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CNN Special Reports
Fight For The White House: Joe Biden's Long Journey. Aired 10- 11p ET
Aired November 28, 2020 - 22:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There were fancy lawyers, liberal and conservative who would say, domestic violence is, you know, as American as apple pie, prominent liberal lawyers.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Overall, the toll on women's lives and health is devastating.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST (voice-over): Biden held Senate hearings for victims to share their stories.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And in 1983, my husband stabbed me 13 times and broke my neck while the police were on the scene. I nearly died, and I am permanently paralyzed.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They all have the same story. And what was the story? I don't believe you. This doesn't happen. And they said they did not believe it was a crime.
BORGER: Biden believed it was and spent four years pushing the bill. But it would ultimately take more than violence against women to get enough senators on board. So, Biden and President Bill Clinton, looking for a win, combined the issue with a comprehensive crime bill.
LEON PANETTA, CLINTON'S FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: At that time, there was a large amount of concern about growing violent crime in the country.
BORGER: Violent crime rates had been steadily rising for a decade, and there was political pressure to do something.
(On camera): Democrats felt like they needed to show they were tough on crime.
JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT-ELECT: No, as a matter of fact, violent crime had risen exponentially, mainly because of the crack epidemic.
BORGER: Was it a good political issue?
BIDEN: Well, no. It was more than that. It was a real danger.
BORGER (voice-over): His solution was a big bill. BIDEN: It was $30 billion. It had the assault on women ban in it. It had the violence against women law in it. It had the drug courts in it.
BORGER: The bill passed with bipartisan support in 1994. But times have changed. While Biden worked with the police unions to write that bill, he's now promising to reform policing, and he wants to fix other parts of the measure that Democrats charge led to further mass incarcerations harming communities of color.
SEN. CORY BOOKER (D-NJ): That tough on crime phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine.
VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Tough on crime meant tough on people who look like me. The core of the bill was to criminalize behaviors that really should have been addressed through addiction services, through employment services.
BIDEN: I will accept responsibility for what went right, but I'll also accept responsibility for what went wrong.
BORGER: Biden says the Obama administration worked to reduce the prison population and reversed mandatory minimum sentences, and he wants to do more.
BIDEN: We have to change the prison system from one of punishment to rehabilitation.
BORGER: So, is this political expediency or a true change of heart?
JONES: We get into this false debate about this is a true evolution or is this flip-flopping. We had this kind of weird thing where we really want the person to be believing in what they're doing. That's not what politicians do.
The politics on this have changed. He's political enough to read the country at this moment and deliver on the changes that we want at this moment.
BORGER: With a career that spans more than five decades, Biden has found himself apologizing and rethinking not only on the crime bill and not only to Anita Hill but to a group of women who said he made them uncomfortable by being too handsy.
BIDEN: And the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset, and I get it, I get it. I hear what they're saying. I understand it. And I'll be much more mindful.
BORGER: Anita Hill for one, decided before the election to believe Biden has changed.
BORGER (on camera): Do you find some irony here that I'm going to vote for Joe Biden and that I might want to work with him.
ANITA HILL, BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR: Do I think it's ironic? Yes. But this is not just about me. It's not just about Joe Biden. It's about millions of people in this country and around the world that we can be a model for and I would love to be a part of that. And if it means voting for Joe Biden, so be it.
BIDEN: I'll vote for this.
BORGER (voice-over): Up next, Joe Biden changes his mind.
BIDEN: Iraq vote was a mistake.
BORGER (voice-over): By the early 2000s, Joe Biden had one of the prime political perches in Washington.
TED KAUFMAN (D), FORMER SENATOR FROM DELAWARE: Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is one of the best jobs you can have.
BORGER: Even before he was chairman, he spent decades traveling the globe, becoming a student of arms control and personally connecting.
TONY BLINKEN, BIDEN'S FORMER STAFF DIRECTOR, SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: The focus that he brings to it is always how do I put myself in the other person's shoes? Because if I'm asking for something that they can't possibly give, we're not going to get anywhere.
BORGER: He also delivered blunt talk. One example, he says, is what he told Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in 1993.
BIDEN: I pointed out that genocide was happening, genocide.
I had a come to you-know-what meeting with Milosevic in his office. And I told him, I'm going to spend the rest of my career seeing your triad as a war criminal.
BORGER: And in 2008, to President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan.
CHUCK HAGEL, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE UNDER PRESIDENT OBAMA: We had a private dinner. Karzai hosted it at the palace. During the dinner, Karzai really kind of lit into the United States. Biden looked at him and came down on the table with his hand like that. And he said this dinner's over.
