Inside Vice President Joe Biden s Family Tragedies

"I needed my children more than they needed me," the Vice President, who is mourning the death of his son Beau, said in a speech on May 17

Photo: Earl Gibson III/Getty

As the Biden family mourns the death of Beau Biden, the former Delaware Attorney General who died on Saturday of brain cancer at 46, it s a sad reminder of the many personal tragedies that have befallen the vice president.

In 1972, just one month after winning his first Senate race, Biden received a phone call telling him his wife and college sweetheart Neilia and their 13-month-old daughter Naomi had been killed in a car accident on their way to buy a Christmas tree.

“By the tone of the phone call, you just knew,” he said in 2012, addressing the families of fallen U.S. soldiers. “You just felt it in your bones: Something bad happened.”

As he left the U.S. Capitol building, “I remember looking up and saying, ‘God,’ as if I was talking to God myself, ‘You can t be good, how can you be good?’ ” he recalled, telling the families, “For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts, because they had been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they would never get there again.”

The couple’s two sons, Beau and Hunter, who were 4 and 3 at the time, were also in the car and badly injured.

When Biden was sworn into the Senate in 1973, he did so at Beau’s Wilmington, Delaware bedside, which he rarely left.

“I was supposed to be sworn in with everyone else that year in ’73, but I wouldn’t go down. So … the secretary of the Senate [came] to swear me in, in the hospital room with my children,” he recalled in a Yale University commencement address less than two weeks ago.

Biden, who commuted from the family home in Wilmington, Del., to Washington, D.C., also reflected on why it was so important for him to be there for his kids.

“I began to commute thinking I was only going to stay a little while – four hours a day, every day – from Washington to Wilmington, which I ve done for over 37 years,” he told the Yale students. “I did it because I wanted to be able to kiss them goodnight and kiss them in the morning the next day. No Ozzie and Harriet breakfast or great familial thing, just climb in bed with them. Because I came to realize that a child can hold an important thought, something they want to say to their mom and dad, maybe for 12 or 24 hours, and then it’s gone. And when it’s gone, it’s gone. And it all adds up.

But looking back on it, the truth be told, the real reason I went home every night was that I needed my children more than they needed me. Some at the time wrote and suggested that Biden can’t be a serious national figure. If he was, he’d stay in Washington more, attend to more important events. It s obvious he’s not serious. He goes home after the last vote.

But I realized I didn’t miss a thing. Ambition is really important. You need it. And I certainly have never lacked in having ambition. But ambition without perspective can be a killer.”

And, the close father-and-son relationship was something that Beau proudly expressed as well. As a tribute to Biden s 72nd birthday in November, he Tweeted a photo of himself as a young boy with his dad at a baseball game.

“Happy Birthday to the best coach I could have asked for. Love you Pop.”

Like his father, Beau was also a family man who was devoted to his wife Hallie and their kids Natalie and Hunter.

“For all that Beau Biden achieved in his life, nothing made him prouder; nothing made him happier; nothing claimed a fuller focus of his love and devotion than his family,” President Obama said in a statement after Beau’s death.

In December, he happily tweeted a photo of his children with their new puppy.

“Say hello to Indi, our adopted 10 month old lab #rescuedog & newest member of the family!” he wrote.

Now the family is left to mourn yet another member gone too soon.

“It’s a family that’s had some real tragedy,” said Ted Kaufman, a longtime aide to Joe Biden who filled his Senate seat after he became vice president in 2009. “I would just say he was the very best of us. He was special, such a good person.”

Kaufman, who has known Beau since childhood continued: “He was young and everybody I talked to who knew him in politics, which is such a tough business, commented on what a good person he was and what a great future he had.”

Speaking to the families of fallen soldiers in 2012, the Vice President – who had his own brush with death in 1988 after undergoing surgery for two brain aneurysms – sounded a hopeful note to those dealing with grief.

“There will come a day,” he told them, “when the thought of your son or daughter, or your husband or wife, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.”

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