President Biden believes his eldest son’s cancer, which claimed his life in 2015, was linked to his time serving in Iraq. It is a belief that makes sense of the loss, and – as has become clear in recent weeks – shapes Biden’s world view
Basia Cummings, narrating: Sometimes, in the swirl of breaking news, something just sticks out.
A quote, a line in a news piece, an image, a single strand in a story rushing across social media, across 24 hour news broadcasts, and the front pages of newspapers around the world.
It’s a moment that you want to pause on, because something tells you – that there’s something here. A clue.
Joe Biden: Last night in Kabul, the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan. The longest war in American history.
Basia, narrating: And so it was, when US President Joe Biden gave his defiant speech, on August 31st, marking the end of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Joe Biden: That number was more than double what most experts thought was possible. No nation, no nation has ever done anything like it in all of history. Only the United States had the capacity and the will and the ability to do it and we did it today…
Basia, narrating: After 20 years, more than 2,400 American deaths, and a trillion dollars spent, Biden ended the ‘neverending war’.
And as he did, he said something small, but significant.
Joe Biden: Maybe it’s because my deceased son Beau served in Iraq for a full year. Before that, well, maybe it’s because of what I’ve seen over the years, as Senator, Vice President, travelling to all these countries. A lot of our veterans and their families have gone through hell.
Basia, narrating: Clutching the lectern and chewing his lip, stumbling in his address, he mentions his son, Beau, who, in 2015, aged 46, died of Glioblastoma – a ferocious brain cancer that took his life within 18 months of diagnosis.
Later, when he was greeting the parents of marines killed in the Kabul bombing, an attack which killed 12 Americans in the final days of the evacuation, he mentioned his son again, sharing in their moment of grief.
Beau Biden did not die in conflict. Yes, he served in Iraq, but he wasn’t harmed there.
And yet, Joe Biden has a belief that his son’s disease was connected to toxic smoke that he inhaled from burn pits in Iraq.
Giant fires on army bases in which toxic chemicals, human waste, munitions, fuel, anything and everything was burned up into the air – using jet fuel as the accelerant.
And in unraveling that belief you learn a great deal about a president whose political career has been bookended by tragedy.
[News clip: Joe Biden’s wife and daughter Neilia and Naomi killed in a car accident]
Basia, narrating: About how he channels his grief and how it shapes his politics.
I’m Basia Cummings, and you’re listening to the Slow Newscast.
With my colleague Dave Taylor and the Washington reporter Lucia Graves, this is the story of Joe Biden’s constant companion.
My colleague, Dave Taylor, worked in America for years, first for the Times newspaper, and then, for the Guardian. He’s the only English person I’ve met who stays awake until 5am watching baseball.
Basia: Hello Dave.
David Taylor: Hello Basia, good to see you.
Basia, narrating: And with Dave, I wanted to stay on that line from Biden’s speech.
And so, of course, as we often do in this podcast, we have to rewind a bit.
Back to 1972, and to rural Delaware.
Basia: So Dave, tell me where this story starts for us?
Dave: So Joe Biden, newly elected to the Senate to represent Delaware which is the state just outside of Washington DC, blue collar Irish Catholic from Pennsylvania, he’s a lawyer, he’s only 29, and he’s about to take his seat in a few weeks time on Capitol Hill.
And he’s married with three children, his wife Neilia was a teacher, and Joe was on Capitol Hill in Washington visiting his new office.
Joe Biden: Well they were Christmas shopping, heading back toward my home in a station wagon.
Dave: It was just before Christmas, Neilia was driving, and the family was in a crash with a truck and it was this unimaginable tragedy.
Joe Biden: No one knows for certain what happened but they pulled out of an intersection in a semi-rural part of our state, a place called Hockessin in Delaware. A tractor-trailer was coming down a hill, broadsided them. I never quite frankly wanted to know – I didn’t want to pursue if anybody made a mistake or whatever.
Dave: She was just 30, their baby daughter Naomi was 13 months old, they were killed. Beau who was then only 4 and his brother Hunter were critically injured but survived.
Joe Biden: They were broadsided. My wife and daughter were on one side of the car and they were killed immediately. My two boys were on the other side of the car and thank god for my volunteer firemen. They used the jaws of life to get my sons out and save their lives and that happened December 18th and my sons were very badly injured.
My son Beau was in a body cast. Ankles to neck, both arms, both legs for a long time. Fully recovered thank God. And my other son Hunter had a fractured skill, was banged up as well but he recovered…
Dave: And Joe Biden, on the cusp of public life, had to make this decision about whether to continue his political career.
