (requiring regular undercover visits to Beau at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center) while contending with a military crisis in Ukraine, meeting head-to-head with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and reconciling himself to the fact that Hillary Clinton would be his party’s nominee for president.
The book, sometimes matter-of-factly, often heartbreakingly, details that very human push-pull. “I’d put so many bad thoughts out of my mind,” Biden says. “The way I’ve dealt with my Beau being gone is by thinking of him as the leader he was and the loving son he was, smiling and strong.”
This filter also tinged memories too traumatic to remember clearly. While working on the book, Biden would recall conversations with Beau in his last months that didn’t happen exactly as he had thought—Hunter had to remind his father that Beau was encumbered by “a tube going down his throat into his stomach.” Biden breaks up a little, talking about it. “I just didn’t want to picture him … I found my mind playing tricks on me. You don’t want to see it. But I realized that time moves on either way.”
And time carries with it another significant question: After deciding not to run against Clinton for the Democratic nomination last year, will Biden announce a campaign for president in 2020? “Look,” he says slowly. “I learned a long time ago that, first, three and a half years is two lifetimes in presidential politics. And second, my family is healing. I’m sure other families have had this experience, but the loss of Beau was a devastating blow.”
He grabs another picture of the two boys as children, taken soon after Biden’s first wife, Neilia, and their baby daughter, Naomi, died in a car accident, in 1972. “This is after [Neilia] died, at the house we lived in, in Delaware. Beau and Hunter are a year and a day apart, and they had each other’s back in a way that is really unusual. Hunt was sort of Beau’s rib.”
Beau’s loss left the family rudderless. “About five months after Beau passed, my granddaughter Naomi—who’s the love of my life, named after my deceased daughter—had a problem. She came to talk to me and said, ‘Pop, you know when Uncle Beau was here, he’d look at me and he’d say, “Honey, it’s going to be OK”?’ ” He pauses. “That had always been my role in the family, and I realized that Beau had taken it on for his generation. Then the next day my daughter Ashley said the exact same words. She said, ‘Dad, I miss Beauy so much. When he’d say, “It’s going to be OK, Ash,” I knew it would be.’ ”
So at the end of 2017, being OK is the priority. “Everybody’s healing. We’ll see how we all are, how we all feel.” In the book Biden reveals that his family (Beau especially) had pushed him to run for the 2016 nomination before Beau’s illness would consume them. “They thought it would give us purpose, bring us together.”
Biden is, of course, aware he has something to offer to the presidency. “I think this moment in American history sort of fits into my wheelhouse and the strengths I have. I am, I think most people would say, fairly knowledgeable about American foreign policy. I’m pretty good at diplomacy internationally and bringing people together, cutting through and settling things. And I think what people are looking for most, and I hope I have it, is authenticity. I have great relationships with my Republican colleagues. They trust me, and I trust them. We can work things through.
“And also,” he continues, “I think the defining issue of our time is sustaining the middle class. You know, when I got to Washington they called me Middle Class Joe, and it wasn’t meant as a compliment. But the middle class is the reason for our social and political stability.”
He exhales. “Anyway, I’m familiar with the issues, and I think I could bring some talent there. So it’s not that I don’t think I’m equipped to do the job. We’ll just see.”
Biden has been holding Beau and Hunter’s picture the whole time, finally putting it down. “Beau gives us something to dream about, to hope for. We’re all trying to do the things that he would have done. Now, whether that fits into running [for president], whether my health fits into my running … My health, thank God, is in good shape.” With that, he smiles and gives a loud knock on the wooden end table.
Grief has shadowed Biden’s life in a way that might seem unendurable to some. He was only 30 when he lost Neilia and Naomi, then 13 months old. So with Beau’s death, he has outlived not only a wife but two of his children. What he has somehow managed, though, is to distill grief and empathize even further because of it, achieving something of a comforter-in-chief quality.
How? “This is a hard one, but let me go back … I learned really early on, after I lost my wife and daughter, that I could be a significant solace to people going through pain. After that happened I would go to somebody’s wake or funeral and even family members who didn’t know me would run up, throw their arms around me, and start crying as if they’ve known me for years and years.” Of course, Biden also met people who’d say to him, “I know how you feel.” He sighs. “You know they mean well, but after a while it’s like, ‘You have no idea how the hell I feel!’ It’s ungrateful of you, but that’s a tendency.”
What Biden gained—if there’s anything to be gained—was an emotional stoicism. “You find yourself saying, ‘Well, they’re still standing. How do they do it?’ ” He recounts advice from a fellow widower: “Every day on your calendar, put a number, 1 to 10. One is feeling as bad as the moment you got the news, and 10 is the best day of your life. You won’t have any 10s. But mark it down every day and, after four months, take a look at it all. You’ll find the downs are just as far down, but they get further and further apart, and that’s when you know you might be able to make it.”
We wade into shallower territory: How many hugs has Biden given and received over his 75 years? “Oh god!” he hoots. “Jill sometimes tells me I’m too touchy and feely with men and women. But I had a mother who never walked by me within arm’s length without touching me. And she used to say, ‘Joey, if there’s anything nice you see about someone, tell them. If there’s a young woman or young man who has beautiful eyes, tell them they have beautiful eyes!’ So I guess I’m able to bring a little bit of peace to other people.”
