43 years after car crash, Beau Biden’s death leaves Joe Biden grieving again

Beau and Joe Biden on stage at the 2008 Democratic National Convention (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden delivered the commencement address at Yale University, where he recalled the 1972 car accident that killed his wife, Neilia, and 1-year-old daughter, Naomi, and left his two sons, Beau, 3, and Hunter, 2, hospitalized.

The then-30-year-old had recently been elected to the U.S. Senate.

I got elected as the second-youngest man in the history of the United States to be elected, the stuff that provides and fuels raw ambition. And if youre not careful, it fuels a sense of inevitability that seeps in. But be careful. Things can change in a heartbeat. I know, Biden said. Six weeks after my election, my whole world was altered forever. While I was in Washington hiring staff, I got a phone call. My wife and three children were Christmas shopping, a tractor-trailer broadsided them and killed my wife and killed my daughter. And they werent sure that my sons would live.

Biden began commuting four hours a day from Washington to Wilmington, Del., for weeks to be with his sons in the hospital.

I did it because I wanted to be able to kiss them good night and kiss them in the morning the next day, he said. No, Ozzie and Harriet breakfast or great familial thing, just climb in bed with them. Because I came to realize that a child can hold an important thought, something they want to say to their mom and dad, maybe for 12 or 24 hours, and then it’s gone. And when its gone, its gone. And it all adds up.

Biden strongly considered not taking an oath of office in the wake of the crash.

I was supposed to be sworn in with everyone else that year in 73, but I wouldnt go down [to Washington], he said.

Biden was eventually sworn in — at Beaus bedside.

The May 17 speech at Yale has added poignancy following the death of Beau Biden on Saturday after a battle with brain cancer. Beau, Joes oldest son, was just 46 years old.

The incredible bond I have with my children is the gift Im not sure I would have had, had I not been through what I went through, Joe Biden said. Who knows whether I would have been able to appreciate at that moment in my life, the heady moment in my life, what my first obligation was.

In an emotional speech the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Beau Biden recalled his father staying with them in the hospital.

One of my earliest memories was being in that hospital, Dad always at our side. We, not the Senate, were all he cared about, Beau Biden said. He decided not to take the oath of office. He said, Delaware can get another senator, but my boys cant get another father. However, great men like Ted Kennedy, Mike Mansfield, Hubert Humphrey — men who had been tested themselves — convinced him to serve. So he was sworn in, in the hospital, at my bedside. As a single parent, he decided to be there to put us to bed, to be there when we woke from a bad dream, to make us breakfast, so he’d travel to and from Washington, four hours a day.

In a statement announcing his sons death, Joe Biden said Beau battled brain cancer with the same integrity, courage and strength he demonstrated every day of his life. … Beau Biden was, quite simply, the finest man any of us have ever known.

At Yale, Joe Biden said there were those who doubted his commitment to the office.

Looking back on it, the truth be told, the real reason I went home every night was that I needed my children more than they needed me, he said. Some at the time wrote and suggested that Biden cant be a serious national figure. If he was, hed stay in Washington more, attend to more important events. Its obvious hes not serious. He goes home after the last vote. But I realized I didnt miss a thing.