BORGER (on camera): That's it?
HAGEL: That was it. And he walked out. And, and so everybody's, well, I guess the dinner's over.
BORGER (voice-over): That was 2008. And Biden's clear signal to Karzai was "shape up."
[22:10:02] Back in 2001, after 9/11, Biden had backed Karzai in building a new government and supported George W. Bush's invasion into Afghanistan. And a year later, Biden also supported the Bush administration when it turned toward a new target, Iraq, looking to stomp out terrorism there.
GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.
BIDEN: These weapons must be dislodged from Saddam Hussein, or Saddam Hussein must be dislodged from power.
BORGER (on camera): Why did Joe Biden vote for the resolution?
BLINKEN: Yes. So, voting for the resolution is one thing, voting for war is another. He didn't vote for war. He voted for tough diplomacy. And he thought the best way to deal with it was to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq.
The inspectors went back in. They were doing their Job. And Bush went to war anyway.
RICK SANTORUM (R-PA), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Yes, it's hard thing to say when you're giving an authorization of force. I mean that's - that's not tough diplomacy. That is hard power, not soft power. Diplomacy is soft power. So, I don't buy that.
BORGER (voice-over): There were no weapons of mass destruction.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good to see you.
HAGEL: Joe Biden and Dick Lugar and I were the first senators into Baghdad, and after a couple years, it became clear to him that this was going nowhere.
BIDEN: The Iraq vote was a mistake.
BORGER: It's a vote that has dogged him for years from both sides.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): I did everything I could to prevent that war. Joe saw it differently.
BORGER (on camera): Why do you think he changed his mind on that vote?
DANIELLE PLETKA, SENIOR FELLOW, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: The same reason that Hillary Clinton changed her mind, the same reason that others did. If it had been a huge success, then nobody would be regretting their vote.
BORGER: Can you explain to people when you would use force?
BIDEN: Yes, when there's a vital U.S. interest at stake or when we have a treaty obligation that we've committed that we will keep. Now conversely, I'm not going to send my kids or anybody else's child to a place where our interests are not essential and where we cannot get it done.
BORGER (voice-over): So, the man who voted against the first Iraq War in 1991 and then changed his mind about the second Iraq War, deciding it was a disaster, ran for president in 2008 to end it.
JILL BIDEN, JOE BIDEN'S WIFE: I wanted him to run. And the kids said, you know, dad has to run. And I felt that Joe would be the only one who could end that war.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you running for president?
BIDEN: I am running for president. I'm going to be Joe Biden. I'm going to try to be the best Biden I can be.
BORGER: It wasn't enough.
KAUFMAN: We just made a gigantic miscalculation, and that is, once Obama caught on, there wasn't room on the track for anybody except Hillary and Obama.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They locked up a lot of money, a lot of support, and it wasn't just Joe Biden.
CHRIS DODD, FORMER DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We were doing so well.
Collectively, I think we had 2 percent.
BORGER: But it wasn't just the competition that sidelined Biden, although the competition was formidable. It was Biden himself. Even on day one, talking about Barack Obama.
BIDEN: I mean, you got the first sort of, mainstream African-American, who is articulate and bright and clean and nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man.
SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): Yes, it was unfortunate, because it was his announcement day, and he was simply trying to compliment Senator Obama.
BORGER: It didn't come off that way and was classic, careless Biden, putting him into full damage-control mode right out of the gate.
BIDEN: Let me tell you something, I spoke to Barack today.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I bet you did.
BORGER: To this day, his words can be cringe worthy and sometimes problematic.
BIDEN: If you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump and you aren't black --
BORGER: Biden apologized for the off-the-cuff mistake. His friends say when you talk a lot, that's bound to happen.
(On camera): Does he talk all the time?
BILL DALEY, OBAMA'S FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Yes. Yes, hastily. All the time. There is no ability to affect that. So, you kind of just got to go with the flow.
SANTORUM: Certainly, on the floor of the Senate, he would go on for long, long periods of time.
BORGER: Why is that such a steady critique of you?
BIDEN: Because probably I talk too much sometimes.
BORGER (voice-over): After Biden's short-lived presidential campaign collapsed, long-windedness took a back seat as Obama considered him as a running mate.
DAVID AXELROD, OBAMA'S FORMER CHIEF CAMPAIGN STRATEGIST AND SENIOR ADVISER: Obama was coming with relatively little Washington experience, here was Joe Biden with 36 years in the United States Senate.
