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Biden’s long and painful path to Democratic presidential nomination

Former Vice President Joe Biden has spent decades in public office. On Thursday night, he will finally accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. We look back at Biden’s personal story, fraught with tragedy and resilience, and his long political career as he arrives at this professional milestone. Lisa Desjardins reports.

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  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the first child in a vivacious, tight-knit Catholic family.

  • Former Vice President Joseph Biden:

    "Every single person, my dad used to say, no matter who they are, Joe," is entitled to be treated with dignity, a word I think that is probably used more here in Scranton, at least in my experience, than anywhere else.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Soon, tough times. His dad's business failed, and he ultimately moved the family to Delaware for a job.

    Tony Allen, president of Delaware State University, was a speechwriter for Biden in the '90s.

  • Tony Allen:

    He tells the story of his father losing his job, and the family having to move to Wilmington.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    My dad, who fell on hard times, always told me, though: "Champ, when you get knocked down, get up. Get up."

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In high school, Biden thrived as an athlete, but classmates called him Dash for his stutter. Author Steven Levingston:

  • Steven Levingston:

    He was subjected to a lot of bullying. And he didn't want that to define him. So, he worked really hard, staring in the mirror, and working his lips, and trying to make sure that he could speak.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    He stayed in Delaware for college, and, on a spring break trip, he met aspiring teacher Neilia Hunter. They married two years later.

    Biden got a law degree, and almost immediately jumped into local politics in the state's largest county.

  • Tony Allen:

    Joe Biden started his political career as a New Castle County councilman.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The 20-something councilman soon had three small children. He also had growing ambition. And, in 1972, Biden ran for U.S. Senate, an utter longshot.

  • Sam Donaldson:

    Let's take a look now at some of the very close Senate races.

    Delaware is the first state, J. Caleb Boggs, who is the incumbent Republican, being challenged by Joseph Biden.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    By just 3,000 votes, in the end, he won.

    Biden was an instant national headline.

  • Men and Women (singing):

    Happy birthday to you!

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Days after the election, he turned 30, and celebrated with his wife.

    But one month after that, tragedy — a car crash took the lives of wife Neilia and their 1-year-old daughter, Naomi. Their sons Hunter and Beau were injured. And Biden, who initially considered resigning, was sworn into the Senate from beside Beau's hospital bed.

  • Man:

    So help you God.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    I do.

  • Man:

    Congratulations, Senator.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    Thank you.

    If, in six months or so, there's a conflict between my being a good father and being a good senator, which I hope will not occur, we can always get another senator, but they can't get another father.

  • Nina Totenberg:

    Terrible tragedy.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Nina Totenberg is the justice correspondent for National Public Radio.

  • Nina Totenberg:

    I have a dim recollection of him being sort of a zombie for a little while, just sort of walking through the steps that you take to survive.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Biden commuted on Amtrak some four hours a day to be home with his kids at night.

  • Nina Totenberg:

    Joe Biden was a complete newbie. He was close to college age. And the people who really had power in the Senate in those days were the Dixiecrats, the old bulls.

    And he quickly discovered, I think, that if you wanted to get anything done, you had to go through them, and he was very effective at it.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Things started moving quickly. In 1975, Biden was placed on the powerful Foreign Relations Committee and, a few years later, on the Judiciary Committee.

    He met teacher Jill Tracy Jacobs. And, despite some proposal rejections, they married two years later, with the blessing of young Hunter and Beau.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    I'm ashamed of the lack of moral backbone to this policy!

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Still commuting to Washington by train, in the 1980s, Biden's life and profile grew. Daughter Ashley was born. And 1987 marked his first campaign for president.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    It is the obligation of this generation to care for and protect the future of our children.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Almost immediately, Biden ran into trouble.

    He had taken to quoting a British Labor Party leader in his speeches. But at an August debate in Iowa, Biden did not attribute the following quote:

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university? Why is it that my wife, who is sitting out there in the audience, is the first in her family to ever go to college?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Back on Capitol Hill, Biden faced questions about the alleged plagiarism.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    I saw that, and it was a connect. I mean, I could tell how that man felt.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Within one week, he would drop out of the race, just as he faced another test.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    There will be other opportunities for me to campaign for president. But there will not be many other opportunities for me to influence President Reagan's choice on the Supreme Court.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Biden, now chairman of the Judiciary Committee, oversaw the confirmation hearing of Judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court.

    It was sharp from the beginning.

  • Nina Totenberg:

    Having watched the Senate Judiciary Committee over the years, this is the one time where senators who were on offense actually were prepared. They asked good questions. They knew a lot about Bork. And Joe Biden led the charge.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Bork failed his confirmation vote.

  • Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.:

    The nomination is not confirmed.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Just a few months later, in 1988, a health crisis. Biden suffered two life-threatening aneurysms. A full seven months of recovery later, he returned to the Senate floor.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    I will not forget the sentiments expressed, the support given. It means a lot. Thank you very much.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Biden got back to work, and, as the '90s opened, a new test, the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

  • Former President George H.W. Bush:

    Clarence Thomas, seasoned now by more experience on the bench, fits my description of the best man at the right time.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Biden was still Judiciary chairman. The committee learned about charges of sexual harassment against Thomas from his former assistant Anita Hill.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    Do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?

  • Anita Hill:

    I do.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Other women came forward to testify, but Biden agreed with Republicans to limit the testimony to Hill alone.

    The televised hearings gripped the nation.

  • Anita Hill:

    His conversations were very vivid. He spoke about acts that he had seen and pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It would all make a searing impression on some women watching, like Aimee Allison, the founder of the pro-women group She the People.

  • Aimee Allison:

    I was an undergraduate, and I went to the common room in our dorm to watch the hearings. I saw the way that she was being treated by the white men on the Senate Judiciary Committee, both Democrat and Republican. Joe Biden was among them.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Biden stressed he would run a fair hearing.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    I have not made my judgment, based upon this proceeding, because we have not heard all the evidence.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But his handling of it, and the fact that other corroborating witnesses were never called, has raised sharp scrutiny.

  • Nina Totenberg:

    Just as the Republicans were really unprepared for the Bork hearings, the Democrats were unprepared for the fury and the determination of the Republicans, and that they would use any tactic to destroy the main witness against Thomas. Biden thought: My job to be fair.

    But his fairness, in the end, was in many ways unfair to Anita Hill.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    This entire proceeding is ended.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Biden spoke about the hearings last year.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    As the committee chairman, I take responsibility that she did not get treated well. I take responsibility for that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Later, Biden used the Judiciary chairmanship for big policy pushes, including, in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act, which created a national strategy for combating and prosecuting domestic abuse and sexual violence against women.

    He also led on a more controversial bill that was attached, the 1994 crime bill that imposed longer sentences for drug crimes and other offenses.

  • Nina Totenberg:

    It may have seemed and did seem entirely reasonable in the middle of a crime epidemic. But, in hindsight, it resulted in locking up a generation of black and brown and poor white people.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    As the new century opened, with George W. Bush elected twice, Biden again thought it was his time. And he started dropping hints that he wanted another shot at the White House himself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now charting Joe Biden's journey to tonight, when he will accept the Democratic nomination for president of the United States.

    Lisa Desjardins has the second of two looks at the former vice president's long political career.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In 2007, Joe Biden had been a U.S. senator for 43 years, ready to try once again for a different job.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    Friends, today, I filed the necessary papers to become a candidate for president of the United States.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In early January, he announced he was running for president.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    All right.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But it was a rough start from the beginning.

    In an interview with The New York Observer, Biden described his presidential opponent Barack Obama, saying: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American, who is articulate and bright and clean and is a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."

    Add to that stumble, he was battling a crowded, star-studded field.

    Author Steven Levingston wrote the book "Barack and Joe."

  • Steven Levingston:

    Joe Biden's 2008 campaign flamed out pretty quickly. He never really got any traction.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Biden dropped out in January 2008, after placing fifth in the Iowa caucuses.

    He left the trail, choosing not to endorse either of the front-runners, his fellow senators, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

  • Former President Barack Obama:

    Hope is what led me here today.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In late May, Obama emerged as the presumptive nominee, in need of a running mate.

    Patti Solis Doyle was waiting for the news, too. She was chief of staff to whomever would be picked for V.P.

  • Patti Solis Doyle:

    Obama and his team were really looking for someone who could partner in the actual governing, because there was so much to do.

    They were looking for someone who could bring some of the demographic constituents that the then nominee did not have, in particular white working-class voters. And, lo and behold, Joe Biden checked all those boxes.

  • Steven Levingston:

    Obama was just a junior senator who didn't have a lot of experience with legislation, getting things through Congress. Biden was a master. He was able to go across the aisle. He could really help Obama legislatively.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    On August 23, Obama announced his choice.

  • Former President Barack Obama:

    Joe Biden is that rare mix. For decades, he has brought change to Washington, but Washington hasn't changed him. He's an expert on foreign policy whose heart and values are rooted firmly in the middle class.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    Ladies and gentleman, this is no ordinary time, this is no ordinary election. And this may be our last chance to reclaim the America we love.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right away, Biden hit the campaign trail.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    Welcome to the first and the only 2008 vice presidential debate.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In a debate hosted by "NewsHour"'s late Gwen Ifill, Biden took on his vice presidential opponent, then Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

  • Sarah Palin:

    Nice to meet you.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    It's a pleasure to meet you.

