The Tragedy Of Joe Biden Explained

If you've followed politics at any point over the past 50 years, you've certainly come across the name Joe Biden more than a few times. A man with a storied and complex life, Biden was involved in contentious Supreme Court nominations in his time as a senator from Delaware, before serving as vice president to Barack Obama for eight years, during which he helped distribute infrastructure stimulus money. As president he helped oversee the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, but even though Biden rose to the highest elected office in America — and as one of the oldest people to be elected president — during one of the U.S.'s most troubled periods, he has also struggled through tragedy and adversity throughout his own life.

Biden's political beliefs have varied over the years and can't be pinned down to a simple ideology. On the one hand, he opposed South African apartheid and supported fair housing laws, but on the other hand he worked closely with conservative senators to oppose some aspects of school desegregation and limit some civil rights for Americans. In addition, Biden was one of the key architects of a 1994 crime bill that ballooned U.S. prison populations in the 2000s, but that same bill also included the landmark Violence Against Women Act.

With beliefs that can straddle both sides of the political spectrum, he has always been able to get along with his colleagues in the Senate, and has the uncanny ability to make connections with everyday men and women on a personal level. And for someone with such a seemingly gifted life, he's suffered more than his share of tragedy.

Joe Biden was bullied for his stutter when he was young

Joe Biden — more properly, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr — was born to a working-class family in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Growing up, Biden was afflicted with a stutter. A stutter can have many etiologies (neurological, genetic, emotional) but always manifests as an inability to produce fluent speech, and is frequently accompanied by social stigma. In high school, Biden's classmates gave him the nicknames "Joe Impedimenta" and "Dash, the latter because his stutter was reminiscent of Morse code. At one point in his studies, a teacher mocked his stutter in class, bringing down the wrath of his mother upon her.

But rather than letting the stutter define him, Biden's determination to overcome it may have been the inciting incident in his political life. He would stay up late, reciting poetry by William Butler Yeats and Ralph Waldo Emerson until he could produce it perfectly. President Obama even went so far as to quote Yeats when awarding Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in early 2017.

Despite all this, even after 50 years, Biden's stutter has not fully gone away. He had a famous relapse in the 2020 campaign and continues to have issues when he speaks. In June 2024, Biden faced Donald Trump in the first televised debate of the presidential campaign, where the issue again raised its head. On that occasion, audiences were shocked at Biden's pronounced halting speech and frequent pauses, renewing ongoing concerns over Biden's age.

Joe Biden's wife and infant daughter died in a car accident

In 1964, Joe Biden met his first wife-to-be, Neilia Hunter, while on vacation in the Bahamas. Biden fell head-over-heels in love with the Syracuse University student, and after he graduated, he chose Syracuse as his law school, mostly to be closer to her. By 1966, they were married.

They had their first child, Joseph "Beau" Robinette Biden III, in 1969, Robert Hunter Biden was born in 1970, and Naomi Christina Biden was born in 1971. In 1972, Biden was campaigning to be a senator for Delaware, mostly because no other Democrats wanted to run against the Republican incumbent. To the surprise of nearly everyone, Biden won the election by a mere 3,000 or so votes, and weeks after the election, he turned 30, meeting the Senate's minimum age requirements.

On December 18th, Joe Biden left for Washington. While he interviewed staffers, Neila was to accompany him to help close on a house, but she opted to stay in Delaware for a day to get some Christmas shopping done with her three children. While pulling into an intersection, her car was struck by a tractor-trailer on the driver's side, demolishing the car and sending it into a ditch. Tragically, Neilia and Naomi were pronounced dead on arrival at the Wilmington Medical Center, while Beau suffered broken bones and Hunter sustained leg injuries.