BORGER: And 36 years of being his own boss.
VALERIE BIDEN OWENS, JOE BIDEN'S SISTER: He was a Senate. He loved everything about the Senate.
BIDEN: When he asked me if I'd do it, I said no. I didn't want to be vice president because my view was I was a fairly powerful United States senator. I thought I could help him more as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
JILL BIDEN: And he called me, and I said oh, my gosh, that's so great. And so, he said, I don't know, Joe. I don't know. I said I'll call the kids, and we' we'll talk about it.
BIDEN: So, I went home. I got the family together. And so, my mom looked at me and she said, Joey, let me get this straight. The first black man in history has a chance to be the president, says he wants you to run with him. And you told him no, honey?
KAUFMAN: Game, set, match. All over.
BORGER (on camera): That was it.
KAUFMAN: It was like the hand of God.
BIDEN: Ladies and gentlemen, my friend, Barack Obama, the next president of the United States of America!
BORGER (voice-over): From that moment on, Biden was all in, as long as he could have weekly meetings with the president and serve as his chief adviser on all matters.
AXELROD: Biden said, I don't want a portfolio. All I want to know is that when you make the big decisions that I'm going to be in the room, and Obama joked, I want your advice, Joe. I just want it in 10-minute increments, not 60-minute increments.
BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For decades, he's brought change to Washington, but Washington hasn't changed him.
BORGER: And so, the man of the Senate, the two-time presidential also- ran finally became a winner, alongside a partner who was at the top of the ticket.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a moment so many people have been waiting for.
OBAMA: I want to thank my partner in this journey. A man who campaigned from his heart, the vice president-elect of the United States, Joe Biden.
BIDEN: I, Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. do solemnly swear --
BORGER (voice-over): In January 2009, Vice President Joe Biden swore on his family Bible to defend the Constitution.
BIDEN: Against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
BORGER: Biden was Obama's top adviser without portfolio, but his job quickly began with one huge assignment, economic recovery.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: 2.6 million jobs lost in 2008, the largest one- year drop since 1945.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: The global economy -- our economy is sinking.
COONS: I mean the view through the windshield was the ground. And the economy was just going straight down.
BORGER: The Obama administration proposed a massive stimulus bill, massive at least by 2009 standards. Biden's job, corral the Senate Republicans needed to get it done.
RON KLAIN, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF FOR VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: The Recovery Act passed the House on a straight party-line vote. But in the Senate, it faced a filibuster and we needed three Republican votes to get it passed and it really fell into Joe Biden's lap to go up to Capitol Hill and persuade those three Republicans. They delivered those three votes. We got to 60 votes right on the nose.
BIDEN: So, on behalf of our country and its people, Mr. President, let me presume to say, thank you. We owe you a great deal. BORGER: So just four weeks after the inauguration, the administration pumped $787 billion into a teetering economy. It was risky business. With some Democrats complaining it wasn't enough and Republicans arguing it was too large.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): We have no assurance that it will create jobs or revive the economy. In short, we're taking an enormous risk. An enormous risk with other people's money.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president of the United States!
OBAMA: I'd ask Vice President Biden to lead a tough, unprecedented oversight effort, because nobody messes with Joe.
RAHM EMANUEL, OBAMA'S FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: To implement the stimulus, it had to be free of any problem, scandals. And it had to be fast and furious. So, you had to move unbelievably fast but no problems and no slipups.
BORGER: Over the next seven years, the economy grew, though relatively slowly. Unemployment dropped by half, and millions of jobs were added.
BIDEN: Good morning, folks, how are you.
BORGER: The following year, Biden was on the Hill again, this time to help find the votes for the Affordable Care Act.
BIDEN: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is passed.
JAY CARNEY, FORMER PRESS SECRETARY UNDER PRESIDENT OBAMA: His role in Obamacare was principally as an arm twister.
BORGER: But in the end, Biden may be remembered as much for what he whispered to his boss when the legislation passed.
BIDEN: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States of America, Barack Obama.
This is a big (EXPLETIVE DELETED) deal.
OBAMA: Thank you.
BORGER: And then there was the time Biden jumped the gun on the president, announcing his own support for gay marriage on a Sunday show.
BIDEN: I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexuals are entitled to the same, exact rights.
BORGER: But Biden's utility went beyond domestic policy, as Obama tasked him to handle assignments in Afghanistan and also Iraq, where the administration had promised to end the war.
BLINKEN: During the transition, president-elect Obama said why don't you go to Iraq and Afghanistan in January to get the freshest possible information to inform our review.
