'I had to turn the loss into purpose': How Joe Biden shares Iowans' grief on the campaign trail
Former Vice President Joe Biden talks about sharing in grief with people he meets on the rope lines. Des Moines Register
Gary Craven went to see Joe Biden speak on a farm in Boone and felt compelled to wait behind.
As he sat on a folding chair facing a barn draped with an Iowa flag, he knew he needed to tell Biden about his son.
The retired electrical lineman and former vice president have something in common: Each of them has lost a son.
Biden’s son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015 at the age of 46. Craven’s son, Todd, died in April 2018 of alcohol withdrawal after he tried to quit drinking. Todd was 47.
The grief still hits Craven when he doesn't expect it.
"There’s times when it’s really raw," he said. "… He was the light of my life."
Stories of grief, like Craven’s, are a constant for Biden on the campaign trail. Biden's own losses have helped define his public image his entire political career.
Biden was a 29-year-old senator-elect from Delaware in 1972 when a car crash killed his wife, Neilia, and their 1-year-old daughter, Naomi, and left his sons, Beau and Hunter, then 3 and 2 years old, hospitalized. Biden was sworn into the Senate by their hospital bedside. Photos of that 1973 event show Beau watching from his hospital bed as Biden, his hand on a Bible, is sworn in by the then-senate secretary.
Years later, his grief over Beau’s death would keep him from joining the 2016 presidential race.
Those losses have long helped Biden, 77, connect with voters on a personal level few other candidates can match. He has turned his tragedies into purpose as he again seeks the presidency.
Although Biden has slipped from first place in the two most recent Iowa Polls, these moments of shared grief give Iowa Democrats a connection with the former vice president that they say transcends politics.
Craven, 68, plans to caucus for Biden, in part, because of how the former vice president advocates for the middle class. But waiting in the August sun, struggling to be heard over the din of the campaign’s blasting music, it was not about politics. It was a moment of humanity.
"He cares," Craven said.
'To be honest with you, sometimes it's difficult'
Connecting with others' grief refreshes his own pain, Biden told the Des Moines Register in an interview in October.
Even in that interview, Biden's emotions were close to the surface. He spoke softly, pausing before recalling particularly painful memories, his voice cracking when speaking about his family.
"Well, to be honest with you, sometimes it’s difficult because when those things happen, it brings back everything in your own life, as if it sort of happened yesterday," he said.
But Biden feels compelled to make himself available. Campaign officials say they try to structure events so that Biden has time to speak one-on-one with as many Iowans as possible. When he doesn't have time to talk, he asks for people’s phone numbers, promising to call them, or gives out his own number and urges them to call so they can share a longer moment.
He knows from his own experience that the people who can bring the most solace to others are the ones who have experienced loss, he said.
"What they're really saying (is), 'Tell me I'm going to be okay. Tell me I can get through it. How’d you get through it?' " he said. "And so 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."
"People come up to me and say, I mean literally, people will say ... 'I lost my daughter 10 days ago,' " Biden said, pausing as that pain sinks in. " 'Will you just hug me?' Men. 'Just hug me. Let me know, can I make it?' In the extent that it gives any solace, I feel like I'm kind of paying back what people did for me."
Biden says his family — his son Hunter, 49, his daughter, Ashley, 38, his wife Jill, 68, and their grandchildren — is his rock during the presidential campaign.
Those family members are not only a comfort to Biden, they're an important part of his political identity.
Biden's swearing-in to the Senate by his boys' hospital bedside drew national attention to the young senator. Now, more than 40 years later, Jill Biden frequently holds campaign events for her husband while Hunter Biden has become a target of Republican attacks for his work on the board of a Ukrainian gas company — allegations that are at the center of the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. Biden is at his most vociferous when defending his family from attacks.
"I knew they'd go after anything that I held sacred," he said. "And everybody knows that for me, the beginning, middle and end is family."
After the 1972 car crash, which killed Neilia and Naomi after they were struck broadside by a truck while Christmas shopping, Biden was a single father for five years, raising Beau and Hunter by himself before marrying Jill Biden in 1977. He said he’d hear people giving him credit for taking the boys to school every day and riding the Amtrak home every night to be with them.
But the truth is, he said, he needed them more than they needed him.
"One of the things that I found was, for me, I had to turn the loss into purpose. And for me, my two boys survived when I lost my wife and daughter and I realized that they were my purpose in life," he said.
The losses have tested the Bidens' Catholic faith, as well.
Jill Biden said Beau’s death in 2015 was hard on the whole family. She said that, right up until the moment Beau died, she was convinced he would pull through.
"Because I believed it so strongly, I really felt abandoned by my faith," she told the Register in October.
For four years after Beau's death, she didn't pray or go to church, she said.
It wasn’t until earlier this year, when a woman approached Jill Biden at a campaign event at Brookland Baptist Church, a predominantly African American church in South Carolina, and offered to be her prayer partner, that she said she began regularly praying again. And it wasn’t until October that she said she felt comfortable going back to church.
"I haven’t fully jumped back in, but I’m inching my way back," she said.