  • Sarah Palin:

    Hey, can I call you Joe?

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    You can call me…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Biden focused on withdrawal from Iraq and appealed to a nervous middle class.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    I understand, as well as, with all due respect to the governor or anybody else, what it's like for those people sitting around that kitchen table. And guess what? They're looking for help. They're looking for help. They're not looking for more of the same.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    On Election Day, the Obama/Biden ticket made history, ushering in the first African-American president.

  • Former President Barack Obama:

    I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. This is your victory.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Patti Solis Doyle:

    For Biden, the day they won, I think he took maybe a few hours to really just sort of celebrate. But his initial thoughts were, let's roll up our sleeves, we got to go.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    At the time, the economy was losing hundreds of thousands of jobs a month. Just weeks after inauguration, Congress passed a $787 billion stimulus package.

    Obama put Biden in charge of overseeing how the money was spent. It was the first of many Biden bridges to Congress, including health care reform. And, later, he would be the key negotiator with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in a fiscal crisis.

  • Patti Solis Doyle:

    He had these long longstanding relationships on both sides of the aisle, both Democrat and Republican. And when you have a divided government, that's a that's a very important role.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But Biden also caused heartburn by going off-script, including his words to his boss the day the Affordable Care Act was signed.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    This is a big (EXPLETIVE DELETED) deal.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    He also got mixed attention for how he touched people, sometimes tightly embracing or putting hands on shoulders, like with Stephanie Carter, wife of the incoming defense secretary.

    Some, like Carter, said it was a show of empathy. But, in 2019, a half-dozen women would say he made them uncomfortable. Biden responded to the allegations of unwanted touching with a video, saying he heard the women and would be more aware of others' personal space.

    But then, one of the women, a former Senate staffer named Tara Reade, would add to her charges, saying Biden sexually assaulted her.

  • Tara Reade:

    He just had me up against the wall, and the wall was cold. And I remember he — it happened all at once. The gym bag, I don't know where it went. I handed it to him. It was gone, and then his hands were on me and underneath my clothes.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Biden addressed the charge on MSNBC.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    No, it is not true. I'm saying, unequivocally, it never, never happened. And it didn't. It never happened.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    When he was vice president, though, Biden's verbal missteps were his greatest controversy.

    In 2012, on NBC's "Meet the Press," Biden was asked about gay marriage, something the Obama White House had not yet endorsed.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying one another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Three days later, Obama made his own announcement.

  • Former President Barack Obama:

    And I have just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.

  • Steven Levingston:

    Now, while this looks like a gaffe in a big way, and may seem to alter policy, I feel that it really wasn't a policy-altering gaffe. It was a policy-speeding gaffe, in a sense that Obama was heading that direction anyway. And Joe sort of gave him the nudge.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Obama and Biden, who barely knew one another at the start of their campaign, were now a close-knit team.

  • Former President Barack Obama:

    Talk about our bromance.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The political bromance launched scores of Internet memes.

  • Steven Levingston:

    You saw pictures of them laughing together, hanging out together, going out for burgers together, putting on the White House green together. This was unique, in terms of what a vice president and a president did.

  • Pattis Solis Doyle:

    Obama knew what he was good at. Biden knew what he was good at. And they — they just — they worked it out, like two people who, you know, had worked together for years and years.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That relationship helped to support Biden when tragedy came again to his family. Biden's oldest child, Beau, died of brain cancer in May of 2015. He was 46, a combat veteran who had been to Iraq, and a promising politician, serving as Delaware's attorney general.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    And he walked over, gave me a kiss, and, say, "Dad, you"…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Biden in an interview with "PBS NewsHour":

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    Beau was always the guy who, as Barack said, the president said in his eulogy, Beau was Joe 2.0.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Tony Allen worked for Joe Biden in the '90s as a speechwriter and special assistant.

  • Tony Allen:

    When Beau Biden died, it was devastating to the vice president. And it was devastating to Delaware, because we already knew all the tragedy that he had suffered.

    When the vice president and the Biden family lost Beau, I felt like we all lost Beau.

  • Steven Levingston:

    For Biden, it was existential, in a way, in the same way that, when he lost his first wife in that car crash many years earlier, when he first became a senator, he doubted everything.

    Going back to his wife's death, at that time, he, Biden, who is a very religious man, a very strong Catholic, began to doubt God.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    At the time, Biden was considering yet another run for the presidency, but Beau's death put a pause on those plans. In the end, Biden decided not to run that year.

    Just like so many times in his life, after facing personal tragedy, Biden fought his way back to run in 2020. For the first time in his life, he won a presidential primary, and then the votes for the nomination itself.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.

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