Biden's Road to Senate Took Tragic Turn Joe Biden was just 29 when, in 1972, he was elected as a senator from Delaware in an astounding upset. But his triumph turned to tragedy a few weeks later, when his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident.
NPR logo

Biden's Road to Senate Took Tragic Turn

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Biden's Road to Senate Took Tragic Turn

Biden's Road to Senate Took Tragic Turn

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

Just ahead: portraits of two troubled artists. We'll hear about the music of Jean Sibelius and the letters of Vincent Van Gogh.

But first, a political portrait. In Delaware, 35 years ago, a county councilman named Joe Biden launched his first campaign for the U.S. Senate. Biden was just 29 years old, and he was taking on a popular incumbent. Still, he managed to pull off an victory.

But then came a stunning tragedy that permanently changed the life of the future presidential candidate.

As part of our series on First Campaigns, NPR's Brian Naylor reports on Joe Biden's 1972 bid for the Senate.

BRIAN NAYLOR: From the very beginning, it was a family affair, says Valerie Biden Owens, Joe Biden's sister - then, as now, her big brother's campaign manager.

Ms. VALERIE BIDEN OWENS (Campaign Manager; Sister of Joe Biden): I was the campaign manager because I was the only one who took him seriously. My mom was the (unintelligible) chairman, my brother Jimmy Biden was the finance chair, my brother Frankie Biden was the volunteer coordinator. And everybody thought my dad was the candidate because he was in his early 60s and looked like he should've been - very distinguished looking man.

NAYLOR: If 35 years ago Joe Biden lacked the senatorial stature he wears now, he made up for it in energy and ambition. He was a member of New Castle Delaware county council when he decided to take on J. Caleb Boggs, a Delaware institution who had served in the Senate, the House, and as governor.

Ted Kaufman worked for the DuPont Company and was active in Democratic politics when Biden asked him to help out his campaign.

Mr. TED KAUFMAN (President, Public Strategies): I said I would, but I said, Senator, I've got to be honest with you. I really don't think you have much of chance to win this race.

NAYLOR: But Kaufman says Biden convinced him.

Mr. KAUFMAN: His basic theory was that Senator Boggs was beloved, but that this was a changing time. People were looking for answers to some of these big questions. And his - basically, the way he used to express it was he says, if Senator Boggs and I could just go down to the football stadium at the University of Delaware and people sit there and see the two of us, they'd pick me. And, in the end, that's pretty much the essence of how he won.

NAYLOR: in 1972, the Vietnam War was raging, and Biden said it was time for the U.S. to withdraw. He talked about the environment and civil rights and about change. The campaign had no money to speak of. They relied on position papers, on newsprint and a few radio ads.

Valerie Biden Owens fondly remembers.

Ms. OWENS: Our radio ad was a guy on our staff with a portable tape recorder putting the microphone in the face of our mailman at one point and, you know, and an anonymous person on, you know, at the mall.

(Soundbite of the Joe Biden's radio ad)

Senator JOE BIDEN (Presidential Candidate; Democrat, Delaware): I'm Joe Biden, and I'm a candidate for the United State's Senate. I've asked my staff to tape-record some statements people made when I campaigned at Prices Corner shopping mall.

Unidentified Male #1: Do you believe politicians when they tell something in an election year?

Unidentified Male #2: No.

Unidentified Female: Most of the time, no.

Unidentified Male #2: No comment.

Mr. BIDEN: That's what we've come to. Politicians have done such a job on the people that the people don't believe them anymore. And I'd like a shot at changing that.

NAYLOR: But the main way Biden's message got out was through position papers that the campaign hand delivered.

John Marttila was one of Biden's few paid consultants in 1972.

Mr. JOHN MARTTILA (Political Consultant): I think he won by - it was the hardest-working campaign I've ever been part of. There were thousands of people distributing materials every single weekend. The campaign was just on fire for the last month.

NAYLOR: Valerie Biden Owens calls that first campaign a children's crusade.

Ms. OWENS: Neilia, Joe's late wife, taught school, and I taught a high school. And these kids got up every Saturday morning at 5:30 or 6 o'clock, and we hand-delivered these newspapers six weeks in a row.

NAYLOR: On election day, as President Nixon carried Delaware in a landslide, Joe Biden beat Senator Boggs by 3,162 votes - by all accounts, an improbable upset.

Ted Kaufman recalls the victory party that night.

Mr. KAUFMAN: I can remember the thought as if it was yesterday: I will never again believe something's impossible.

NAYLOR: But the joy Biden and his family and friends felt that night was short-lived. Weeks later, his wife Neilia and his infant daughter were killed in a car crash. Biden thought about resigning the seat he had just won. Instead, he resolved to return home to Delaware after each night's Senate session to spend time with his sons - a two-hour commute he conducts to this day.

The energy and ambition Biden had in surplus as a 29-year-old also remains as a now 64-year-old campaigns for a second time for president in the backyards of Iowa as the candidate of experience.

Brian Naylor, NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.