Joe Biden: I mean imagine going through what I went through without the kind of family I had to help with me. I got… accident occurred, I went to stay at the hospital, I came home, my brother-in-law is a very successful lawyer and my sister is my best friend, they’d given up their home and moved into my house.
Dave: And Joe only developed his political career because his sister Valerie gave up her job, moved in and looked after the boys. He got the train home every night, 100 miles from Washington to Wilmington so he could be with the boys and in 1977, a few years later, as a family they married Jill.
This famous line that’s in folk law of the Biden clan, “we married her”.
And then Beau, as he grew, began to develop his own career as a public servant. He followed his father first into law and then into politics.
In 2006 he became Delaware’s Attorney General, it’s like the top legal official in the state. And once Senator Joe Biden became Vice-President Biden with Barack Obama, Beau was pretty widely expected to follow in his dad’s footsteps and run for the Senate seat.
There was this bond between them that was so obvious, beloved eldest son.
Biden talks about him as, “me but without the downsides”.
Basia: And it’s something that the reporter we’ve been working with, Lucia Graves, based in Washington, talks about.
Lucia Graves: I think that, you know, he was the eldest son and, and very much thought to be the son who inherited all of Joe Biden’s good parts and Biden jokes, none of his bad parts. And I’m sure that he was sort of the hope for the Biden legacy, and so when he lost Beau, I think that he felt like he’d lost on some level, lost the ability to pass the torch.
Basia: So Dave, who was Beau really? The beloved elder son.
Dave: So he goes into law, he’s with the US justice department. After the Balkans conflict he worked to train judges and lawyers in Kosovo and then like a lot of Americans he had a pivotal moment – after 9/11 – and he felt moved to join the National Guard and that was 2003.
In 2008, Major Beau Biden served in Iraq. And it’s a theme that seems to run through Beau and Joe’s Biden’s lives – public servants, a powerful sense of duty, they’re working for the common good.
As we said this was a family of faith informed by the social teaching of the Catholic church – with its cornerstones of mercy and compassion. And when he returns from Iraq after a year, Beau goes back to his new job – he’d only been Attorney General for a short time in Delaware.
So he goes back, top legal officer in the state – and he becomes quite famous for pursuing child predators.
And there was this particular prosecution of a serial predator called Earl Bradley that he said was the most significant case that he’d ever dealt with.
Beau Biden: I’ve not been involved in anything in my professional life, in my public life. And quite frankly, in my personal life, that’s had more of an impact.
Dave: And seeing it through actually stopped him from running for higher office, following his dad to the Senate.
Beau Biden: And, and, you know, you have literally hundreds of survivors of this awful awful episode in case. And I’m not at liberty to talk in detail about it but what I can say is that it’s something that I’ve been dealing with from the moment I learned of this.
Basia, narrating: And then comes 2008.
Barack Obama, the Senator from Illinois who becomes the Democratic nominee for president, chooses Joe Biden as his running mate.
[Clip: Barack Obama announced Joe Biden as his running mate]
Basia, narrating: The New York Times described Obama as “turning to a leading authority on foreign policy and a longtime Washington hand to fill out the Democratic ticket”.
Basia: So by this point Dave, politically, publicly, what was the Joe Beau relationship like?
Dave: Joe talked even then about Beau as his constant companion, his moral compass, pseudo political advisor. They’d speak apparently four times a day and talk strategy and politics.
And one of their most famous public events was at the Democratic convention in 2008 when Biden was about to be confirmed as Obama’s running mate and Beau introduced his Dad on stage and he said my friend, my father, my hero.
[Clip: Beau Biden introducing Joe Biden on stage]
Dave: He sort of builds the legend of this connection between them. And when Joe Biden came on stage he just does this slightly folksy thing where he says, my dad used to have this saying, a father knows he’s a success when he turns and looks at his son or daughter and knows that they turned out to be better than he did.
And then he did this really cheesy line where he says, “I’m a hell of a success.. I love you Beauy!” and sort of shouts to the wings.
Joe Biden: I’m a hell of a success… Beauy I love you! I’m so proud of you, I’m so proud of the son you’ve become. I’m so proud of the father you are.
Beau Biden: I know my father will be a great Vice President. As I mentioned, my dad has always been there for me, my brother, my sister, every day but because of other duties it won’t be possible for me to be here this fall, to stand by him the way he stood by me. So I have something to ask of you, be there for my dad like he was for me.
