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CNN Special Reports

Fight for the White House: Joe Biden's Long Journey. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired November 26, 2020 - 16:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: I'm sorry I can't be with you, but we will do it next year.

And thank you all for being with me. I'll see you tomorrow.

In the meantime, coming up next, a CNN special report, "Fight For the White House: Joe Biden's Long Journey."

ANNOUNCER: The following is a CNN special report.


GLORIA BORGER, CNN HOST (voice-over): He's gone from a young politician with swagger...

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: They said, "We think you should run for the Senate." I said, I'm not old enough.

BORGER: ... to a young father suffering great loss.

VALERIE BIDEN OWENS, SISTER OF JOE BIDEN: My brother looked at me and said, "She's dead, isn't she?"

BORGER: He's an Irishman with a life story that reads like a Greek tragedy.

SHAILAGH MURRAY, FORMER BIDEN DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF: How can you experience the worst thing imaginable twice in one lifetime?

BORGER: His career has been long and often controversial.

JOE BIDEN: Do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?


BORGER: That now has a new twist.

HILL: I'm more than willing to work with him.

BORGER: A senator, a vice president, and finally president-elect on his third try.

JOE BIDEN: I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify.

BORGER: Tonight:

(on camera): Do you see yourself as the polar opposite of Donald Trump?

JOE BIDEN: I hope so.

BORGER: A CNN special report: "Fight For the White House: Joe Biden's Long Journey."

JOE BIDEN: It's a good night!


JOE BIDEN: It's a good night. And it seems to be getting even better.


BORGER (voice-over): More than 30 years after his first run for the presidency...

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Joe Biden with a lead tonight and a lead overall in the delegate race.

BORGER: ... on his third try for the White House...

JOE BIDEN: I'm here to report we are very much alive!

BORGER: ... it was the sweet Super Tuesday that Joe Biden had always dreamed of, setting a clear path to the nomination, finally, at age 77.

JOE BIDEN: It was like, OK, let's buckle up. We're going to go.

JILL BIDEN, WIFE OF JOE BIDEN: It was a really good feeling.

BIDEN OWENS: It was glorious.

BORGER: Glorious and unusual, to say the least.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Fact, no one has ever come in fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, and gone on to become the Democratic presidential nominee.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: To do as poorly as he did in the first two contests...

JOE BIDEN: Now, where I come from, that is the opening bell.

AXELROD: ... to have the day he had on Super Tuesday was highly, highly unusual, defied the laws of politics.


JOE BIDEN: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. BORGER: It's a day Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. has been waiting for,

for decades.

(on camera): How long has Joe Biden wanted to be president of the United States?

TED KAUFMAN, LONGTIME BIDEN POLITICAL ADVISER: I first met him in 1972, and, clearly, he was not ruling out the possibility. He was 29 years old.

BORGER: There's also a story of the nun holding up a paper that little Joey wrote when he was 12 years old saying that he wanted to be president.

BIDEN OWENS: Well, if a nun said it, it has to be true.


BORGER (voice-over): And still is. But the brass ring has some big strings attached.

RON KLAIN, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: A country facing the worst infectious disease crisis we have seen since 1919, the worst economic crisis we have seen since the Great Depression, the worst racism crisis we have seen since 1968.


KLAIN: It's a triple threat of crises all at once, all combined.

BORGER: Biden has described himself as a transitional candidate, but a triple threat could require drastic, urgent action.

JOE BIDEN: The economy cannot survive if we don't get control of COVID. That's going to be the thing that's going to affect every single thing that gets done.

BORGER: From the beginning, when he was just Joey from Scranton, PA, Biden wanted to be the one to get things done.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joe Biden was always the lead dog. He had to be number one. He was in the number one position.

BORGER: A natural leader, his friends say.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We always followed Joe.

BORGER: And a natural talker.

BOB MARKEL, FRIEND OF JOE BIDEN: It's an old joke about Joe that, if Joe Biden were standing next to an electric light pole, he'd strike up a conversation.

BORGER: His family was large, tight-knit, and Irish Catholic.

MURRAY: Big, boisterous family, constantly playing pranks on each other.

BORGER: With at least nine of them in this modest home. Joey was the eldest of four. then came Valerie, Jimmy and Frankie.

The children's maternal grandparents lived there, too, along with an aunt, sometimes an uncle and their parents, Joseph R. Biden Sr. and Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden.

BIDEN OWENS: My mom was fierce in her commitment to family. She told us growing up that there's family, and there's family, and there's family.


JOE BIDEN: I remember going to my mother once -- I guess I was in fifth grade -- saying: "Mom, I love you more than anything."

And she said: "Joey, I know how much you love me, but you remember you're closer to your brother and sister than you are to me."

I said: "How's that mom?"

She said: "You are the same blood. You are closer to them. They're with you all the time. Never forget that."