BORGER: So, that's what they did. Biden returned from the trip, believing Afghanistan was a complete mess and told the president.
BLINKEN: There was not unity of mission, unity of purpose, and he said, Mr. President, the first thing we need to do is make sure that we have a clear set of objectives and a clear strategy and that everyone agrees on it.
BORGER: One point of agreement was that the first order of business was sending 25,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, to ensure the country's upcoming elections would be fair. But then came a request for even more troops.
LT. GEN. DOUG LUTE (RET.), FORMER COORDINATOR FOR AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN UNDER PRESIDENT OBAMA: Based on an assessment by the new commander in Afghanistan, Stan McChrystal, he came back to Washington and asked for an additional 40,000 U.S. troops.
BORGER: The military brass were on board, but not Biden, who never stopped raising questions and clearly got on their nerves.
(On camera): You had Gates, Mullen, Petraeus, McChrystal, Hillary Clinton. The vice president is saying to that vast array of experienced people. Stop, wait a minute. We have to rethink this.
LUTE: Well, I think he was saying, slow down. There's no rush to judgment here.
CARNEY: So, the vice president would play as he would like to say, the skunk at the picnic. Or he would be the bad cop. He would be the one pressing the military. Why do you need that many resources? I don't believe that. Explain that.
BIDEN: I would be the one taking them on. The president was new. They knew he didn't have foreign policy experience. And if they went after him and it was a mistake, it would be a very costly mistake.
BLINKEN: And it became total complicity with President Obama. They would confer before the meetings. And the president would say, Joe, be great if you pushed on this or focus on that or prodded on that. That allowed the president to kind of not show his cards, to sit back, to hear everyone out.
BORGER: The debates inside the situation room grew more and more tense, especially with the military brass.
PANETTA: There's always an attitude that, you know, we're the ones who put our lives on the line. We are the military experts. We expect that, you know, when we make a recommendation that you'll give deference to those that have military experience. And the vice president is not one to do that. That's why some have been critical of Joe Biden.
BORGER: One source of the tension was Biden's notion of a much smaller presence aimed directly at the terrorists.
LUTE: Fundamentally, the reason we're in Afghanistan in 2009 and frankly today, 10 years later, has to do with al Qaeda and terrorists who can reach out of Afghanistan to strike us or strike our allies. So, he was laser focused on the terrorism problem.
BORGER (on camera): And how many boots on the ground would that have required?
LUTE: I think it was more along the lines of lines 10,000 or 15,000 in that range.
BORGER (voice-over): Biden lost the fight. Unable to convince Obama who opted instead for the Pentagon plan. The president committed 30,000 troops and told the brass to get the additional 10,000 from allies.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who declined to be interviewed for this profile, wrote this about Biden in his memoir, "I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades."
But when asked about that quote this summer, Gates chose to steer the conversation to his assessment of Biden's character over their policy disputes.
ROBERT GATES, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I have a lot of policy disagreements, frankly, with the former vice president. But I think one of the things that people will be weighing this fall is probably the character of the two contestants.
BIDEN: Good afternoon, folks.
BORGER: In 2010, Biden was still looking for a way to end the Iraq war.
BIDEN: Barack and I - first, who did he turn to, to end the war? Me.
We are committed to building an enduring partnership between Iraq and the United States.
BORGER (voice-over): Biden's goal? Convince Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the U.S. be allowed to leave a small military presence behind, but al-Maliki refused.
BORGER (on camera): Did Biden not push hard enough on that?
PLETKA: He didn't push at all.
BORGER: They say they did. They say, they pushed. And they pushed. And they pushed.
PLETKA: No. They did not push with any conviction.
President Obama ran on ending wars. But they didn't push hard because what they wanted to do was skedaddle. And skedaddle they did. PANETTA: Your dream of an independent and sovereign Iraq is now a reality.
BORGER (voice-over): In December 2011, the Obama administration stuck to a schedule agreed to by President Bush and withdrew.
PANETTA: Ultimately, we did leave a vacuum there. And ultimately, we paid a price for that.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: In Iraq right now, militant ISIS fighters, they are less than 40 miles away from the capital of Baghdad.
PANETTA: And that ultimately forced the United States to go back in to Iraq in order to make sure that they didn't take over the entire country.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST (voice-over): So U.S. troops returned to fill the vacuum, temporarily. But the controversy over the growth of ISIS still remains.
Up next, the Biden who returned from Iraq to face another battle.