Basia, narrating: Joe Biden was then a Washington fixture, his legend as a man shaped by duty and loss was well known, his son Beau primed to launch his own political career, the beginnings maybe of a dynasty, touched by suffering, in the style of the Kennedys.
But then, in 2013, Beau was admitted to hospital.
[News clips: Beau Biden is admitted to a Texas hospital]
Dave: He was soon diagnosed with brain cancer, Glioblastoma, which is one of the most aggressive cancers we know – Senator John McCain in recent years was one of the people who was taken down by it. Few people survive more than two years. And as Beau said in an interview himself, life is what happens when you’re busy making plans.
Beau Biden: A long time ago, in my 41 years, any time you have plans, life intervenes.
Basia, narrating: In 2015, the year before he was meant to win the Delaware Governorship, Beau died.
At his funeral, President Obama described him as the consummate public servant. That he didn’t have, he said, “a mean bone in his body”.
General Ray Odierno, the former top US commander in Iraq, said Beau had, “cared deeply for his fellow human beings and always treated everyone with respect”.
Odierno said Beau Biden would tell him over and over, “I’m just another soldier”, but the general said he thought the brave soldier might one day lead his country.
And if you look at images from the service, they show Joe Biden with his face in his hands, grimacing as his son’s casket was carried into the church in Wilmington, Delaware. Chris Martin, from Coldplay, performed. Every seat, space for 1,000 people, taken up with mourners.
And it’s a death that affects President Joe Biden profoundly. A death that he’s since tried to make sense of.
Which brings us back to that line, in August, 2021, in Biden’s withdrawal announcement.
Dave: Well, October 2008 when Beau as part of the National Guard that he’d joined in 2003 was deployed to Iraq.
His unit actually maintained the military’s signals and comms network in Iraq – and he was a military lawyer in the unit.
And the timing, the election was going on back in the US. The day after he deployed to Iraq, his Dad was in the vice presidential debate and there was this really significant line, he said, “I don’t want him going. But I tell you what, I don’t want my grandson or my granddaughters going back in 15 years, and so how we leave makes a big difference.”
So he saw his son doing work to admire but also something which made the family anxious. Biden actually went to Iraq as Vice President a few months later and there’s this amazing picture from Camp Victory of father and son reuniting.
Beau’s there in his camo uniform and his Dad’s holding him, with his hand on his neck, and they’re staring into each other’s eyes.
It’s a moment that Joe Biden has confessed caused him both enormous pride and terrible anxiety. But unlike thousands of families, his son returned. Beau came home.
Basia, narrating: In 2006, concerns first began to grow about what are called ‘burn pits’, in relation to US troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
[News clip: “When soldiers go into war zones they expect certain hazards on the battlefield, not necessarily on base. But that’s where hundreds of soldiers say they were exposed to toxic fumes…”]
Basia, narrating: There’s a memo from December 2006, three years after the invasion, in which a bioenvironmental flight commander for the Dept for the Air Force writes about a burn pit at Balad Air Base in Iraq.
He writes that it was, “amazing that the pit – which had been burning plastics, medical waste, fuels, and other toxic substances – had been able to operate without restrictions for the last few years”.
Contaminants there were identified as arsenic, benzene, carbon monoxide, sulfuric acid, sulphur dioxide, phosgene and many others.
The memo said that the burn pit at Balad was an “acute health hazard for individuals”.
And in 2012, another leaked memo surfaced on burn pits in Afghanistan, which claimed that at Bagram, one of the US military’s largest bases there, the pit posed “long-term adverse health conditions” to troops breathing the air there.
And then in 2016, a year after Beau’s death, a book came out – called, The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers, written by a former marine called Joseph Hickman, which has a specific chapter on Beau.
And his dad, Joe, read it.
Joe Biden: There’s a book written called The Burn Pits and I was stunned when I read it. There was a lot of hype, it advertised and it was selling and there’s a whole chapter on my son Beau in there. It stunned me, I didn’t know that.
Dave: And Biden doesn’t just mention it once, in public repeatedly over the next few years he returns to those burn pits and Beau, as Lucia explained when we talked.
Lucia: I do think it’s telling that Biden invokes Beau in these circumstances, and he’s, Biden has said before that he feels like Beau’s cancer stemmed from the burn pits. And you know it’s hard to prove after the fact and there’s debate about whether that’s the case but I think what we can say with certainty is that Biden feels that that’s why his son died of brain cancer in his forties which is very unusual. And the fact that it’s true to Biden says everything.
