Biden's personal loss emerges as a touchstone on the campaign trail

Voters are sharing their own experiences with cancer and grief as the former vice president campaigns for the White House.
Image: Joe Biden, left, a Democratic senator from Delaware and vice
Joe Biden embraces his son Beau at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Thursday was the fourth anniversary of Beau's death from brain cancer.Keith Bedford / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

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By Mike Memoli

DALLAS — Throughout his decades in public life, Joe Biden has operated with the simple credo that all politics are personal. And since launching his third White House campaign, he’s spent nearly as much time greeting voters one-on-one as he has addressing them from a stage.

The constant whirl of selfies, handshakes and “God love ya" greetings doled out with abandon has been a staple of the former vice president's initial tour through early voting states.

But a new, more meaningful dynamic to those up-close encounters has emerged.

“I was diagnosed with cancer in August of 2017,” one man shared with Biden at a recent house party in New Hampshire.

“My son died also,” another woman told Biden as he worked his way through a tent in the cold rain. “He couldn’t get treatment.”

“My daughter has cancer, too,” offered another.

Four years ago Thursday, Biden lost his eldest son, Beau, a rising political star in his own right, after a battle with brain cancer. It was a moment that changed the future for the then-vice president — and potentially the nation.

Biden would announce just months later that he was staying out of the 2016 race amid a grieving process that he noted “doesn’t respect or much care about things like filing deadlines or debates and primaries and caucuses.”

Now that shared grief is providing an unspoken bond between Biden and some of the voters he encounters.

“I wish I could tell you the names of the people coming up to me,” Biden told NBC News after several such interactions at that Nashua house party. Now, those moments are helping to shape his campaign.

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“You know there’s a lot of people who we can help, for real,” he said. “There's no reason why we can’t do so much more.”

Beau is still a regular presence on the campaign trail for his father, who thanked voters in Iowa for how they welcomed his son as family when he campaigned there in the past. In Nevada he discussed how Beau’s battle with cancer gave him perspective on the concerns many Americans have about whether they could afford the life-saving treatments they need.

And in South Carolina he recalled how he found a new calling in public service with his so-called cancer moonshot, a comprehensive effort to find a cure that he launched after bowing out of the 2016 race.

“I said my one regret is that I won’t be the president that gets to preside over the end of cancer as we know it," he noted, adding that it's a regret he can correct. "If you elect me president, I will be the guy presiding over the end of cancer as we know it.”

On the eve of the fourth anniversary of his son’s passing, Biden made reference to Beau multiple times during a campaign stop in Dallas on Wednesday. The day before, at a campaign fundraiser in Houston, he singled out some of the doctors who had treated Beau at the city’s MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“You were wonderful, wonderful to my family,” he said.

The Biden family are not strangers to marking such solemn anniversaries — for decades they have remembered the tragic car accident that took his first wife and infant daughter in private.

But a Delaware quirk will keep Biden in the public eye Thursday as he marks four years since Beau’s passing. The state continues to observe Memorial Day on May 30, as it was nationally until 1970, and Biden will deliver remarks during the program.

He’ll likely honor his son, who deployed to Iraq with the Delaware National Guard within months of Biden being elected vice president in 2008. Beau then was the Delaware attorney general, and had eyes on the governor’s office before succumbing to his disease.

Biden has said he feels an obligation to stand strong publicly despite the grief he’s endured in his career, “to demonstrate to those millions of people facing the same awful reality that it was possible to absorb real loss and make it through,” as he wrote in his 2017 book, “Promise Me, Dad.”

Biden's wife, Jill, in her new book, "Where the Light Enters," notes that she has struggled to do the same for other parents who have lost a child.

“Membership to this fraternity comes with no guide, and I have no advice, no wisdom to dole out to new initiates,” she wrote. In one case when a friend lost her son, a firefighter, “I wrote her a note to say I was thinking about her and that she isn’t alone. That’s the truest thing I can say to parents who know this impossible pain: You are not alone.”

As Biden worked the crowd in New Hampshire and found other members of that society, he offered words of encouragement to some.

“Keep the faith, kid,” he said to a woman who lost her son.

To the man who shared his 2017 diagnosis, and how the Affordable Care Act “saved his life,” Biden launched into policy.

“We should be spending $35 billion more a year in the whole area of health care," he said. "There’s so much we can do, we’re so close."

The man, though, didn’t commit to supporting Biden just yet.

“We’re going to support whoever gets the nomination,” he told Biden.

“Me, too,” Biden answered.