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Biden's Choice Is Weighed Down With Ambition and Personal Tragedy

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

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.’"