Basia, narrating: In 2019, again, Biden publicly links his sons deaths to his exposure to the toxic smoke.
Joe Biden: And because of his exposure to burn pits in my view, I can’t prove it yet, he came back with stage four Glioblastoma. 18 months he lived, knowing that he was going to die.
Basia: So Dave, what do we know of the science behind this link?
Dave: Well, all we can say is that the evidence is inconclusive but such is the pressure from across the country, that a bill was introduced this year that gives benefits to the victims of these burn pits.
And for Biden, the conflation of rumour around and his son’s time in Iraq is just unequivocal – he now links the two inextricably.
Lucia: The father of one of the service members said that he felt that Biden was sort of narcissistically talking too much about his own son and he wanted his son’s story to be central. He wanted him to be remembered as a hero. You know, he said, you know, Beau didn’t even die overseas.
His son’s experience of serving in Iraq unquestionably, deeply informs his feeling about these 20-year-long wars that America has engaged in questionably for, for years and after Osama bin Laden was killed, there was this moment when there was a question of, okay, so why are we here? Is it time to step back?
And one of the sort of most important decisions that Obama made was whether that was the moment to withdraw or surge and all of the smartest people in Washington sort of agreed that the answer was surge.
Biden was vice president at the time and he can’t contradict the president but he did sort of develop a reputation in the White House for being the person that was constantly asking, wait, why are we here? Why are we still here? Why are you doing the surge? There’s a cost to this, there’s a great cost and one that I think that for Biden was personal in a way that’s a little bit rare for Washington elites.
Basia, narrating: So it’s clear that Beau’s time in Iraq affected President Biden enormously.
But it would be naive I think to say that the President’s belief of the link between the burn pits and his son’s cancer, is what’s behind his withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. It’s just not that simple. And we know that in the Obama administration, Biden had long been a sceptic of the intervention in Afghanistan.
But it does help understand the decision, and it taps into something perhaps more philosophical – about the faith and the narrative of duty that drives him.
Dave: Yes in fact, as Lucia puts it when we were talking, every politician needs a narrative and there are three main parts to Biden’s. And Beau is threaded through all of them.
Lucia: In his memoir, he talks about sort of concentric circles of responsibility, family being the centre and then sort of politics and the church.
But family is the centre and I do think there was nothing more important to him than raising his boys.
Dave: I spoke to Massimo Faggioli, a Professor of Theology to try and understand this faith of Biden’s.
Massimo’s written in his book, which is called Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, and you know Biden wears Beau’s rosary beads still, an aspect that Professor Faggioli says is quite traditionally Catholic, which as a Democrat is quite the contradiction.
Professor Massimo Faggioli: He was born in a blue collar small town in Pennsylvania. He was born in the 1940s and he grew up in a Catholic church that was coming of age and so exiting the cultural ghetto in which Catholics had been for almost one century between the mid 19th century and World War Two, he becomes a Catholic in public life, as a Senator and then as vice-president and so on, when Catholicism becomes part of the American mainstream, culturally, socially, in education, in the media and so on.
So that is how I would describe him. He is white and he bears that burden of a Catholic church that until recently has been basically blind to racial issues, racial justice in other states and he’s recovering from that, he’s catching up.
Dave: In Biden’s faith, he sees something that makes him distinct from his predecessors in the Oval office, makes him in his view, perfect for the troubled times we find ourselves in.
Professor Massimo Faggioli: It’s something Irish that I think is older than Catholicism. It has to do with a presence of death, which is religious and cultural and this is important because I believe Joe Biden as the president brings a certain awareness of the ever presence of death in a culture that in the Western world, has become totally unprepared for that.
So if one compares the language about death or tragedy in George W. Bush or Barack Obama or Donald Trump or Ronald Reagan, it’s much more American in the sense of a certain denial of death or something that should not have happened, that was not supposed to happen. That’s not Joe Biden.
I mean, Joe Biden, as a Catholic, as an Irish Catholic and as a human being that has gone through many tragedies, it brings a sombre face to this problem, which I believe is one of the signs of our times because of the pandemic and because of a certain end of the liberal optimism that we can solve every problem with a technological fix or with goodwill or with alliances.
I believe he’s a man for our times and I’m not saying that he can fix problems, but he can provide a face to what we are now dealing with that is less naively optimistic.