JILL BIDEN, WIFE OF JOE BIDEN: They say 1 percent of people survive, and we kept thinking, why can't he be the 1 percent?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joining us from Wilmington, Delaware is Vice President Joe Biden. Mr. Vice President --
BORGER (voice-over): It was a Monday in May just like any other.
JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT-ELECT: Hey, Harry. How are you doing, man?
BORGER (voice-over): Until it wasn't.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) of criticism coming this morning about the choice of Elena Kagan to be the next Supreme Court Justice.
JAY CARNEY, FORMER PRESS SECRETARY UNDER PRESIDENT OBAMA: I'll never forget it.
BIDEN: American people see what they're getting --
CARNEY: The Vice President had gone home for the weekend, and he was doing TV to support the President's nomination to the Supreme Court.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're joined now by Vice President Joe Biden.
CARNEY: We got back to the Vice President's house, and suddenly, there was this commotion behind us. And Fran Person, who was the President's aide, body aide, stuck his head in the window and said Beau's down. Something's happened to Beau.
BORGER (on camera): Beau's down?
CARNEY: Beau's down. And I was like, what? The motorcade bolted behind us and took off.
BORGER (voice-over): The Vice President rushed to the hospital where his eldest son, 41-year-old Beau, had been taken.
CARNEY: Nobody knew at that point if he was even alive. Like what had happened? And then as the day progressed, the diagnosis was a stroke.
I remember a moment in the hospital waiting room looking at the Vice President and Jill Biden sitting together, holding hands, with just unbelievable anxiety and grief on their face and thinking, this is so unfair. That this would be happening to him, after what he's been through.
Gradually, the news got better that day, and the stroke, what they thought was a stroke resolved itself.
BORGER (voice-over): It appeared resolved a week later when Beau left the hospital. But it wasn't. The real problem would be hidden for three more years.
(on camera): Can you describe Biden's relationship with Beau?
SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), FRIEND AND SENATOR FROM DELAWARE: Incredibly close. He was more than just father/son. They were almost alter egos.
CARNEY: You could just see the love and the pride. All quiet and unspoken between them. He was such a humble, decent person, Beau was.
BORGER (voice-over): The natural person to introduce his father to the nation in 2008.
BEAU BIDEN, JOE BIDEN'S SON: Please join me in welcoming my friend, my father, my hero, the next Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden.
BORGER (voice-over): Beau served in Iraq with the National Guard.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Attorney General of the state of Delaware Beau Biden.
BORGER (voice-over): And was the attorney general of Delaware contemplating a run for governor.
B. BIDEN: Honesty --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Beau, Beau, Beau.
BORGER (voice-over): He was bound for bigger things, and not just because of his last name.
B. BIDEN: And I thank you from the bottom of my heart for being there for me.
SHAILAGH MURRAY, FORMER DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF FOR VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: He was the heir apparent, but there was no question that he could earn it himself. He was this incredible natural, right, who you just had to get out of the way and let him shine.
J. BIDEN: I knew he would follow in his father's footsteps. I mean, he loved politics, even as a little boy.
BORGER (on camera): Did you think he was going to run for president some day? Was that --
J. BIDEN: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, yes.
BORGER (voice-over): By 2013, Beau Biden was married with two young children.
MURRAY: And then he had this incident while he was traveling with his family. And ends up at the doctor's office, and it was after that initial visit with the doctor that we heard from the Vice President that he needed to see a specialist at MD Anderson in Houston.
BORGER (voice-over): MD Anderson, a top cancer hospital.
(on camera): Do you remember when Biden called you?
MURRAY: Yes. I do.
You could tell from his voice that they have had a very challenging conversation with the doctor.
BORGER (voice-over): The diagnosis was deadly. Glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. The chances for long-term survival near zero.
J. BIDEN: It was hard. I mean, it was hard. We just kept hope that he was going to make it. You know, they say 1 percent of people survive. And we kept thinking, why can't he be the 1 percent?
After the workday, I would head to Walter Reed hospital, Joe would head to Walter Reed. I mean, he would be there until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. And then he would come home, you know, grab a couple hours of sleep, or fall asleep, you know, at Beau's bedside and then shower and start the next day.
MURRAY: I said to him, I find it remarkable how you're able to deal with this. He said, you know, the reality is I've dealt with this before. I know how this story unfolds.
BORGER (voice-over): Friends and family say during this time, he leaned heavily on his faith.
COONS: I'd see him in meetings fingering his rosary beads. I knew he was praying for him.