But for Joe Biden, his Catholic faith has always played a role in getting him through the darkest moments. And wherever he goes, he carries with him a physical religious reminder of his son: a rosary, designed as a bracelet, that Beau was wearing when he died.
"And I know, I know he’s with me. I know, I really do. He’s inside me," Biden said.
'And if he can do that, so can I'
Jolene Prescott, a retired Des Moines teacher, recently experienced her own loss. Her husband, Ronald Prescott, died of pancreatic cancer in May 2017. Prescott, 61, said she supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election but couldn’t volunteer because she was caring for her husband.
"I feel you never get over the loss. But you cope. And you get through it. And if he can do that, so can I," Prescott said.
Now, she's a precinct captain for Biden. She makes phone calls for his campaign and buys snacks for his volunteers and campaign staff.
"My husband’s gone now, and I jumped right in," she said at a Biden pre-party at the Polk County Steak Fry in September.
Cheryl Parrish, 62, heard Biden speak at a campaign office opening in Iowa City in August. She said she admired how Biden handled being in the public eye during Beau’s illness and death.
"He shared very real pain and very real feeling and he was out there and honest with people and, to me, that said a lot that he could, that he was willing to be that open," she said. "That tells me a lot about him, as a human being, and I think we’re sorely in need of that right now. We need somebody who is human, you know? That can actually feel that, and touch people and I believe that he does that."
We spoke to former Vice President Joe Biden about some of the personal losses in his life and how it impacts his interactions on the campaign trail. Des Moines Register
She told the Register in August that her own son, 38, was in treatment for colorectal cancer.
"I felt his pain," she saidof Biden. "And you could just tell, when he was talking, the struggle it took him — the struggle between loving and supporting his family and then seeing what was going on with the country and feeling the need and being pulled to try to do something with that, too."
She said he made the right choice not to run for president in 2016, following Beau's death. And, she said, he's making the right choice to run this year.
"He had to be there for his family. And now he’s, like, 'OK, now I need to try to do something to help the country,' " she said.
Biden’s personal experience with cancer and passion for finding a cure is one of the traits that has motivated members of his campaign staff.
Jesse Harris, Biden’s senior Iowa campaign adviser, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in September 2017 and had success in treating it.
Harris has worked on several Iowa campaigns in the past — including those of U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, President Barack Obama and the Iowa Democratic Party in 2008 — and done consulting work. Biden’s emphasis on researching cures for cancer is part of what inspired him to jump back into his first full-time campaign job since 2010.
"I think, for me, having to tell your daughter and your son and your wife that you have cancer and you don’t know what’s going to happen, you want to have a situation where other families don’t have to go through that," he said. "And if the vice president can be part of that mission as president, I think that's a real motivating factor for me to help try to do whatever I can."
'It shows a side of Joe Biden that you may not know'
Even before Biden brings up his losses and before Iowans approach him to tell their stories, people introduce him at events by describing his compassion for others' grief.
On his first visit to the state as a 2020 presidential candidate, state Sen. Pam Jochum introduced Biden in Dubuque by reading from a letter he wrote to her after her daughter, Sarah, died in August 2018 at the age of 41.
" 'Dear Pam, Jill and I were heartbroken to learn of the tragic passing of your beloved daughter, Sarah. You and I share the unfortunate bond of having lost a child and understanding the grief that comes with such a tragedy. For us, some days are harder than others, but our beautiful memories of our kids will always be with us,' " Jochum read from the letter.
For Jochum, who has not endorsed a candidate for president, the letter showed Biden’s decency and kindness.
"Of course, he also called," Jochum said at the April event. "… I think it shows a side of Joe Biden that you may not know, but it’s good to know."
At a campaign stop in Knoxville last week, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack described how Biden stopped his son Jess at an event this year to ask how he was doing after the death of Jess' six-year-old daughter, Ella.
"I want a president that has that empathy," said Vilsack, who has endorsed Biden.
On the campaign trail, Biden often brings up the car crash to thank the first responders or to make a point about health care. Beau is also a regular part of Biden’s stump speech when he’s discussing health care or the military. Beau served in the Delaware Army National Guard and deployed to Iraq from 2008 to 2009.
Sometimes, Biden brings up Beau, unprompted, when shaking hands after his events. When Kerry McCandless stayed to greet Biden after an event in Burlington in August and told him she was a registered nurse, he brought up Beau’s time in the hospital "and how nurses make a huge difference," she said.
"He just said the nurses were angels," her husband, Michael McCandless, a retired correctional officer said.
People will mention Beau, either in private conversations with Biden ahead of his events or in their introductions. Invariably, this prompts him to share his own memories.
"A number of you mentioned Beau to me today and it means a lot to Jill and me," Biden said to a veteran who introduced him in Waterloo in July. "He was a wonderful, decent, honorable man."
As he held a veteran-focused town hall in Oskaloosa on Veterans Day this month, Biden strayed into a reminiscence about Beau’s military service — and his own unrealized hopes about his son’s political career.
"The person who I anticipated running for president this year was Beau Biden, not Joe Biden," he said.
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.
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