In his first speech as president-elect, the former vice president drew on his most personal pain.

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
November 11, 2020 08:00 AM
Advertisement

When Joe Biden searched for the words for his first speech as president-elect — words with which he hoped to lead a divided nation to its first step toward healing — it was the lyrics to On Eagle's Wings that kept coming back to him.

The hymn was long a favorite of Biden's big Irish-Catholic family but it had attached to a memory painful to him when it played at his son Beau's funeral Mass in 2015.

On Eagle’s Wings was a very special song to Beau and in the period after Beau passed, it was very difficult for Joe to listen to that hymn," says former Sen. Ted Kaufman, a close friend.

Now, as the hymn tugged at Biden's thoughts, he recognized it as proof that healing can happen — here at the end of a bitter presidential campaign, after a year of upheaval and protest against injustice, in the shadow of a deadly pandemic.

He found the right words.

"In the last days of the campaign, I’ve been thinking about a hymn that means a lot to me and to my family, particularly my deceased son Beau. It captures the faith that sustains me and which I believe sustains America," Biden, 77, said on Saturday night, hours after the 2020 presidential race was called for him and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris.

Beau, the eldest of Biden's three children and Delaware's former attorney general, died of brain cancer at age 42.

• For more of PEOPLE's coverage of the history-making election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, subscribe now or pick up the new issue, on newsstands Friday.

Joe Biden
| Credit: Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty; gioncarlo valentine
Beau (left) and Joe Biden in 2009
| Credit: Khalid Mohammed/Reuters

Speaking Saturday in a vast parking lot in Wilmington, Delaware, where his hometown supporters cheered from their cars to remain socially distanced (in accordance with protocols for reining in the novel coronavirus), President-elect Biden continued about the hymn: "I hope it can provide some comfort and solace to the more than 230,000 families who have lost a loved one to this terrible virus this year. ...

"And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,

"Bear you on the breath of dawn,

"Make you to shine like the sun,

"And hold you in the palm of His Hand.”

"And now, together — on eagle’s wings — we embark on the work that God and history have called upon us to do. With full hearts and steady hands, with faith in America and in each other, with a love of country — and a thirst for justice — let us be the nation that we know we can be," Biden said.

"A nation united. A nation strengthened. A nation healed."

From left: President-elect Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden
| Credit: Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty

In the wake of Biden's speech, Kaufman told PEOPLE for its new cover story on the election: Biden "has become kind of an expert on healing."

Weeks after he was first elected in 1972 to a Senate seat from Delaware at age 29, Biden had to bury his wife and baby daughter, killed in a car crash that left his young sons Beau and Hunter hospitalized.

Says Valerie Biden Owens, his sister and longtime adviser: "People don't care what you know until they know that you care. And because Joe has tasted tragedy as well as triumph, as he has walked the walk, people respond to him. And there's comfort in knowing that somebody else gets it."

Kaufman agrees.

"So when it comes to healing for the country, he knows it’s possible. Him standing there, reciting that hymn proves that you can come back from even the worst kind of pain.”

• With reporting by ADAM CARLSON