Dave: And that spiritual thread is underpinned by a stronger moral duty that President Biden says he always saw in his son. The 2.0 version of himself. It wasn’t the faith that drove Beau but the duty that marked him out.
And we talked about this when I was chatting with Lucia in DC.
Lucia: I think Biden felt like Beau had it, that he was blessed and maybe cursed in some ways with what, you know, the high offices require in terms of I think chiefly moral integrity that’s what you hear everyone speak about.
When he talks about Beau he doesn’t say, oh, he was the smartest guy in every room he stepped into. No, he says he was a better person than me.
Dave: And you know, if we return to that long speech on Afghanistan, you see those shades of that moral belief, that absolute justification in his actions. But you also see, in those words specifically about Beau, that one liner, that driving force behind Biden’s Presidency: the narrative that has taken him here. It is easy to regard it with some cynicism, but I think it’s sort of a fundamental truth of who he is as a person and a politician.
Lucia: Sort of every political leader who gets elected needs a narrative that explains who they are and why. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama sort of had the narrative of rising from broken homes and striving towards something greater. And for, for Biden, I do think it’s this narrative around grief and family and the importance of family and family love and that’s very authentic and it resonates with everyone who has a family, which is to say, you know, on some level, everyone.
You have to be able to tell your story and there’s no way to tell Biden’s story in anything approaching, with anything approaching authenticity that does not centre on, on family and loss and most of all Beau.
Dave: And ultimately, you can’t help but feel that, in some ways, it is all driven by that sense, that feeling gnawing at him, that it never should have been him in the White House in the first place.
Joe Biden: Joe Beau should be the one running for president, not me. Every morning I get up Joe, not a joke, and I think to myself, ‘Is he proud of me?’ Because he’s the one who wanted me to stay engaged, made me promise, promise me dad, promise me dad, you’ll stay engaged. It didn’t mean I had to run for president but I would not want… he was worried I’d walk away from what I’d worked on my whole life since I’ve been 24 years old. He walks with me.
I know that sounds to some people kind of silly but he really honestly to God does I know he’s in me. I know he’s part of me. And the way you make it is you find purpose and you bring, you realise they’re inside you, they’re part of you, it’s impossible to separate it, and that’s the really good thing.
Dave: So we’ve been thinking about Beau as the constant companion for his father, and in the Oval Office today, there is a picture of Beau as a boy displayed directly behind President Biden’s seat at the Resolute Desk.
And we talked about those rosary beads that he still wears, it’s easy to imagine that the act of contact with them is a direct line to his son – who he was in the habit of calling four times a day.
And it’s also worth noting Kamala Harris, the vice president, was a very close ally of Beau – she was Attorney General in California while he was on the other coast in Delaware and there were times when they again talked every single day.
Basia, narrating: So we called this podcast the constant companion – thinking that was a reference to Beau Biden, forever at the president’s side, never more than a touch of the rosary beads away.
But in the end it seems like it is more than that. Perhaps the constant companions for Joe Biden are grief and loss.
What do you do and how do you find purpose after the sort of unfathomable loss he endured in 1972 when his wife and his daughter died?
His public life has been bookended by tragedy.
He thought about giving up in 1972. And in 2015 when Beau was dying, “promise me, Dad’ was the line that pushed him on again.
The Afghanistan withdrawal is catastrophic in many ways. But Biden’s line was clear – veterans and their families have already given too much. And he chose that view in part because he conjoined his family’s own sacrifices to theirs.
So Joe Biden seems to have moulded for himself a character shaped by tragedy, an intense family bond, faith and duty.
He practices an almost extreme form of empathy with people. Sometimes it can be very hands-on – and that can go either way – bringing tremendous comfort or great discomfort to people who come into his orbit. He has a sense of himself as a healer, a unifier, a consoler-in -chief.
So you can’t understand President Biden without knowing that faith, suffering and family have become his career-long drivers towards performing public duty.
And it gets you to a more universal question I think: how do you go on? It’s something Dave and I talked about.
Dave: So, after Beau died, Biden got a letter from Ted Kennedy’s widow Vicki quoting Ted’s father, Joe Sr, who had written a letter to a friend who had lost a child.
“When one of your loved ones goes out of your life, you think what he might have done with a few more years, and you wonder what you’re going to do with the rest of yours.
Then one day, because there’s a world to be lived in, you find yourself to be part of it, trying to accomplish something, something that he did not have time enough to do… and perhaps that’s the reason for it.”