How tragedy shaped Joe Biden for this moment

By Farrah Tomazin

Joe Biden, centre, pauses alongside his family as they to enter a visitation for his son, former Delaware attorney-general Beau Biden, after he died of brain cancer aged 46 in 2015.Credit:AP

Save articles for later

Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.

A few weeks after he was elected as a US Senator in 1972, Joe Biden received the phone call that would change his life forever.

His family had been Christmas shopping near their home in Delaware, when a tractor trailer smashed into their car, killing his wife Neilia and their 15-month-old daughter Naomi.

Joe Biden has won the presidency.Credit:AP

Biden was just 30 at the time. Four decades later, his eldest son Beau, who survived the crash along with his other son Hunter, died of brain cancer.

While Joe Biden’s story is steeped in tragedy, it’s his very grief that allows America’s 46th President to connect with a nation in its own collective trauma.

“I know that deep black hole that opens up in the middle of your chest and makes you feel like you’re being sucked into it,” he told the country during his Democratic National Convention speech in August.

“I know how mean, cruel, and unfair life can be sometimes… but I found the best way through pain, and loss and grief is to find purpose.”

Americans have changed the channel on Donald Trump's reality TV presidency.Credit:AP

By the time Donald Trump learnt he had lost the election on Sunday (AEST), almost 240,000 Americans had died from a raging pandemic, a further 20 million were unemployed, and the US had just set a new national record for coronavirus cases, with more 105,000 infections in one single day.

Biden – who, at 77 will soon become the oldest president in US history – now has the seemingly insurmountable task of tackling those problems, while mending the wounds of a fiercely fractured country.

After almost five decades in politics, his backers insist he is up to the task. Those who know the President-elect describe him as someone whose greatest strength is his empathy, with a talent for listening and bringing people together.

Just as Trump was the Great Divider, they say, Biden will be the Healer-in-Chief.

Former US President Barack Obama and then Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speak at a rally in Flint, Michigan.Credit:AP

“I know he’ll do the job with the best interests of every American at heart, whether or not he had their vote,” former president Barack Obama said of his former vice-president in a statement today.

“So I encourage every American to give him a chance and lend him your support.”

The road to the White House hasn’t always been smooth for Biden, who unsuccessfully tried twice to win the Democratic nomination for presidency: first in 1987, and again in 2007. Both attempts were a disaster.

His first campaign was derailed after he plagiarised a speech originally given by a UK politician, while his second attempt was filled with gaffes – including one in which he described Obama, his then Democratic rival, as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate, and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”

This year, however, the Irish Catholic got lucky. After an initially rocky start in the Democratic primaries, Biden clinched his party's presidential nomination following a stunning win in South Carolina, in which the black community effectively saved his campaign against Bernie Sanders.

And today, following four excruciating days of counting, it was his childhood home of Pennsylvania that gave Biden enough Electoral College votes to make him the new US president. After three attempts over 33 years, Biden finally won the keys to the Oval Office.

Born in 1942 in the former coal-mining town of Scranton, about 200 kilometres from Philadelphia, the young Joe Biden was a “scrappy” little kid who struggled with a stutter and spent much of his childhood trying to overcome it.

“Some letters are harder than others,” he once said, “so I used to get up at night and go stand in front of the mirror with a flashlight and practice.”

The Biden family lived in the neighbourhood of Green Ridge until he was 10, when his father, who had lost his job, began commuting to Delaware to clean boilers for a heating and cooling company, and decided it would be easier to just move the whole family there.

Delaware is where Biden still lives with his second wife, Jill – prompting Trump to accuse him of “abandoning” Pennsylvania – but his working class childhood roots were central to his campaign, which he described as "a contest between Scranton and Park Avenue.”

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to reporters after he visited his childhood home in Scranton with his granddaughters Natalie, centre, and Finnegan.Credit:AP

Indeed, on the morning of Election Day, after attending mass and visiting the graves of his son, first wife and daughter, Biden popped into his old house on North Washington Avenue, as he often does whenever he’s in town, to say hello to its current owner.

On one of her walls, he wrote a message: “From this house to the White House with the Grace of God.”

Biden’s campaign was very much a referendum on Donald Trump, and some who voted for him arguably did so more for their hatred of the current president, rather than as an overwhelming endorsement of his successor.

Even within the Democratic Party itself, there were fears that he was too old, too gaffe-prone, too much a part of the Washington elite.

He couldn't excite a crowd like progressive Senator Bernie Sanders, they'd often say. He lacked the policy smarts of Elizabeth Warren. He didn’t have the exuberance and youth of Pete Buttigieg.

Maybe so, but what Biden did have was experience, empathy, and a desire for unity.

In an exhausted nation ravaged by COVID-19, economic shock, and racial injustice, “Sleepy Joe” turned out to be the right man for the moment.

Most Viewed in World

Source: Read Full Article