Joe, on occasion, would come in to St. Ann's or St. Patrick's. He'd come in after mass had started and just slip in the back with his detail. And be there.
And then he'd leave before it ended so he didn't, you know, disrupt everything. But I remember looking back and sort of stealing a glance at one point and he just -- he was praying.
BORGER (voice-over): Biden also got support from his boss.
J. BIDEN: The only person I told about how bad off Beau was, and he kept the confidence, was Barack.
BORGER (voice-over): For years, the President and Vice President had a weekly lunch appointment. And when Beau got sick, the struggle became their shared conversation.
(on camera): Did they become closer?
MURRAY: They absolutely became closer. As people do, right? When they experience great life events together.
BORGER (voice-over): So close that when the Vice President mentioned he might sell his home to help his son, the President made a stunning offer.
J. BIDEN: I said, if Beau resigns, there's nothing to fall back on, his salary, and I said but I worked it out. I said, Jill and I will sell the house, we'll be in good shape. When he got up, he said, don't sell that house. Promise me, you won't sell the house. He's going to be mad at me saying this, he said, I'll give you the money.
BORGER (voice-over): And while the Vice President tried to help his son, the son tried to help his father.
TED KAUFMAN (D), FORMER SENATOR FROM DELAWARE: I absolutely believe and will believe it until the day I die, that the thing Beau was most afraid of was not dying. What he was most afraid of is that the impact it would have on his dad. That would really take his dad out.
BORGER (on camera): Did he tell you that?
KAUFMAN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. All the time.
BORGER (voice-over): It's something the Vice President wrote about in 2017 in his book, "Promise Me, Dad."
J. BIDEN: Beau just made me promise. This was just before he died. He said, Dad, you got to promise me you're going to be OK. I said, Beau -- but he said dad, look at me, look me in the eye, Dad. Give me your word as a Biden, Dad, you're going to be OK.
BORGER (on camera): Are you OK?
J. BIDEN: I am, because it is still emotional. But I knew what he meant. He was worried I'd walk away from everything I'd worked in my whole life, the things I cared about. He knew I'd take care of the family. He never wondered about that, but he didn't want me walking away.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Forward, march.
BORGER (voice-over): Beau Biden died on May 30th, 2015. He was 46 years old.
BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Beau Biden was an original. He was a good man. A man of character. A man who loved deeply and was loved in return.
BORGER (on camera): Is it true you keep Beau's rosary with you?
J. BIDEN: Got it in my pocket.
BORGER: All the time?
J. BIDEN: I keep it all the time. He had it when he passed away. It was more gold. You can see it's worn.
BORGER (voice-over): That was the spring of 2015. And, as ever in Joe Biden's life, another political deadline loomed. Would he run for President again in 2016?
COONS: We had a talk. He just kind of wanted, you know, do you think I should run for President? It inevitably turned into a talk about Beau. You know, how would he get through it and how would he do it and how would it happen, you know, without him?
BORGER (on camera): So, when you left that meeting, did you think he was going to run?
COONS: I thought he was going to really, really wrestle with it, but I thought that he was not yet in a place where there was a floor. There was this moment where we started talking, and you could just see there was no bottom. There was just this hole.
BORGER (voice-over): The decision wasn't just about Beau. It was getting late in the race for the Democratic nomination. Hillary Clinton had already captured key support and big money.
HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you all very much.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Have you made your decision yet?
J. BIDEN: I can't hear you.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Have you made your decision yet?
BORGER (voice-over): And as Biden wrote in his 2017 memoir, Obama's political team thought the race wasn't winnable, and Obama himself was not encouraging. And so --
J BIDEN: As my family and I have worked through the grieving process, I've said all along that it may very well be that that process, by the time we get through it, closes the window on mounting a realistic campaign for president. I've concluded it has closed.
OBAMA: Thank you very much.
J. BIDEN: Thank you all very much.
BORGER (voice-over): Joe Biden was 73 years old, and it seemed that the presidency was out of reach for good.
(on camera): Did he think it was over then? The notion of running for President.
BORGER (on-camera): You know, 2016?
KAUFMAN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
BORGER (voice-over): Then the President gave Biden another job.
OBAMA: You know, last year, Vice President Biden said that when the new moon shot, America can cure cancer.
BORGER (voice-over): Obama gave Biden his moon shot.
OBAMA: So, tonight I'm announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he's gone to the mat for all of us on so many issues over the past 40 years, I'm putting Joe in charge of mission control.
BORGER (voice-over): And then, this.