In the book Biden also writes about his 2008 decision—encouraged by Jill—to accept Barack Obama’s offer to be his vice presidential running mate. (When Biden told her, “I’ve never had a boss. How am I going to handle this?” she replied, “C’mon, Joe. Grow up.”) He characterizes the position as a “truly odd job.” What did he learn? “Not to inadvertently preempt the president,” he says. “The most glaring example of my doing that was my coming out for gay marriage [on Meet the Press in 2012]. I had to learn that even when I agreed with him, I had to make sure I didn’t announce whatever it was first. It took a while to get into the habit of not talking to the press about what I knew or thought should happen.” Biden’s frankness often became very public—most notoriously, when President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, Biden was heard to say in his ear, “This is a big f—ing deal.” Of his “gaffes,” Biden laughs like a man who knows well his blessings and curses. “No one ever doubts I mean what I say and say what I mean. For real!”
Obama and Biden’s friendship is the stuff of both political and Internet lore. When asked about the moment that defined the two as friends rather than colleagues, Biden replies, “Barack has always been very interested in my family, asking me, ‘Why did you do that?’ ‘How did you do that?’ ‘How did that happen?’ Because here’s a man who had a pretty disconnected upbringing. My family seemed to intrigue him.” The Obama and Biden families grew close—so close that the Biden grandkids and Obama’s daughters had a sleepover in the same hotel room at the 2008 Democratic convention.
Obama was also deeply invested in Beau’s treatment. “When Beau had what we thought was a stroke two years before it got diagnosed as cancer, Barack came running down the hall saying, ‘Joe, is Beau OK? Joe, is he all right?’ ” Obama also offered to help financially after Biden had considered selling his house to pay for treatment. “Barack was emotional. He said, ‘Joe, don’t do that, don’t do that! You love that house. Don’t do that. I’ll give you the money.’ ”
He quotes Obama telling friends and staff, “ ‘Joe and I make up for each other’s weaknesses.’ Actually, he makes up for many more of mine than I do his. I’m a little more passive and obsequious than he is. As he would say, ‘Measure twice, cut once.’ Mine is, ‘Take a good look, and if you have to act, act!’ ”
By the end of their second term, the two starred in a very publicly embraced bromance. According to Biden, one of Obama’s favorite BFF jokes is “when he made me a friendship bracelet.” He chuckles. “I think the reason the memes worked is because no one has ever doubted the authenticity of the relationship. And by the way, we have had shouting matches too, but that’s what brothers do, that’s what friends do. They don’t let insults or hurts go unattended.”
As for Biden’s favorite viral moment? “The video where he’s lying on the couch in the Oval Office and there are, like, 25 pairs of Ray-Bans. I’m putting them on and saying, ‘How does this look?’ And he says, ‘Joe, they’re all the same!’ And I say, ‘They capture different moods!’ ” (Full disclosure: I’d brought Biden three pairs of Ray-Bans—what I had thought would be a witty gift—only to discover that he is sent Ray-Bans all the time. But he’s a good sport about it. “Oh, I like these!” he says of a gleaming gold pair with clearish lenses. “Great for reading!”)
Post–White House, there’s less reading time for Biden than one would think. He’s currently a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, which has named a center for foreign policy after him, and he’s been asked to work on domestic policy with a team at the University of Delaware. He and Jill remain “deeply involved” in the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Moonshot and have established the Biden Cancer Initiative. “I’m also involved in serious efforts dealing with the threat of Putin in Europe, and European unity,” he explains. “And I’ve been traveling, working on policies ... so I have a full plate.”
The greatest adjustment of all: metabolizing the Trump administration’s priority of reversing everything Obama-Biden achieved. “This is not who we are as a nation,” Biden says bluntly. “This is not the America I know. When I saw what happened in Charlottesville, President Trump challenged everything I believe about the actual existence of this country. I think this is a battle for the soul of the nation.
“My dad’s phrase was, ‘Everybody’s entitled to be treated with dignity, Joey, period. Period,’ ” Biden continues. “That’s the reason I’ve been trying not to be critical of Trump and give him a year to get going. But my dad truly believed, and I do too, that silence is complicity. And to remain silent when the president gave succor to these voices in our society that have always been talked down ... Anyone who thinks this is going to pass without a fight is mistaken. There’s no permanency to civil rights. There’s no permanency to democracy. You have to fight for them.”
Biden goes on to detail America’s checks and balances before returning to the administration. “Look at what these guys are doing. They attack the press first. That’s the most dangerous damn thing in the world. Next, they’re going to try to delegitimize the courts. This is not by accident—this is an aggrandizement of power. And it’s done under the sheepskin of populism. They don’t give a damn about the people I come from. They don’t give a damn about that guy who has a high school education and is busting his ass, or that woman who’s a waitress. Come on, man! They don’t give a damn about that.”
To hear Biden talk like this has a visceral impact, equal parts motivating and distressing. So it helps immeasurably when he calls himself an optimist. “I think I know the American people. We are better positioned than any nation in the world. We have the most productive workforce in the world. We have the greatest research universities in the world. We have everything going for us. We just need to stand up!”
So Biden will keep on preaching decency, honoring his late son, and, for a good while yet, considering that presidential run. “My dad had an expression, for real,” he remembers. “ ‘A lucky person gets up in the morning, puts both feet on the floor, knows what they’re about to do, and thinks it still matters.’ ”
For more stories like this, pick up the December issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download Nov. 10.
Fashion editor: George Cortina. Grooming by Juanita Dillard.