Joe Biden had to commute from Washington, DC, to Delaware every day to raise his sons

Biden was so devastated by the loss of his wife Neilia and infant daughter Naomi in 1972  that he almost abandoned his aspirations of public service. He didn't leave the hospital bedside of his surviving sons for days, and the doctors had to sedate him to make him sleep. The thrill of being the second-youngest person ever elected to the Senate was replaced with the grief of a lost spouse and child, as well as the heavy responsibility of raising two young boys without a mother. The only things that kept him going were the support of his family in Delaware, and the new family he had discovered in the Senate.

And it wasn't just his fellow senators that consoled the future senator. Shortly after securing his second term in office, President Nixon called Biden to offer his condolences. The compassion Biden received from across the political spectrum convinced him to continue in his public service. To accommodate the grieving father, the secretary of the Senate traveled to Delaware to swear in Biden in the hospital. 

Biden agreed to a six-month trial period in the Senate, but he made sure that he continued to travel back to Delaware every night on the Amtrak so he could be with his children. This daily ritual of taking the Amtrak train to and from Wilmington earned him the sobriquet "Amtrak Joe."

Joe Biden has a spotty history with plagiarism

During his first year of law school at Syracuse University, Biden was accused of plagiarizing a paper for one of his classes. At the time, he was reprimanded and made to retake the class, without too much fuss being made of it, but the specter of this event would come back to haunt him over 20 years later.

In 1987, Biden was in the midst of his first campaign for the presidency. During his closing remarks at a Democratic primary debate at the Iowa State Fair, against the likes of Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and Jesse Jackson, Biden partially quoted a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock. Biden had credited Kinnock earlier in his campaign, but this unforced error would come to haunt him up to the present day.

Biden was doing well enough in 1987 that the eventual Democratic nominee, Dukakis, put together a hit piece on Biden's gaffe and distributed it to the media. The final nail in the coffin of Biden's first presidential campaign came when it was revealed he had lied about his academic record. He had claimed that he finished in the top half of his class at Syracuse University, when he actually ranked near the bottom. He also claimed that he went to Syracuse on a full-ride scholarship, which was also untrue. These and other lies were aired on C-SPAN in 1987, and led to the end of Biden's presidential aspirations for 20 years.

An aneurysm almost killed Joe Biden after his first failed presidential run

After being forced out of the 1988 presidential race, Joe Biden was under a lot of stress. In addition to his ambitions for president, he was also the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and had overseen contentious appointment hearings for Supreme Court nominations. He had taken to carrying around a bottle of Tylenol because he was suffering from daily headaches.

In February of 1988, he suffered his worst headache yet after giving a speech in Rochester, New York, which left him unconscious for hours. When he awoke the next morning, he returned to Delaware, but his symptoms were severe enough that he was rushed to the hospital shortly after arriving home, and a priest was called in case last rites needed to be administered. Biden had suffered an aneurysm near the base of his brain, which required brain surgery.

He was driven from Delaware to Washington, where he was checked in to Walter Reed Hospital. Biden was told that his chances for survival were only 50%, and that if he did survive, there was a possibility that he could lose his ability to speak. After two surgeries — during which a second aneurysm was found — Biden had a noticeable sag on the right side of his face and doctors were unsure if he would ever regain full use of his facial muscles. But six months after his first surgery, Biden was back to work in the Senate.

Joe Biden's oldest son Beau died from brain cancer

Joe Biden's eldest son, Beau Biden, was a rising political star outside of his father's large shadow. He attended Syracuse University's law school – just like his father — and in 2007, Beau was elected as Delaware's attorney general. When his father became vice president in 2008, he could have taken his father's seat in the Senate, but opted to remain as attorney general in order to focus his efforts on a high-profile criminal case.

Beau was also a member of the Delaware National Guard, and served overseas in Iraq as a judge advocate general in 2009. When he returned home, he suffered a mild stroke, but after recovering he won a second term as attorney general. In 2013, he was diagnosed with brain cancer, and he opted not to seek reelection a year later and instead announced that he would be running for governor in 2016.