BIDEN OWENS: Mom said that we were a gift to one another. And we believed her.

BORGER (on camera): Well, let me ask you about your sister, who's been incredibly supportive to you.


BORGER: What role has Val played in your life?

JOE BIDEN: She's been my best friend my whole life. She's been on the handlebars of my bicycle, I guess since -- excuse me -- since she was 3 years old. I never went a place I didn't take her. Taught her how to play ball, did everything with her. And...

BORGER: To this day?

JOE BIDEN: To this day, and all the way through.

BIDEN OWENS: There's all these sayings that Joe and I have for our mom and dad.

Dad said to us, it's not how many times that you get knocked down. It's how quickly you get up. And dad was all about resilience.

BORGER (voice-over): Especially after losing his job when Biden was young.

MURRAY: They were forced to move away from their childhood home to find opportunity in Wilmington. They had to reinvent themselves there. It made him very close to his family, as families often become much closer during adversity.

BORGER: Faith helped, too.

BIDEN OWENS: Family and faith were the bookends. And we were an Irish Catholic middle-class household. Our family values of taking care of one another, treating people with respect, being resilient, those values coincided with the Catholic social doctrine that we learned every single day at school.

There but for the grace of God go I. You are your brother's keeper. So, it was a seamless way of life.

BORGER: A seamless way of life for a determined young Joe Biden.

(on camera): Richard Ben Cramer writes about your brother as a child, and he said: "Joey was always quick, with a grace born of cocky self- possession. He didn't, like some kids his age, double-think himself. Once Joey set his mind, it wasn't like he didn't think at all. He just did."

BIDEN OWENS: The more serious version of what he set his mind to do is, he stuttered terribly. And he really couldn't string more than three or four words together at a time. And he determined that he was not going to be defined by a stutter.

MARKEL: Teenage boys can be pretty harsh, even cruel. And he used to get teased a lot. They would, "Hey, d-did y-you h-hear a-about B- Biden?"

They called him stutter head. For short, they called him stut. "Hey, stut."

BORGER (voice-over): So, the summer before Joe Biden's junior year, poetry helped him lose his stutter.

JOE BIDEN: I would do poetry to try to say, meek young men grow up in libraries.

BORGER (on camera): That's Emerson.

JOE BIDEN: Yes, that was Emerson.

And the reason I did it was to try to get a cadence to how you speak. When you're able to change the cadence of what you do and say, it seems how -- you will be able to overcome it somehow.

MARKEL: I think all of us were surprised in late August and September, when we went back to school, and he wasn't stuttering anymore.

BORGER: The high school was Archmere Academy, an elite Catholic school he worked hard to attend because he viewed it as a gateway to success. He was on the football team.

MARKEL: He was a halfback. He made some key plays in some of those games. BORGER: Off the field, friends remember a time he stood up for a

buddy. It happened when he went to a diner with some classmates, including the only black kid in the class.

MARKEL: The restaurant's policy that we don't serve, they didn't use word black at the time. He must have said Negroes.

Frank says, "Listen, I will leave."

Joe says: "No, sit down. If they're not going to serve you, they're not going to serve any of us."

And this is 1961. This is before the Civil Rights Act and before the Voting Rights Act, and before there was much sensitivity, I would say, at least for teenage boys, white boys, about civil rights issues.

BORGER: Biden says he learned about the reality of race relations here, while lifeguarding in a black neighborhood in the early 1960s, when Delaware was very divided racially and culturally.

RICHARD "MOUSE" SMITH, FORMER DELAWARE NAACP PRESIDENT: The Polish neighborhood, Irish neighborhood, the black neighborhood.

BORGER: He stood out, but worked hard to fit in.

SMITH: Once you come in the neighborhood and somebody like you, you become like brothers. You become deep friends and stuff. That's how Joe and I came.

DENNIS WILLIAMS, FORMER MAYOR OF WILMINGTON, DELAWARE: I was about probably 9 when I first met him. I was one of the ornery kids in this pool. They called me Dennis the Menace.


BORGER: He would grow up to become Dennis the mayor of Wilmington.

WILLIAMS: Joe saw an opportunity. The door was open. And he was going to get in. He was going to make friends and he was going to talk to people, and he was going to know this community and have this community trust him, because I know Joe had aspirations of going places.

BORGER: Long before Biden went into politics, he was already politicking and planning his surprising next moves.

Up next: success.

KAUFMAN: I will never, ever think anything's impossible again in my entire life.

BORGER: Followed by tragedy.

JOE BIDEN: I remember looking up and saying, "God." I was so angry, so angry.




BORGER (voice-over): By early 1964, Joe Biden was a student at the University of Delaware, still full of confidence, but low on cash, when he and two buddies decided to head to Fort Lauderdale for spring break.

