Inside Joe Biden's Unbreakable Bond With Late Son Beau Biden

Beau Biden's presence can be felt at celebrations, in the Oval Office, even in the baby named for the uncle he'd never meet. But for President Joe Biden, it's deeper than that: "Beau is my soul."

By Sarah Grossbart Feb 03, 2021 4:48 PMTags

As presidential scandals go, it was admittedly tame. 

Barely two days into President Joe Biden's term, The New York Times splashed a story across their pages questioning why the new commander in chief was wearing a $7,000 Rolex Datejust when "recent presidents" have "tended to wear Everyman timepieces such as Timex and Shinola." 

Watergate it was not. And yet the story grew traction, people largely wondering why it was news at all.

It's hardly surprising that the 78-year-old would sport such a pricey accessory, with former politicians tending to do well after a White House exit. Like others who had transitioned from Washington, D.C., to the private sector, Biden had cleaned up on the lecture circuit, turning his 36 years in the senate and eight as Barack Obama's vice president into a six-figure-per-speech price tag and a lucrative book deal.

And having pocketed a reported $16 million before winning the presidency in 2020, surely he had the cash on hand to buy himself something pretty. 

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Which he did. That turned out to be all there was to the story. 

But for a minute there, a particularly enticing tale circulated suggesting that the watch had actually belonged to his eldest son Beau Biden, who died in 2015 at the age of 46 following a two-year battle with brain cancer. 

Perhaps we just wanted the rumor to be true, a sweet coda to the election Beau helped inspire, having pushed his dad to seek out the highest office in the land for a third time. (He also had a hand in selecting his running mate. Joe said he picked Vice President Kamala Harris, a close friend of Beau's from their days as attorneys general, in part because, "There is no one's opinion I valued more than Beau's.")

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But it also just felt like something the outwardly emotional politician might do. 

Joe had already decked out his new Oval Office digs with a sweet photo of his son. And we imagine he played a part in helping his grandchildren settle on John Philip Sousa's "The Beau Ideal" as their inauguration entrance music, the president having spent so much of his campaign searching for signs of Beau's presence. 

And when he officially bid farewell to his life in Delaware the afternoon before he was sworn into office Jan. 20, he did so from the Major Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III National Guard/Reserve Center, telling supporters his one regret was not having his son at his side "Because we should be introducing him as president."

Born two-and-a-half years into Joe's marriage to college sweetheart Neilia Hunter Biden, Joseph Robinette 'Beau" Biden III certainly seemed the most likely to enter the family business. 

"I always knew that Beau would follow in his dad's footsteps," Dr. Jill Biden (who, for the record, gave that Rolex to her husband for Christmas one year) told Vanity Fair of the son she met shortly after her and Joe's first date in 1975. "He loved politics; he loved the campaigns, the picnics and coffees and parades."

At Joe's alma mater, Delaware's Archmere Academy, Beau's tendency to be a rule-follower earned him his nickname of "The Sheriff," younger brother Hunter Biden shared with The New Yorker in 2019. "If we wanted to jump off a cliff into a watering hole, I would say, 'I'm ready, let's go,' and Beau would say, 'Wait, wait, wait, before we do it, make sure there aren't any rocks down there.'"

His first campaign saw him elected student body president with Hunter, just 12 months his junior, helping to pass out campaign flyers. Building an impressive resume, Beau followed up college at the University of Pennsylvania with law school at Syracuse (graduating in 1994, 26 years after Dad) before working as a federal prosecutor and in private practice in Philadelphia.

He answered the call of military life, as well, enlisting in 2003 and rising to the rank of major in the Army National Guard, before running for Delaware attorney general in 2006. By that point, he was four years deep into a marriage with Hallie Olivere, the pair having welcomed daughter Natalie in 2004 and son Robert Hunter II in 2006.  

Between his experience and overall appeal, his political opportunities seemed limitless. As Joe wrote in his 2017 book Promise Me, Dad, Beau "had all the best of me, but with the bugs and flaws engineered out."

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No man is infallible, though, and in May 2010—eight months after returning from a yearlong tour of duty in Iraq that earned him a Bronze Star Medal—Beau suffered a setback, a medical emergency doctors categorized as a mild stroke.  

Three years later, he began to experience dizziness while out on runs, then, while on vacation, a stroke-like episode landed him in a Chicago hospital where doctors first discovered a lesion on his brain. Days later, Beau having been transferred to Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, his family received the crushing diagnosis: His tumor was a glioblastoma, the same aggressive cancer that had claimed Senator Edward Kennedy and would fell John McCain

His was Stage IV, putting his median life span at roughly a year. "It's a death sentence," Joe put it to TIME last January. "We knew right away. But you always hope for a miracle." 

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Because if anyone were to beat this, it would have been Beau, who fought aggressively, with subsequent surgery, radiation and chemotherapy putting him in remission. And in the spring of 2014, he announced his intentions to run for governor of his home state.

He assumed he'd be campaigning alongside his dad, who in his last term as vice president had decided to take that next step, making a third try at the presidency after cutting short runs in 1988 and 2008. But as Beau's condition worsened, Joe approached his sons over the Thanksgiving holiday and told them he thought it best to shelve his political ambitions for the moment to focus on family. 

Beau wasn't having it. "At one point he said it was my obligation to run, my duty," Joe wrote in Promise Me, Dad. "Duty was a word Beau Biden did not use lightly." So Joe pushed forward with planning meetings even as Beau showed signs he was struggling with speech. "It'd be a play on words to say it would have killed him," Joe explained to Vanity Fair of what drove his initial White House run, "but it would have bothered Beau a great deal if I'd not run because of him."

