Joe Biden Is Again Publicly Battling a Choice Weighted with Ambition and Tragedy

Talking with Stephen Colbert on the "Late Show" Thursday, the vice president spoke with gravity about his decision on whether to run for president.

Joe Biden in the Oval Office on September 4.  (Pool AFP/Getty)

Joe Biden had a decision to make.

It was December 1972, and his daughter, Naomi, and wife, Neilia, had just been killed in a car accident. Biden was in Washington—he’d just been elected to the Senate at age 30, but not yet sworn in—when he heard the news about his family. His sons, Hunter and Beau, were injured in the accident, and Joe Biden was left a single parent.

“We, not the Senate, were all he cared about,” his son Beau, who died this spring, said in a 2008 speech. “He decided not to take the oath of office. He said, ‘Delaware can get another senator, but my boys can't get another father.’ However, great men like Ted Kennedy, Mike Mansfield, Hubert Humphrey—men who had been tested themselves—convinced him to serve. So he was sworn in, in the hospital, at my bedside.”

Fast-forward 43 years and Joe Biden, whose career has spanned Senate chairmanships and the vice presidency of the United States, is faced with a tragically similar decision. Just over three months after Beau Biden died after a battle with brain cancer at age 46, Joe Biden is very publicly reconciling his decades-old dream of winning a presidential election with the emotional load he and his family have to bear.

In an interview that aired Thursday evening on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Joe Biden confessed he isn’t any closer to announcing his intentions to the American people, even as speculation about the political capital he has to spend continue to persist and a super PAC hoping to draft him into the race staffs up in Iowa.

“I'd be lying if I said that I knew I was there,” Joe Biden said, in a heavy TV interview uncharacteristic of a Colbert-hosted show, Biden’s first since the death of his son.

After the death of a loved one, the smallest of choices can overwhelm a person. Something as weighty as joining a fierce race to assume the leadership of the free world is near-unimaginable. Back in 2012, Joe Biden advised the families of fallen armed-services members to “keep thinking what your husband or wife would want you to do” and use that as guidance. For Biden, back in the early 1970s, what his wife wanted was for him to be a senator, encouraging him to run when he was waffling in his decision at age 28.

“Joey, I think you should be all the way in or all the way out,” Joe Biden quoted Neilia as saying in a 2007 memoir, which The Washington Post suggested recently could help VP-watchers understand his current thinking. “If politics is what you want to do, let’s do it—full time.”

He followed through on his wife’s wishes when he assumed the senatorship—though it’s unclear how much of a factor her ambitions for him weighed into his decision. But as Joe Biden continues to recover from the loss of his son, he’s considering his entire family’s expectations of him.

“You gotta get up,” he told Colbert Thursday, according to a transcript in the pool report. “And I feel like I was letting down Beau, letting down my parents, letting down my family if I didn't just get up."

And according to one report, Beau Biden wanted his dad to run for president this cycle.

Like his father, Beau Biden was a public servant, the attorney general of Delaware for eight years and an Iraq War veteran who served in the state’s National Guard. He had ambitious plans of his own for higher office, announcing in April 2014 that he’d make a run for the governor’s office, before his health deteriorated.

The second Colbert mentioned Beau Biden at the start of the interview, the vice president dropped his head, the conversation shifting away from light-hearted intro banter. Joe Biden praised Beau’s character, describing with awe in his voice his son’s sense of empathy. He told Colbert how his son beckoned him over one day during the final months of his life.

“Dad, I know how much you love me,” Beau Biden said then. “You’ve gotta promise me something: Promise me you’re going to be all right, because no matter what happens, Dad, I’m going to be all right.”

The vice president identified a connection between himself and Colbert during the interview; the host lost his father and two of his brothers in a plane crash when he was just 10 years old. The men took turns praising how each coped through their losses, and Colbert gently endorsed Joe Biden to take a stab at joining the 2016 race.

"I know that it’s an emotional decision you have to make, but it's going to be emotional for a lot of people if you don't run,” Colbert said. “I just want to say that I think your experience and your example of suffering and service is something that would be sorely missed in the race."

Though the circumstances Joe Biden faces now are reminiscent of those he has faced before, he isn’t harkening back to earlier times of grief to figure out if and when he should announce, saying in a speech last week that he has learned “there’s no way to put a timetable” on it.

“I don't think any man or woman should run for president unless, No. 1, they know exactly why they would want to be president,” he said in the interview Thursday. “And two, they can look at the folks out there and say: ‘I promise you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy, and my passion.’”