FRED SEARS, BIDEN COLLEGE CLASSMATE: The first day, we went on the beach, and it was like 10,000 guys and 20 girls. The odds just did not look good for us. Lo and behold, a plane goes by with a sign saying, "Round-trips to Nassau 28 bucks."


"Joe, what do you think?"

"We got to go. Let's go."

BORGER: They arrive to discover the college women on private hotel beaches, which they couldn't afford.

SEARS: We found some of the hotel towels on the fence. We grabbed them and put them around our shoulders or our waist and walked in like we had been staying there all along.

BORGER: They were there just a few minutes when they spotted a young woman they all wanted to meet, Neilia Hunter, a 21-year-old senior at Syracuse University.

SEARS: I'm saying, well, let's do flip a coin or one potato, two potato. And while I'm trying to figure it out and talking to them, I'm looking at my hands and everything. He just takes off.

He's got a 50-yard dash on both of us. And by the time we get over there, he's already sitting there chatting her up.

JOE BIDEN: When I met Neilia, now, God's truth, I knew I was going to marry her. I really did. The second night, as I left, I said, "I think we're -- I'm going to marry you."

She said -- looked at me and, said, "I think so."

SEARS: So, we get on the plane coming home. And he said: "Fred, I have decided. I'm in love. And I'm going to Syracuse Law School."

BORGER: Just as planned, Biden made it to Syracuse Law School, and married Neilia Hunter a year later in the summer of 1966.

After graduation, he returned home with his wife to work at a law firm. National Guardsmen were still patrolling the streets of Wilmington in the wake of rioting that followed Martin Luther King's murder.

WILLIAMS: It wasn't good at all. We looked like a city under siege by the military.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): He saw a country torn apart by race, a city that was literally, literally on fire. The National Guard occupied Wilmington, Delaware longer than any city in America after the riots following King's assassination.

And it was in that moment that a young Joe Biden said, I can help.

BORGER: Biden was a believer in his own ability to convince anyone of anything. But no amount of self-confidence or ambition was big enough to deliver a Senate seat at age 27.

So, he ran for the county council. As usual, he enlisted his sister.

(on camera): So, how did you get involved in all the politics of it?

BIDEN OWENS: He always picked me first. It was just a natural thing to do. He was going to go be -- go into politics. I was going with him.

We asked everybody we knew to help us. And we asked them to ask 10 people to help us. And this is where we delivered -- we knocked on every door.

BORGER (voice-over): He won. And then, a year later, Biden found his real opening while attending a political convention in Delaware.

JOE BIDEN: I went back to the motel to shave for the evening. And I got a knock in my door, and in walks four people.

And they said, "We got to talk to you, Joe."

I had a towel around me. I was just shaving. And they said: "We think you should run for the Senate."

And I said: "Whoa." I said, "I'm not old enough."

BORGER: A judge in the group set him straight.

JOE BIDEN: He said: "Joe, you obviously didn't do very well on constitutional law. It says you have to be 30 to be sworn in, not 30 to be elected."

BORGER: It was audacious, if not arrogant, for Biden to run as a 29- year-old underdog candidate of change against a well-liked Republican senator named Cale Boggs.

QUESTION: What is your last name?


QUESTION: Miller. I know the Miller family.

KAUFMAN: He had been governor of the state for two terms. He had been a member of Congress for three terms, and he was running for a third term in the United States Senate. Cale Boggs was loved. I mean, he was loved. BORGER: Once again, Biden asked Valerie to run the show.

BIDEN OWENS: I remember saying to him: "Joey, I don't -- I can't run a statewide campaign. I don't know how to do that."

Remember, he's 28, 27, I'm 25, 26. He said: "Don't worry about it, Valerie." He said, "We will figure it out."

She reached out to a local Democratic Party activist, Ted Kaufman.

KAUFMAN: So, I went down and talked to him. I said: "So you're running on civil rights. You're running on the environment. You're running on tax reform. And those are really good issues."

And then a silence, and then I said: "But I don't think you have a chance of winning."

BORGER (on camera): You said what?

KAUFMAN: "I don't think you have a chance of winning."


KAUFMAN: "You don't have a chance."

"Cale Boggs is like -- Cale Boggs incredible. You have been in this for two years. You look like you're 25 years old. This is a race to run in order to make these issues you care about. And I say you can do that, but there is no chance you can win."

BORGER: And his reaction to that was?

KAUFMAN: "Well, just come and help me. Just come and help me. We will see. We will see."

BORGER (voice-over): Biden was confident he could talk his way into voters' hearts. But what Kaufman saw was bleak.

KAUFMAN: On Labor Day, we did a big-time poll. You know what the number was? Forty-seven percent for Boggs, 19 percent for Biden.

BORGER: But it was also the first year 18-year-olds could vote, and young voters saw a candidate who was promising that he understands what's happening today.

