How the tragic deaths of Joe Biden’s first wife and daughter changed his politics

US president, then an inexperienced Delaware senator, lost first wife Neilia and 13-month-old toddler Naomi in a car accident just before Christmas 1972, devastating losses that shaped his life and career in Washington

Alex Woodward
New York
Monday 08 January 2024 17:21 GMT
Joe Biden says his late son Beau ‘should be the one running for president’

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Joe Biden’s ongoing recovery from the traumtic deaths of his first wife and youngest child more than half a century ago has dramatically shaped his career, from the ways in which he speaks to crowds about grief and mourning to his views on healthcare.

Though not unique to his brand of politicking, the president has famously framed his ideas through the lens of his past and we can expect him to return to themes drawn from his own biography as he returns to the campaign trail in 2024, seeking a second term in the White House.

While out shopping just days before Christmas in December 1972, his 30-year-old first wife Neilia Hunter and 13-month-old daughter Naomi were killed in a car accident after a tractor-trailer carrying corn broadsided the family’s Chevrolet station wagon.

Campaign literature featuring the young senator-elect from Delaware littered the streets.

Their two sons, Joseph “Beau” Biden III and Robert Hunter Biden, survived. More than 40 years later, Beau died following a brain cancer diagnosis.

The daughter of successful diner operators in New York state, Neilia was born on 28 July 1942 in the affluent town of Skaneateles. She graduated from Penn Hall Preparatory School in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in 1960.

She participated in French club, hockey, swimming, student council, was the photography editor of The Penntonian, vice president and then president of the International Relations Club, according to her school’s yearbook.

In 1963, Neilia, then a college sophomore at Syracuse University, met Mr Biden, then a junior at the University of Delaware, on the beach in Nassau during spring break.

Asked about his career goals, Mr Biden told his future wife’s mother: “President.” After he earned his bachelor’s degree in Delaware, Mr Biden moved to Syracuse for law school. There, Neilia earned her master’s degree in English and taught special needs students.

They married on 27 August 1966 while he was still enrolled in law school. He has called his time there “a dangerous combination of arrogant and sloppy” and ultimately graduated 76th in a class of 85.

Following his graduation, the couple moved to the suburb of Wilmington, where he practised law and joined the New Castle County Council.

Though Neilia Hunter was a Republican, Neilia Biden registered as a Democrat, according to The News Journal.

The couple’s first and only daughter Naomi was born 8 November 1971, the youngest of three children, with two older brothers Beau and Hunter. She had the nickname “Amy”.

One year later, Mr Biden challenged Republican incumbent J Caleb Boggs for a Delaware seat in the US Senate.

Senator-elect Joseph Biden and wife Nelia cut his 30th birthday cake at a party in Wilmington
Senator-elect Joseph Biden and wife Nelia cut his 30th birthday cake at a party in Wilmington (Bettmann Archive)

Neilia became his closest adviser and the “brains” behind his campaign, The News Journal reported.

The family campaigned across the state, mounting a lucrative grassroots campaign attacking his Republican incumbent as old and out of touch, a shock to the status quo highlighting the generational divide between the elder conservative statesman’s base and a much younger electorate following the Vietnam War and civil rights movement. It also was the first year 18-year-olds were eligible to vote.

The 30-year-old underdog won the race in November 1972.

The following month, Neilia asked her husband, “What’s going to happen, Joey? Things are too good,” The News Journal reported.

One week before Christmas, the senator-elect was in Washington, DC, interviewing staff members for his new office when he received the news about the deaths of his wife and daughter.

After that phone call, “my whole world was altered forever”, Mr Biden later said in a speech to Yale University graduates.

Police determined that Neilia accidentally drove into the path of the tractor-trailer and didn’t see it coming.

Roughly 1,200 people crowded a memorial service for Neilia and Naomi, The Delaware State News reported.

President-elect Joe Biden arrives for a church service with Dr Jill Biden at St Joseph on the Brandywine on 18 December 2020. The occasion marked the anniversary of the death of his first wife Neilia and daughter Naomi, who were killed in a traffic accident
President-elect Joe Biden arrives for a church service with Dr Jill Biden at St Joseph on the Brandywine on 18 December 2020. The occasion marked the anniversary of the death of his first wife Neilia and daughter Naomi, who were killed in a traffic accident (Getty)

In his 2017 book Promise Me, Dad, Mr Biden wrote: “The pain... seemed unbearable in the beginning, and it took me a long time to heal, but I did survive the punishing ordeal. I made it through, with a lot of support, and reconstructed my life and my family.”

He was officially sworn in at his sons’ bedside while they were still in the hospital.

The freshman senator had also planned for Neilia to organise his Capitol Hill office, The Evening Journal had reported.

Mr Biden said in his Yale speech: “I can remember my mother – a sweet lady – looking at me, after we left the hospital, and saying, ‘Joey, out of everything terrible that happens to you, something good will come if you look hard enough for it.’”

With an intense, heartbreaking focus on his family, Mr Biden then began commuting daily back and forth between Washington to Delaware by train to remain with his young sons. The gesture earned him the nickname “Amtrak Joe”.

“And I began to commute thinking I was only going to stay a little while – four hours a day, every day – from Washington to Wilmington, which I’ve done for over 37 years,” he said in his Yale speech.

“I did it because I wanted to be able to kiss them goodnight and kiss them in the morning the next day... But 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.”

Five years after the accident, Mr Biden married Jill Jacobs, then a student at the University of Delaware. They met on a blind date.

The couple married on 17 June 1977 at the United Nations Chapel in New York City. Beau and Hunter attended both the ceremony and the honeymoon.

Hunter named his own daughter Naomi in honour of his late sister.

The former vice president has relied on the tragedies of his life to help speak to voters who have felt similar loss.

In an interview with MSNBC in January 2020, he said that “hundreds of people... throw their arms over me” to tell him about the loss of their sons, daughters and spouses and “all they want to know is that they can make it”.

“The way you make it is you find purpose and you realise they’re inside you”, he said. “They’re part of you. It’s impossible to separate.”

Mr Biden’s family also played a role in his first State of the Union address as president on 1 March 2022. He spoke about being a single father to call for universal childcare and referenced his eldest son to demand support for veterans.

This story was initially published in May 2020.

Ariana Baio contributed to this report.

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