That spring Beau underwent a tracheotomy that left him unable to speak. Weeks after, he entered Maryland's Walter Reed Medical Center, where he died 10 days later. 

"May 30. 7:51 p.m. It happened. My God, my boy. My beautiful boy," Joe wrote in heartbreaking diary passage shared in his book. In a statement released later, he praised his eldest as "a role model for our family," calling him, "quite simply, the finest man any of us have ever known."

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An unimaginable loss for most, it was yet another tragedy for the Scranton native to shoulder. 

As a 30-year-old freshly elected United States Senator, Joe had all the makings of a charmed life: A new job, having unseated a Republican incumbent, a strong romance with wife Neilia and the perfect nuclear family with then 3-year-old Beau, 2-year-old Hunter and 13-month-old daughter Naomi Biden

Then everything came to a literal crashing halt on Dec. 18, 1972, when a tractor-trailer slammed into the station wagon Neilia had used to take her three kids Christmas shopping. Neilia and Naomi were killed instantly "and they weren't sure that my sons would live," Joe reflected in a 2015 Yale commencement speech.

In the darkness of those first few days, "I began to understand how despair led people to just cash it in; how suicide wasn't just an option but a rational option," he wrote in his 2007 memoir Promises to Keep. "But I'd look at Beau and Hunter asleep and wonder what new terrors their own dreams held, and wonder who would explain to my sons my being gone, too. And I knew I had no choice but to fight to stay alive." 

His steady, calming presence in those weeks served as one of Beau's earliest memories, the AG shared at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, stumping for his father's vice presidential run. "Being in that hospital, Dad always at our side," he reflected. "We, not the Senate, were all he cared about." 

With his boys hospital-bound for months, Joe was sworn into his new position at their bedside. Insistent he be home for breakfast and bedtime, he famously took the train from his Delaware home into D.C., his daily two-hour trip earning him his "Amtrak Joe" nickname. That dedication served him as much as it did Beau and Hunter. "By focusing on my sons," I found my redemption," he noted in his Yale speech. "The incredible bond I have with my children is the gift I'm not sure I would have had, had I not been through what I went through."

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That innate ability to find even the slimmest of silver linings kept him pushing forward after Beau's death as well. "My mother used to say God never gives you a cross too heavy to carry," Jill reasoned to TIME. "But God got pretty close with Beau."

And, yet, just four days after the burial, "I watched Joe shave and put on his suit," Jill reflected in her speech at last August's Democratic National Convention. "I saw him steel himself in the mirror, take a breath, put his shoulders back, and walk out into a world empty of our son. He went back to work. That's just who he is."

That reservoir of strength came from Beau, a man who "did in 46 years what most of us couldn't do in 146," as Barack Obama put it while eulogizing the father of two during his June memorial at Wilmington's St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church. "The example he set made you want to be a better dad, or a better son, or a better brother or sister, better at your job, the better soldier. He made you want to be a better person."

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The sort of person that wanted to serve and do good on a grand scale. 

"Beau all along thought that I should run and I could win," Joe shared during an interview on 60 Minutes five months after his son's death, explaining his decision not to vie for the presidency. "But there was not what was sort of made out as kind of this Hollywood-esque thing that at the last minute Beau grabbed my hand and said, 'Dad, you've got to run, like, win one for the Gipper.' It wasn't anything like that."

In reality, Beau's ask was more modest. As Biden remembered it in his 2017 book, an increasingly weakened Beau implored him, "You've got to promise me, Dad, that no matter what happens, you're going to be all right. Give me your word, Dad, that you're going to be all right. Promise me, Dad."

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As impossible as it felt, the agreement pushed Joe to resume his VP duties days after the funeral and, after watching neo-Nazis with lit torches march through the streets of Charlottesville in 2017, contemplate yet another run at the White House. 

Because what Beau was asking of him was to stay engaged, he revealed during a CNN Town Hall last February. "He knew I'd take care of the family, but he worried what I would do is I would pull back and go into a shell and not do all the things I've done before," Joe explained. "It took a long time for me to get to the point to realize that that purpose is the thing that would save me. And it has. And every morning I get up and I say to myself...I hope he's proud of me."

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He got his answer later that month while campaigning in South Carolina. Struggling after a series of poor primary finishes, the devout Catholic decided to attend service at a small community church with his and Jill's daughter Ashley Biden. Sitting in a back pew, the two were stunned to hear "On Eagle's Wings" begin to play, the song "that reminds Dad of Beau," Ashley recently shared on TODAY. "Dad and I looked at each other, started bawling, hugged, and were like, 'This is Beau.'"

For Joe, it was a presence he'd missed on the campaign trail. Beau, he wrote in Promise Me, Dad, "had a way of instilling courage and calming me. Beau would always grab my arm just before I walked onstage and pull me back toward him until I was looking into his eyes. 'Dad. Look at me. Look at me, Dad. Remember, Dad. Home base, Dad. Home base.'" 

Joe's primary win in South Carolina resurrected his campaign. Six months later, after he officially accepted the Democratic Party's nomination, he tweeted, "Beau is with me every single day. If he was here tonight, he would remind me, 'just be who you are.' I'm a better person because of him." 


So whether he's looking at his photos or snuggling the grandson named in his memory, Joe know he'll continue to feel Beau all around. "I've found that there's that famous phrase from [Søren] Kierkegaard, 'Faith sees best in the dark,'" he shared at the CNN Town Hall. "For me, it's important because it gives me some reason to have hope. And purpose. But the only way I've been able to deal with when my wife was killed and my daughter were killed and that my son died, I've only been able to deal with it by realizing they're part of my being."

As he continues to spend each day striving to make his boy proud, he's come to a heartwarming realization, he shared: "My son Beau is my soul."