We sometimes assume that the pinnacle of American politics provides a sanctuary from heartbreak aside from assassination. The death of Beau Biden at age 46 from brain cancer reminds us that tragedy does not sidestep the families of the powerful.
What makes the loss even more tragic was that this young man—the father of two children—was so accomplished at such a young age. He did not simply coast off his father’s accomplishments, but sought success in his own right, serving as a major in the Judge Advocate General Corps, working to bring rule of law to war-torn Kosovo and spending a year in Iraq, all while winning elected office as Delaware’s attorney general at age 37.
Beau delivered his father’s nomination speech at the 2008 Democratic convention, bringing many in the auditorium, including his father, to tears. Beau would have almost certainly been elected to fill his father’s seat in the U.S. Senate but he declined to run because he did not want to seem like he was simply riding his dad’s coattails. He had prosecutions to complete, he explained. And he would instead explore running for governor in 2016.
This family tragedy is of course compounded by the tragedy that began Joe Biden’s political career—a car crash that killed his first wife, Beau’s mom, Neilla, five weeks after an improbable victory that made Biden the youngest man elected to the Senate in the 20th century. Beau and his brother Hunter were seriously injured and their sister died. Joe Biden refused to return to Washington to be sworn in as senator, sitting by his sons’ hospital beds, saying, “Delaware can get another senator, but my sons can’t get another father.” Beau and Hunter were the reason that Joe Biden famously took the Amtrak home after votes in the Senate every night. He had his priorities straight.
We live in a time when very few politicians’ private actions are transformed into admirable legend, but Joe Biden’s steady devotion to Beau and Hunter are a big part of the reason this vice president is broadly beloved on a personal level that transcends partisan politics. His son’s success was evidence that parents could reap what they sow even when faced with the gravest tests amid unrelenting pressure. Perhaps that’s why Beau Biden’s untimely passing feels a little like a death in the family for all of us tonight.