OBAMA: I am pleased to award our nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
BORGER (voice-over): With nearly 50 years of public service under his belt and the nation's highest civilian honor around his neck, Joe Biden thought his time in Washington was over. Up next.
J. BIDEN: Beat Trump. Beat Trump. Beat Trump.
OBAMA: Thank you very much, everybody.
BORGER (voice-over): As the curtain dropped on the Obama administration --
FORMER SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: Joe Biden was beloved by everyone in this chamber, even those he drove crazy from time to time.
BORGER (voice-over): Republican senators who didn't want to talk with us about Joe Biden heaped praise on him. SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: I do trust him, implicitly. He doesn't break his word. He doesn't waste time telling me why I'm wrong. He gets down to brass tacks, and he keeps inside the stakes.
BORGER (voice-over): A retirement party Senate style, where the compliments flowed freely, because Biden would never run again. Even Biden believed it.
J. BIDEN: Then along came Charlottesville.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERS (in unison): Jews will not replace us.
J. BIDEN: And these people coming out of the field with torches and contorted face, their veins bulging, spewing hate.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.
J. BIDEN: He said there were fine people on both sides. And I thought God.
That's why today I'm announcing my candidacy for president of the United States.
BORGER (voice-over): It was April 2019 and Joe Biden, then age 76, had come full circle. From one of the youngest men ever elected to the Senate, seeking to become the oldest person to take the presidential oath. Donald Trump clearly saw Biden as a threat, so much so that he was impeached by the House.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: Article 2 is adopted.
BORGER (voice-over): Over a phone call he had with the Ukrainian President asking him to investigate Biden and his son Hunter.
TRUMP: What Biden did is a disgrace. What his son did is a disgrace.
BORGER (voice-over): At issue was Hunter Biden's five-year stint on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, which began while his father was Vice President.
TRUMP: Biden and his son are stone-cold crooked.
BORGER (voice-over): President Trump claimed Joe Biden used his considerable influence to force out a Ukrainian prosecutor whom Trump says was investigating Hunter.
TRUMP: He said is that he wouldn't give -- I think it was billions of dollars to Ukraine unless they fired the prosecutor who was looking at his son and --
BORGER (voice-over): There is zero evidence that this is true. Biden did want the prosecutor fired, but that's because he was widely viewed as corrupt. And Biden was leading an anti-corruption campaign backed by the U.S. and western allies. MICHAEL KRANISH, NATIONAL POLITICAL INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: There was this ongoing relationship between Hunter Biden and the board and Joe Biden and the country of Ukraine. And there are those who would say that just on itself is a conflict of interest. You shouldn't do that.
BORGER (voice-over): Last year, Hunter Biden told ABC News he made a mistake.
HUNTER BIDEN, JOE BIDEN'S SON: Did I make a mistake? Well maybe in the grand scheme of things, yes. But did I make a mistake based upon some unethical lapse, absolutely not.
BORGER (on camera): Do you ever think that you should have just told Hunter to get off the board, even if it was only a matter of optics?
J. BIDEN: Optically, had I known earlier, I wish, you know -- we both wish it hadn't happened that way. But the fact is all the people that testified under oath in the impeachment hearings acknowledge that there wasn't a single thing Biden did, either one that was illegal, inappropriate. There is no evidence of that. But it would have been easier. It would have been a lot easier.
BORGER (voice-over): The attacks clearly got under Biden's skin.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're selling access to the President just like he was.
J. BIDEN: A damn liar, man. That's not true. And no one has ever said that.
BORGER (voice-over): And ethical questions continued to be raised by Republicans.
RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: There is no way as a Vice President that I would let my son do that. No way. I mean, and I would make a point to make sure that it didn't happen, because I just think that that's wrong.
J. BIDEN: And thank you, thank you, thank you.
BORGER (voice-over): By February, Democrats were heading to the polls, and Biden's fate was up to the voters.
JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: This 15.6 is a disappointment for Biden, currently running fourth.
BORGER (voice-over): Fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire. Soon, came South Carolina.
(on camera): And did you think that it was looking pretty bleak?
REP. JIM CLYBURN (D), HOUSE MAJORITY WHIP FROM SOUTH CAROLINA: Yes. I thought that.
BORGER (voice-over): And so, just days before the primary, influential Congressman Jim Clyburn, hoping to give Biden a boost, endorsed him.
CLYBURN: I want the public to know that I'm voting for Joe Biden. South Carolinians should be voting for Joe Biden.
BORGER (voice-over): It worked big-time.
