When Barack Obama surprised Vice President Joe Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Thursday, I thought mostly about the memes. You know the ones.
To my mind, Joe Biden is the friendly, lovable sidekick of Obama, who isn’t looking forward to next Friday’s inauguration, because it signals the end for he and Obama’s shared time in office.
Awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom just made for such good meme opportunities, I thought. And indeed, it did.
But while chatting to a friend yesterday, another layer of meaning came up.
“Joe Biden has had a really tragic life,” she said. “He lost his first wife and youngest child in a car accident, and his son passed away last year from brain cancer.”
Perhaps I’m the only person on the planet who didn’t know this, but after deep-diving on the subject, I started to learn the details of his struggles while in politics.
Joe Biden was still a law student when he married Neilia Hunter in 1966. Together they had three children, Beau, Robert and Naomi.
In 1972, he won the U.S. Senate election in Delaware, despite seemingly having no chance of winning. It was his biggest professional success so far, and his beautiful young family were thought to have attracted voters.
But just weeks later, while his wife was Christmas shopping with their children, she was killed in a car accident, along with their youngest child, Naomi.
Biden’s two other children were also in the car, and while they received substantial injuries, they survived.
The politician wanted to resign from his position, but was convinced to stay, and was sworn in less than a month later.
While his political career advanced, he says he struggled profoundly with grief and anger. “I liked to [walk around seedy neighborhoods] at night when I thought there was a better chance of finding a fight … I had not known I was capable of such rage,” he said. “I felt God had played a horrible trick on me.”
He commuted over an hour and a half per day to work in Washington and be at home with his sons, and his colleagues took bets on how long he would last as a senator.
To this day Joe Biden does not work on December 18, the anniversary of the accident.
Five years later, Biden met Jill Jacobs, whom he would marry in 1977.
In May 2010, while Biden was serving as Vice President, tragedy struck again. His son Beau was admitted to hospital after complaining of headaches, and it was found he had suffered a minor stroke.
In August 2013, Beau was diagnosed with brain cancer at 44. He received radiation and chemotherapy treatments, but died May 30, 2015, aged 46.
During Beau’s treatments, Biden planned to sell his house to pay for medical expenses and support his son. But during a lunch, Obama reportedly told Biden, “Don’t sell that house. Promise me you won’t sell the house.”
“I’ll give you the money. Whatever you need, I’ll give you the money,” he said. “Don’t, Joe – promise me. Promise me.”
Joe Biden shared this particular story when he was asked by CNN about his most memorable moment with Barack Obama.
Behind the memes and the jokes there’s genuine tragedy behind Joe Biden. Somehow, I think his Presidential Medal of Freedom meant far more than I initially thought.