The Biden Dynasty

What you can learn about Joe from getting to know Beau.

National Journal
Nora Caplan Bricker
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Nora Caplan Bricker
June 18, 2014, 4 p.m.

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.

Beau Biden (Jason Minto Pho­to­graphy)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, he del­eg­ated his du­ties.

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