Shortly after Beau's initial diagnosis of brain cancer, a small lesion was removed from his brain, and doctors thought the issue was resolved. However, the disease steadily progressed despite chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Beau Biden died in 2015 at the age of 46, leaving behind his wife Hallie, and two children Natalie and Hunter. The death of Beau was such a heavy blow to the Biden family that it directly affected the political career of his father: Before Beau's death, Joe Biden was primed to run for president in 2016, but in the wake of his grief, he couldn't give all of his heart to the endeavor.

Ashley Biden's diary was stolen and sold to the media

Joe Biden met his current wife Jill in 1975, after his brother set them up on a date. Over the next two years, Biden proposed to her five times before they were married in 1977. Their daughter, Ashley Blazer Biden, was born in 1981.

Ashley graduated from the same high school as her father — Archmere Academy in Delaware — but didn't follow in her father's political footsteps. Instead, she obtained an Ivy League master's degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania, before working for social service organizations in and around Philadelphia and Delaware.

In 2020, in the lead-up to her father's third campaign for president, Ashley Biden had quit her job and was moving out of a friend's house in Florida. She left behind some personal belongings for her friend to store temporarily, including a hand-written diary. A few days later, that friend let another acquaintance, Aimee Harris, stay in the same room where she found Ashley Biden's belongings. Harris and a friend ended up selling the diary and other personal belongings to Project Veritas for $20,000 each. The diary was published in full a week before the 2020 election by a site called National File.

Joe Biden's reputation has been tarnished by his son's shady business dealings

In 1995, Hunter Biden was about to graduate from law school when he received an offer from Delaware bank MBNA for a large, undisclosed sum of money. MBNA also just happened to be one of Joe Biden's largest campaign contributors. Although there is no evidence of impropriety regarding Hunter's time at MBNA, it did allow him to pursue more high-profile business ventures.

Some of those business ventures included a lobbying firm — Oldaker Biden & Belair — along with a hedge fund where he received a salary in excess of $1 million, a consulting firm, and in 2013, Hunter was named CEO of a Chinese, state-backed, private equity fund called BHR Partners. BHR was an investor in Sinopec, an oil refiner in Asia. The Biden administration, through the Department of Energy, sold oil to a Sinopec subsidiary in 2022. It doesn't appear that Hunter profited from this transaction and he maintains that he resigned from BHR's board in 2019, although Biden's political rivals have latched on to Hunter's past involvement as evidence of current corruption.

Hunter's past is a murky one, but his highest-profile business scandal came as a direct result of his joining the board of Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma. At the time, in 2016, Vice President Joe Biden was instrumental in having a corrupt Ukrainian politician removed from his position. That politician, Victor Shokin, created the narrative that he was fired for investigating Burisma, which would make Biden look bad by proxy. Again, there's no evidence of wrongdoing, but the optics were terrible for a sitting vice president.

Joe Biden has had to help his son overcome addiction

Hunter Biden's substance addiction issues began early in his life, at just 14, when he split a six-pack with his friend. By the time he was 18, he had already begun misusing harder drugs, and had been arrested for cocaine possession. Over the years, Hunter took numerous trips to rehab in attempts to address his addiction, but in 2014, at age 44, he was given an administrative discharge from the Navy Reserve after testing positive for cocaine.

The following year, his brother Beau died from brain cancer and, as a result, Hunter's addiction issues got far worse. Shortly after Beau's death, he began an affair with his brother's widow, Hallie, with whom he shared an addiction to crack cocaine. Around this time, Hunter's wife, Kathleen, discovered his drug addiction when she found a crack pipe in his car. It was also around this time that his affair with Hallie was exposed, and Kathleen began the process of divorcing him. For the next four years, Kathleen would search his car for drugs so that their daughters could borrow it safely.

In 2018, in the midst of his addiction to drugs and alcohol, Hunter bought a gun. Hallie discovered it shortly afterward and threw it away, but in 2024, Hunter was convicted for lying about his drug misuse when purchasing a gun, and for owning a gun while misusing drugs. After the conviction, Joe Biden reiterated his role as a father and his commitment to support his son.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).