Get to Know Joe Biden

Charles Gibson's private look at presidential hopefuls.

February 18, 2009, 6:12 PM

Dec. 13, 2007 — -- A 30-year veteran of the U.S. Senate, Joseph Biden Jr. has had to overcome devastating personal tragedy, embarrassing public scandal and serious health scares on his path to becoming a presidential hopeful.

The senator from Delaware credits his strong family ties with keeping him motivated both personally and professionally through the years.

Charles Gibson spoke with Biden as part of a new ABC News series called "Who Is," which features one interview a week with a presidential hopeful from now until December, with a focus on their private lives.

Biden was born Nov. 20, 1942, in Scranton, Pa., but spent the majority of his childhood in New Castle, Del. The eldest of four siblings, Biden said his parents made it a point to instill in their son the importance of family and faith.

Watch the full interview tonight on "World News With Charles Gibson" at 6:30 EDT

"My mom would always say, 'Just remember, you're closer to your brother and your sister than you are to me and your dad. You're the same blood,'" Biden said.

His faith was so central to his upbringing that growing up, Biden thought he wanted to be a priest.

"I come from an Irish-Catholic family," Biden said. "And [I] always thought that was the thing [to do.]"

But he feared his dreams would never come true. He had a debilitating stutter when he was a child and would often get teased by schoolmates who called him "Joe Impedimenta." With a damaged self-image, Biden limited his aspirations.

"The things I wanted to be, I worried I could never be because I couldn't talk," Biden said.

But he was determined to triumph over this setback.

"I'd stand in front of the mirror and repeat Emerson's 'Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty,' watching the muscles in my face," Biden said. "I knew I had to talk. I knew I had to overcome this."

Biden eventually learned to control his stutter and attended the University of Delaware. The transition to college was not an easy one for him.

"I did not do very well," Biden said. "I ended up with a 1.9 [grade point average], getting a D in ROTC, [which] put me on probation."

However, once Biden set his sights on law school, he buckled down, brought up his grades and eventually graduated from Syracuse University College of Law.

After working as a lawyer for a short time, Biden was persuaded to run for county council in Delaware, even though he had no previous political ambitions. To everyone's surprise, especially his own, Biden won.

He was then approached by the Democratic Party to run for the Senate.

"I don't think they thought I could win," Biden said. "They thought I'd present a decent case, I'd be a decent candidate."

And at the age of 30, Biden became the fifth-youngest senator in history.

However, Biden's victory celebration was short-lived. Just days before he was set to be sworn in, his wife, Neilia, and their three children got into a car accident. Neilia and their youngest child, 18-month-old Naomi, were killed. His two other sons, ages 4 and 3, were seriously injured.

Biden got the fateful phone call while at the Senate.

"I said, 'She's dead, isn't she?' I don't know what the hell made me say that. And I walked out," Biden said. "I was so angry."

Biden even contemplated suicide as a rational option after the accident.

"I never went to the bridge," Biden said. "I'd get up in the middle of the night, go out and take out a bottle of Scotch … and I'd sit at the table and I'd try to make myself just lose it. I couldn't bring myself … but the hardest part is you feel guilty when you realize you want to live. If the love was as great and as profound as you believed it to be, why would you still want to live?"

However, with the help of his friends and family Biden was pressed on and continued in the Senate, with a few alterations to his lifestyle. His sister and family moved in to Biden's home to help with the children.

"Being a single parent is hard," Biden said. "I couldn't afford to have someone take care of my kids. But I had my mother, my brothers, my sister — I had a family that just took care of me."

Biden also made the decision to commute daily to Washington from his home in Delaware. To this day, Biden still rides the train every day to work.

"My being home every day was sort of the touchstone for me. And even though all three of my kids now are out and they're grown up, I still go home every day," Biden said.

Five years after his family's fatal car accident, Biden found love again with Jill Tracy Jacobs. They've been married for 30 years and have one daughter.

Biden made his first run for the White House in 1987, but scandal plagued the senator's campaign. During Biden's bid for the Democratic nomination, it was discovered that he had plagiarized a speech by a British Labor Party leader. Under intense scrutiny, Biden withdrew from the race.

"Stupid. My mistake. Born out of arrogance, thinking I didn't have to prepare," Biden said. "But [except] for the loss of my wife and daughter, it was by far the most devastating thing that ever happened to me. I didn't deserve to be the nominee."

Soon after the aborted campaign, Biden suffered two brain aneurysms. He made a full recovery, but the experience left Biden a changed man.

"I don't think there's ever anything that is determinant of what's going to happen to you, other than in a life-and-death situation," Biden said. "So my notion before, 'I have to make that meeting, I have to show up to that event, I have to be there for that,' just left."

After returning to Washington, Biden became one of the Senate's most active and vocal members. He chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and currently heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Now in his second presidential campaign, Biden says he has a different perspective on the race.

"I'm doing it on my own terms," he said. "I just feel so much more, and have for the last 20 years, so much more at ease with everything."

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