Fifty years later, this time as a political elder trying to connect with young voters, it's still his mantra.


AUDIENCE: Let's go, Joe!

COONS: They had this funny feeling that Cale Boggs just -- his heart wasn't in it. He'd been talked into running one more time by Richard Nixon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joe wants to talk to you for a few minutes. Then drink your beer, be merry, and vote that Democratic ticket November.

BORGER: And then:

BIDEN OWENS: We snuck up on him. Boggs -- this was the Nixon landslide year. Everybody expected no Democrat to win. And that was the truth.

JOE BIDEN: We won by a rousing 3,100 votes.


On election night, I remember it as if it was yesterday. I'm standing on the floor. I said: "I will never, ever think anything is impossible again in my entire life."

BORGER: He turned 30, the eligible age to serve, three weeks later. He and Neilia already had a picture-perfect young family, a baby named Naomi and two toddler boys, Joseph Biden III, or Beau, and Hunter. The quintessential young family was moving to the nation's capital.

BIDEN OWENS: For six weeks, we were on top of the world. I mean, he had -- was the dragon slayer. We were the bright young hope of the Democratic Party, and it was completely joyful.

BORGER: On December 18, Neilia was supposed to go with her husband to Washington, but decided to stay behind to buy a tree and Christmas gifts.

BIDEN OWENS: I went with Joe to Washington to interview staff. Senator Byrd told my brother -- offered the -- Joe to use his office, which we did.

BORGER: And then came the phone call.

BIDEN OWENS: It was Jimmy Biden. And I picked up the phone and Jimmy Biden said: "Come home now. There's a terrible accident with Neilia and the boys and the babies, all three."

BORGER (on camera): And you flew back and didn't...

BIDEN OWENS: We didn't say a word. I just -- we just -- it was a bumpy ride. I remember that. It was a tiny plane. And I remember he was on my right, and I just had my hand on his leg.

And we just -- I mean, we -- you know. You know.





BORGER (voice-over): One week before Christmas 1972, Joe Biden and his sister traveled to D.C. to hire staff. His wife, Neilia, stayed in Delaware with their three children to buy a tree. BIDEN OWENS: The memory that I have that's most vivid is walking in

the Russell Building with the echo of just our shoes.

JOE BIDEN: I remember looking up and just -- in the Rotunda, saying, "God." I was so angry.

I got a call from a first responder, and I said, "What happened?"

And he said: "Well, there was a tractor trailer, and your wife and daughter are dead."

BORGER: Neilia and the Bidens' baby Naomi were killed when a truck hit their station wagon.

JOE BIDEN: The boys were very badly injured. They were hospitalized, Hunter with a fractured skull and Beau with literally everything. He was in a body cast, both arms, both legs. You had to pick him up and carry him this way.

BORGER: Biden thought their bedside, not the Senate, was where he ought to be.

(on camera): Your brother is clearly considering not being sworn in.


BORGER: He doesn't want to be a senator.

BIDEN OWENS: He spoke to the governor and -- to have the governor replace him.

BORGER (voice-over): But the Senate majority leader, Mike Mansfield, changed Biden's mind.

JOE BIDEN: He said: "Your wife worked really hard for you to get elected, cared a great deal about it. Get sworn in and just stay six months."

If, in six months or so, there is a conflict between my being a good father and being a good senator, I promise you that I will contact governor-elect Tribbitt, as I had earlier, and tell him that we can always get another senator, but they can't get another father.

JOE BIDEN: And they sent the secretary of the Senate to the hospital room to swear me in, so I couldn't change my mind.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congratulations, Senator.

JOE BIDEN: Thank you.

BIDEN OWENS: The family and a few close friends were there, Hunter holding on to Beau's hand. It was heartbreaking. BORGER: The Biden family was devastated, but they had to move on. So,

Valerie moved in.

BIDEN OWENS: They were such a gift to me. The whole family was brokenhearted. And we just -- you know, the big thing, take care of one another, not because it's a responsibility, but because it was a gift.

BORGER: And while Valerie subbed in for mom, her brother also changed his plans.

BIDEN OWENS: The reason that Joe started to commute, he said: "They have lost their mom and they lost their baby sister. I cannot take them away and lose mom-mom and dadda and uncle Jimmy and Frankie and aunt Val," so he will commute.

After the accident, I mean, the bond was like steel rods among the three of them.

BORGER: Steel bonds with his boys and molten anger over the loss of his wife and baby.

(on camera): You said you went around kind of looking for fights.


BORGER: And you wrote that you even understand why people consider committing suicide.

JOE BIDEN: I thought about what -- what it would be like just to go to the Delaware Memorial Bridge and just jump off and end it all.

But I didn't ever get in a car and do it, or wasn't never even close.

What saved me was really my boys.

BORGER (voice-over): On Capitol Hill, he found support he didn't expect from Senate elders of both parties.