How Early Family Tragedy Defined Joe Biden’s Life and Career

For decades now, Jill Biden has been synonymous with Joe Biden. They aren’t just a married couple…they are a team that is always ready to tackle the job together. This power couple is so influential that many people don’t realize Jill is actually Joe’s second wife.

His original wife, Neilia Hunter, tragically died in a car accident in 1972 along with their 13-month-old daughter Naomi. It was a moment that shocked Joe Biden as well as the nation, and how he recovered from that tragedy has defined Biden’s approach to everything from politics to family. Just how did this early tragedy define Joe Biden’s life and career? Keep reading to find out!

The story of Joe Biden’s first wife

The story of how Joe Biden and Jill Biden began dating is both cute and weird, and it notoriously took five different proposals before she agreed to marry him. Comparatively, his love story with his first wife Neilia Hunter is a bit more straightforward. The two of them met in 1963 when they were college students: she was a sophomore at Syracuse University and he was a junior at the University of Delaware, and they met on the beach while they were both on Spring Break in Nassau.

Biden managed to impress his girlfriend’s family early on: when her mother asked what his career goals were, he told her that he wanted to be president. The couple got married in 1963, and while she sadly didn’t live to see Biden land his dream job, she ended up being the secret weapon to his early entry into politics.

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The real key to Biden’s early political career

It didn’t take long for Joe and Neilia Biden to start a family, and their youngest child Naomi was born in 1971. Whether it was to live up to his old career dreams of just providing for his family, Joe threw all his energy into his first political campaign, where he challenged incumbent Republican candidate J Caleb Boggs to become the Senator from Delaware.

Now that everything was in high gear, Neilia served as the brains of Joe’s campaign, helping him to mount a grassroots campaign intended to win over younger voters (this was the first time that 18-year-olds could vote). By successfully painting himself as the hip young alternative to the aging Boggs, Joe Biden won the election and became a Senator at the age of 30. 

The day Biden’s life changed forever

For the Bidens, life seemed too good to be true. They had a loving family of five, a great marriage, and Joe was kicking off what would turn out to be a lifelong political career. Unfortunately, it was one that neither Neilia nor Naomi Biden would live to see.

On December 18, 1972, Neilia was driving the children and accidentally drove into the path of a tractor-trailer that she couldn’t see. Miraculously, young Beau and Hunter Biden survived the accident. However, Neilia and Naomi had died.

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A bittersweet political victory

On top of being an awful tragedy unto itself, the timing of everything was just horrific. Joe Biden hadn’t even been sworn in yet when he found out about the death of his wife and daughter. While about 1,200 people ultimately attended the memorial service, Joe’s attention was primarily focused on his surviving children.

In a truly bittersweet moment, Biden was actually sworn into office in the hospital. This was where his children were recovering, and he refused to leave their side for something as perfunctory as getting sworn in. Long after the children were released, Biden kept the habit of staying by their side.

Staying close to his surviving family

After getting elected as Senator, most people assumed that Joe Biden would move so that he could live in Washington, D.C. with most of his colleagues. However, he surprised everyone by instead commuting from his Delaware home to D.C., a habit that he would continue for decades. This became such a routine that he earned the early nickname “Amtrak Joe.”

Why did Biden begin his habit of commuting? Simple: he wanted to stay close to his children while they were growing up. This devotion to family is one of the things that resonated with a young Jill Jacobs when they met five years after the accident, and the two of them got married in 1977.

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Moving on and finding a new way to bond with voters

Marrying Jill helped Joe Biden move on from that early family tragedy. Fortunately, he had all the support he needed from the rest of his family. Beau and Hunter Biden loved Jill and attended both the wedding ceremony and even the honeymoon for the two lovebirds.

In 2020, Joe Biden disclosed to MSNBC that “hundreds of people… throw their arms over me” and tell him about the tragedy of losing their own family members. According to Biden, “all they want to know is that they can make it”. His response to them is always the same:“The way you make it is you find purpose and you realize they’re inside you”, he said. “They’re part of you. It’s impossible to separate.”

Such empathy and understanding have helped Joe Biden cement his political career. He ultimately achieved his dream and became president, and we like to think that somewhere out there, Neilia and Naomi are smiling down on his accomplishments.