At last year's annual state Gridiron Dinner, Delaware's black-tie roast of its political class, a performer satirized Attorney General Beau Biden with an adaptation of the song "C'est Moi" from the musical Camelot. "The voters have chose to keep the dynasty so," went the new lyrics. "And here I stand, as pure as a prayer … successor to V.P. Joe!"
The skit conveyed an essential truth: Joseph Robinette "Beau" Biden III is very much the prince of Delaware. Growing up there as Joe Biden's eldest offspring, "he's been in the parades since he's been 2," his aunt (and the vice president's sister), Valerie Biden Owens, told me. And now Beau is running for the state's highest office: In April, he announced he'll seek the governor's seat in 2016.
Biden handled the announcement in a way that was typical of his political style. There was a statement blasted to his supporters, and then silence. He didn't hold a press conference, and he seems set on dodging calls from reporters, at least until his term as attorney general ends in January. (Biden did not respond to my requests for an interview.) "He really shuns the limelight," says Stuart Grant, Biden's financial chair on previous campaigns. "I respect that tremendously as a friend of his. As a political adviser, I have to push him."
The types of words that people use to describe Beau Biden—"careful," "deliberate"—suggest a marked contrast to his famously garrulous father. And yet, the more I spoke to family and friends about both Beau and Joe, the more I was persuaded that the difference is only surface deep. In fact, the younger Biden may provide a window into how the elder Biden functions beneath his churning persona—and how he might approach his own run for chief executive in 2016.
MANY DELAWAREANS FIRST learned Beau Biden's name in 1972, when he survived a collision with a tractor-trailer that killed his mother and infant sister just days before his father was scheduled to be sworn into the Senate. Joe Biden took his oath of office from the hospital bedside of his sons—Beau and his younger brother, Hunter—then proceeded to make the trek to and from Washington every day to be with them. "We, not the Senate, were all he cared about," Beau recalled when he introduced his father at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.
In their political as well as personal lives, the family is notoriously close. Beau was a reliable surrogate for his father in 2008 and 2012. When I asked Biden Owens if her brother would be involved in his son's 2016 campaign, she laughed. "Uh, yeah," she said. "I think the vice president, his dad, will be involved in everything in his life, as he's always been—and his Aunt Val, and his cousins, and his sister. For better or for worse, you get one of us, you get all of us." I asked if she thought it was possible that the Bidens' small family circle would be handling two campaigns in 2016. "Is it possible?" she repeated. "Of course it's possible."
After law school, a clerkship, and a series of posts with the Justice Department, it seemed obvious that Beau would eventually seek political office. In 2005, Delaware's attorney general accepted a judgeship with a year left in her term, and then-Gov. Ruth Ann Minner offered to appoint Beau to the job. But he declined, and instead chose to run for the post the following year, nearly losing to a seasoned Republican. "He thought that he, probably more than others, needed to earn it," Hunter Biden told me.
A similar dynamic played out after his father won the vice presidency and vacated his long-held Senate seat. Beau was just finishing a year with the Army National Guard in Iraq (during his time there, he delegated his attorney-general duties). Everyone assumed he would succeed Joe in Congress, but in the end, he declined to run. "He felt, No. 1, that he had a responsibility to the people as attorney general" that he had not fulfilled, Grant says. "But, No. 2, he also felt that he didn't want it to be handed to him as if it was a family seat."
The biggest question surrounding Beau Biden is his health. He had a stroke during his first term as attorney general, at age 41, and was admitted to a cancer center for a lesion in his brain last August, at 44. His doctor wrote in a February statement that he has "a clean bill of health," but the Bidens have refused to elaborate, or to explain the long scar on the left side of his head. When I asked his friends, they fired back by detailing his fitness regimen. "The last time I saw him, he was in his sixth or seventh mile, running a trail," says Bart Dalton, a lawyer in Wilmington.
Still, Republicans are dubious. When Biden announced that he was running for governor, he also said he wouldn't seek reelection as attorney general this year, noting that he didn't want his attention divided between his current post and his gubernatorial campaign. But Republicans have speculated that illness, not principle, stopped him from seeking reelection. "You and I both know people run as incumbents all the time," Charlie Copeland, chairman of the state GOP, told me. "The explanation doesn't make a lot of sense. … I think it's health-related."
Biden's taciturn approach has only encouraged the rumors. And it isn't the first time his measured political style has left him vulnerable to attacks: This spring, he responded to an uproar about the allegedly light sentencing of a child rapist from a powerful family by submitting a letter to The News Journal in Wilmington. Biden refused to answer further questions, and the GOP worked to paint him as an "absentee" executive.
"He does not seek the press coverage or the photo ops," Grant says. "Unlike his dad, who it comes naturally to, it does not come naturally to him." It's easy to imagine that Beau is erring on the side of caution to avoid the gaffes that so often trip up Joe. "No one can say for sure, but it's reasonable to assume that Beau learned from his dad's difficulties as well as his successes," Joe Pika, a professor of political science at the University of Delaware, wrote to me in an email.
According to Hunter, however, father and son are far from opposites. "They're not nearly as different as people may think," he says. "I think some of it is just style." The son has adopted his father's behind-the-scenes playbook. He keeps a tight inner circle made up mostly of family. Just as Biden Owens ran her brother's campaigns, her daughter Missy Owens managed Biden's first bid for attorney general; when Beau's political director, Josh Alcorn, declined to speak to me in May, he directed me to Hunter.
Above all, both Bidens "are careful, cautious politicians when it comes to planning their careers," wrote Pika. Beau is "a listener," says Dalton. "He's always reached out to people he respects for their advice." Likewise, in his memoir, the vice president describes the quorums of close associates—including his children—that he calls every time he has to make a big choice.
"My dad may seem as if some of the decisions that he makes or things that he says are off the top of his head, but, in reality, I don't know of anyone who is more thoughtful," Hunter told me. Beau's introspection might be on display; Joe's might be well hidden. But each one, Hunter says, "sees five or six steps ahead before he makes a decision."
Correction: This article originally stated that Beau Biden ran theDelaware attorney general's office remotely from Iraq. In fact, hedelegated his duties.
This article appears in the June 21, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Biden Dynasty.