KING: Sweeping blowout win for the former Vice President Joe Biden. 46 counties in South Carolina, 46-county victories for Joe Biden.
J. BIDEN: And my buddy Jim Clyburn, you brought me back.
BORGER (voice-over): He won by 29 points and he wouldn't have done it without you.
J. BIDEN: A man of enormous integrity.
BORGER (on-camera): There is no doubt about that.
CLYBURN: Well, some people say that.
BORGER (voice-over): The decisive results in South Carolina quickly collapsed the Democratic field.
J. BIDEN: They don't call it Super Tuesday for nothing.
BORGER (voice-over): So Biden, who started the race as the front- runner, was back at the top of the heap and the world.
But the next week, COVID forced him and everyone else down to earth and back inside their homes for months.
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Travel restricted, schools shuttered, sports seasons just totally canceled.
BORGER (voice-over): Millions of jobs were lost. The death toll mounted.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERS (in unison): Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter.
BORGER (voice-over): Then came racial tensions after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
J. BIDEN: I know what it means to have that Black hole in your chest where your grief is being sucked into it.
MURRAY: Empathy is Joe Biden's superpower, and he applies it to everything. And I think he fully intends to apply it to the country and to the challenges that we're facing right now.
BORGER (voice-over): As Biden continued to rise in the polls, Trump's attacks dug deeper, taking on his opponent's acuity and age.
TRUMP: They're going to put him into a home and other people are going to be running the country.
BORGER (voice-over): Trump and Biden are contemporaries, both born in the 1940s. And Biden is less than four years older than Trump.
SANTORUM: Look, he's almost -- he's approaching 80 years of age. I don't know of anybody that hasn't lost a step when you're approaching your 80th year. You do, and he has.
J. BIDEN: All right, I got to find--
J. BIDEN: I think it's ridiculous. I mean, if you follow Joe -- I mean, he's usually the last one to leave a rally or rope line. And then when he comes home, he's on the phone, he's doing briefings.
BORGER (on camera): What do you say to people who watch you on TV, and they say, he's not the old Biden I knew. And he's lost a step after all these years and it worries me. What do you say to those folks?
J. BIDEN: Watch me. I say watch me.
BORGER (voice-over): More than 21 million people watched Joe Biden accept the Democratic nomination.
J. BIDEN: It is with great honor and humility, I accept this nomination for President of the United States of America.
BORGER (voice-over): With his historic running mate Kamala Harris by his side, Biden saw a ticket that looked like the future. Republicans were quick to paint Harris as part of the left-wing, pulling her silver haired elder in that direction, drawing a caricature of Biden as an empty vessel captured by radicals.
RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S PERSONAL ATTORNEY: He's a Trojan horse with Bernie, AOC, Pelosi, Black Lives Matter, and his party's entire left-wing.
TRUMP: Biden is a Trojan horse for socialism.
BORGER (voice-over): At his convention, Biden saw himself as the man to lead the way out of the pandemic, by believing in science and understanding the pain that it has caused.
J. BIDEN: I know how mean, cruel and unfair life can be sometimes.
BORGER (voice-over): And he made the case for a resilient America moored by hope and decency.
J. BIDEN: Someone with a cause for hope and light and love, hope for our future, light to see our way forward and love for one another.
BORGER (voice-over): There were two conventions, two alternate universes, two very different men.
(on camera): Are Joe Biden and Donald Trump polar opposites? RAHM EMANUEL, OBAMA'S FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: A 100 percent. Joe Biden, in character and in policies, is the polar opposite of Donald Trump.
BORGER (on camera): And is that a good thing in this election?
EMANUEL: 120 percent yes. And I think I'm shaving 10 percent or 15 percent off. It could be 150 percent.
CHUCK HAGEL, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE UNDER PRESIDENT OBAMA: Polar opposites.
COONS: Joe doesn't read his compassion off a teleprompter.
BORGER (on-camera): Do you see yourself as the polar opposite of Donald Trump?
J. BIDEN: I hope so.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: CNN projects Joseph R. Biden Jr. is elected the 46th President of the United States.
BORGER (voice-over): And so the man who will be 46 began behaving as the polar opposite of 45. Taking on the pandemic, not downplaying it.
J. BIDEN: I will spare no effort, none, or any commitment to turn around this pandemic.
BORGER (voice-over): Trying to unite the country, not divided.
J. BIDEN: I'll work as hard for those who didn't vote for me as those who did.
BORGER (voice-over): And charting the nation on a very different course.
J. BIDEN: But let this grimmer of demonization in America began to end here and now.