Mr. Vice President The Legacy of Joseph R. Biden Jr.—So Far
As the nation welcomes our own Joe Biden into the country’s second most important office, we celebrate the aspects of life and work that have made him one of the country’s longest-serving senators: family man, party leader, crime fighter, civil rights champion, scholar of the Constitution and foreign policy expert. Delawareans now wait to see the new ways in which Joe will make us proud.
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Grandpop Finnegan taught his grandson, Joe Robinette Biden Jr., never to lie. Joe Biden’s father taught his son never to give up. And in the third grade, when a nun ridiculed Joe for his severe stutter, his 5-foot-1-inch mother, Jean Finnegan Biden, taught her son never to let anyone make him feel small.
In his book, “Promises to Keep,” Biden recalls the day a nun forced him to read aloud. Jean marched into St. Helena’s School and confronted the teacher. “If you ever speak to my son like that again,” she said, “I’ll come back and rip that bonnet off your head.”
Biden’s fortitude comes from his parents. His inspiration comes from the rest of his family, especially his wife, Jill, his brothers Jimmy and Frankie, and his sister, campaign manager and best friend Valerie Biden Owens.
“Joe believes that families come first,” says outgoing Governor Ruth Ann Minner. “He always has. He always will, even as vice president. All of the issues he’s worked on, whether it’s child protection or domestic violence, the Family Medical Leave Act or looking out for Social Security, his issues affect families.”
During nearly 36 years in the U.S. Senate, Biden helped end genocide in the Balkans, secured passage of the Violence Against Women Act and recovered from a brain aneurysm. But without his parents and siblings, he would never have survived the loss of his first wife, Neilia, and his baby daughter, Naomi, both killed in an auto accident that left his sons, Beau and Hunter, in critical condition.
The year was 1974. Biden was 30. He had just won election to his first term in the U.S. Senate, making him the youngest person ever popularly elected to that house of Congress. Without Neilia, though, politics lost its allure. “I began to understand how despair led people to cash it in,” Biden wrote in his book, “how suicide wasn’t just an option but a rational option.”
UD classmate Fred Sears was with Biden on spring break in Nassau the day he met Neilia. “She stood out, like in the movie ‘10,’” says Sears. “While all of us dumb college guys were trying to decide who would talk to her first, Joe was taking a 50-yard dash toward her.”
Neilia was Biden’s backbone, a partner during his hungry days as a young New Castle County councilman, a loving mother to their three children. “When she died, it changed Joe tremendously,” says Sears. “He looked long and hard at how anyone could be a senator, especially a freshman senator, as a single parent.”
Biden has suffered crippling blows in his life, and “With each blow, his family has been there to lift him to his feet,” says his friend, U.S. Senator Tom Carper. “Without them, I’m not sure if Joe—or any of us—could have risen to the heights he’s risen.”
The day Biden became Barack Obama’s running mate, he and Jill headed for the airport en route to Springfield, Illinois. On the way, Biden called Carper.
“He wasn’t bragging about the VP nod,” Carper says. “He called to ask how my son, Ben, was doing in college. Kids are first. That says a lot about the guy.”
Biden’s family has expanded to include another daughter, Ashley, plus daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Never has the Biden bond been so eloquently illustrated than at the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver. There, Biden’s son, Delaware Attorney General Joseph Robinette “Beau” Biden III, introduced his father as the Democratic vice presidential nominee. “Good evening. I’m Beau Biden,” he said. “And Joe Biden is my dad.”
Beau, who is serving in Iraq as a captain in the Army National Guard in a war his father opposes, told the country about his mother’s accident, about being in a body cast at age 4, about his father being sworn in as senator at his hospital bedside, about how it felt when his father came home on the train every night from Washington, D.C.
When the entire Biden family joined Biden on stage after his acceptance speech, it felt real—a son, brother, husband, father and grandfather sharing one of the most important moments of his life with the most important people in his life. —Maria Hess
Page 2: Scholar of the Constitution