OPINION — There seems to be a weight to being Joe Biden these days. It’s not that he lost Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s lost races before. And it’s not that he used to be the Democratic front-runner for president, and the nomination isn’t so assured anymore. Biden has failed twice to become president already — he knows he’ll survive just fine.
The weight on Biden’s shoulders seems to be deeper than that and connected to the fact that after a lifetime of politics as the family business, 2020 is the first campaign Biden is running without his two sons by his side.
His oldest, Beau, who was named after Biden and whom he often called “my soul,” died in 2015 of terminal brain cancer, a process that drags people through a forest of pain, confusion, dementia, and eventually relief.
Beau had been a fixture in Biden’s earlier presidential bids, making the case for his dad in ways nobody else could. In 2008, after 38-year-old Beau Biden spoke to a house party in Cedar Falls, Iowa, about Joe Biden “the man,” attendees seemed half-ready to vote for his dad for president and half-ready to vote for Beau.
Without Beau to lean on in 2020, Biden might have naturally turned to his younger son, Hunter, for that kind of help and support on the campaign trail.
But a New Yorker profile of Hunter Biden from last year made it clear that 2020 would be the first campaign of his dad’s that he would miss too.
“Beau and I have been there since we were carried in baskets during his first campaign,” Hunter said. “We went everywhere with him. At every single major event and every small event that had to do with his political career, I was there. I’ve never missed a rally for my dad. The notion that I’m not standing next to him in Philadelphia, next to the Rocky statue, it’s heartbreaking for me. It’s killing me and it’s killing him. Dad says, ‘Be here.’ Mom says, ‘Be here.’ But at what cost?”
The question, asked earlier in 2019, seems like foreshadowing because the cost of this campaign to unseat Donald Trump, thanks largely to the president himself, has been immense for the entire Biden family.
As accusations of self-dealing and corruption in Ukraine against the president seemed sure to result in his impeachment, Trump and congressional Republicans accused Hunter and Joe Biden of the same and much worse.
Even Biden’s former Senate colleagues who had known Hunter as a child, racing through the Senate dining room, demanded to have the father and son both testify in an impeachment trial if Trump administration officials had to testify too.
“I love Joe Biden,” South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham told reporters during the impeachment trial. “But I can tell you, I’m not gonna sit on the sidelines and just watch the Trumps be looked at.” If the president was under investigation, Graham said he wanted Hunter on the Hill as well.
“I’m disappointed. He was friends with Jill, he was friends with Beau, he was friends with Hunter,” Biden told NBC’s Chuck Todd last week, adding that he’d be willing to talk to Graham one more time, if only to ask him a single question: Why?
Living with ‘the unimaginable’
A song in the musical “Hamilton” calls losing a child “the unimaginable.” As I watch Biden move through his days of speeches, campaign events and TV interviews, I think about the race he’s running while he lives with “the unimaginable” of losing his first-born son, made nearly unbearable, it seems, by the scrutiny this particular campaign has placed on his second son too.
When we lose somebody, relief can sometimes come from work or from being around strangers who know nothing of what you’ve lost. They can help you change the subject in your mind, even for just a moment.
But Biden has no such solace in his day-to-day because people seek him out, after every event, on every rope line, to talk about Beau. The back slaps, “Hey, Mans!” and “Thank you, brothers!” that once infused a Joe Biden event are less frequent, replaced by quiet nods in hushed conversations with voters who have come to share their grief.
“People will come up to me and say, … ‘I lost my daughter 10 days ago. Will you just hug me?’ Men. ‘Just hug me. Let me know, can I make it?’” he told The Des Moines Register last fall of the phenomenon that is impossible to miss. “It’s something that I can’t say I enjoy doing, but I know what solace I got from people telling me, ‘You can make it,’ in effect, because they made it. And so that’s why I do it.”
No matter what happens with Joe Biden’s presidential bid, it’s worth pausing to appreciate what he’s achieved already by mounting a bid he has said he believes Beau would be running if he were still alive today.
Biden may still do well enough in South Carolina to continue his campaign. He may do so well, he’ll change the conversation entirely. He may go on to continue in this campaign and even win the White House against the odds. But whatever political heights he achieves, he’ll do it without his sons by his side. It takes courage to do that. It takes heart. As a parent, I honestly don’t know he does it.
What a lonely burden to bear.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.