Kitty Kelley, Death and the All-American Boy
The Washingtonian recently had the wit to republish this case study in the art of the profile: "Death and the All-American Boy."
The All-American Boy happens to be Joe Biden. The author is Kitty Kelley. If you don't remember her, Kelley wrote mega-selling biographies of big names like Frank Sinatra (who sued her), Nancy Reagan (she got the goods on the astrologer), Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Rock Hudson.
Kelley didn't always get great reviews. She was called "the consummate gossip-monger." But she was also a consummate investigator, digging out details that nobody else had been able to confirm.
In Biden's case, there was no dirt. Instead, Kelley composes a portrait of the man who finally became president that's as insightful--more, actually--than anything we've seen.
Kelley's piece was written in 1974. Sometimes the essential truth about someone's character doesn't change.
Joseph Robinette Biden, the 31-year-old Democrat from Delaware, is the youngest man in the Senate, which makes him a celebrity of sorts. But there’s something else that makes him good copy: Shortly after his election in November 1972 his wife Neilia and infant daughter were killed in a car accident. Suddenly this handsome, young man struck down in his moment of glory was prey to scores of hungry reporters clamoring to write soul-searching stories.
According to his staff he was hounded for weeks by the media. “It was awful in the beginning,” says Chazy Dowaliby, a press aide. “A few weeks after Neilia’s death we got a call from Sally Quinn of the Post. She wanted to do a story on the Senator as Washington’s most eligible bachelor. Naturally we said no but it wasn’t easy because she kept calling all the time. She wasn’t the only one. Women’s Wear Daily called morning, noon, and night. And so did every female magazine in the country. They all wanted to write some kind of weeping willow story on him and he knew it. So he told us to refuse all press calls.” Biden wouldn’t even talk to journalists like the Post‘s David Broder, and he wouldn’t appear on the “Today” show or “Face the Nation” or “Meet the Press.”
Although time has softened the pain of those early months in the Senate, Biden’s staff still protects him. The few reporters admitted in the past eighteen months have been asked to concentrate on Joe Biden, Senator, rather than Joe Biden, tragic figure. But the combination of youth, death, and a Kennedy-style upset victory continues to fascinate the press. How did an unknown attorney with only two years’ experience as a county councilman manage to topple Delaware’s firmly entrenched 63-year-old Republican Senator Caleb Boggs? Boggs, a two-term Congressman, two-term governor, and two-term Senator, wanted to retire in 1972; President Nixon persuaded him to run for a third term, suggesting that he resign after a year. Then Nixon planned to appoint Congressman Pierre DuPont to Boggs’ seat, keeping Delaware on the Republican side of the aisle. Biden spoiled the game plan. He was unknown—his statewide recognition factor was eighteen percent, compared to Boggs’ 93 percent—but he defeated Boggs in 1972.
Biden had little time to savor his victory. The week before Christmas 1972 he was in Washington putting a staff together. His wife, baby daughter, and two young sons were driving home on a highway west of Wilmington after shopping for a Christmas tree when a hay truck hit their station wagon. The car was thrown over an embankment, and Biden’s wife and daughter were killed. The sons lived—four-year-old Joseph, known in the family as Beau, was in traction for weeks. Two-year-old Hunt was hospitalized with a serious head injury.
Biden was devastated. He wanted to resign. Majority Leader Mike Mansfield persuaded him to stay, promising him several prestigious committee assignments. The Senate passed a resolution allowing him to be sworn in at the hospital bedsides of his sons. That was more than a year ago, and at the time he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stay in the Senate through 1973. He said he would resign if his Senate duties took too much time away from his sons. “They can always get another Senator, but my boys cannot get another father.”
Biden says he no longer allows himself the luxury of long-range planning, but he enjoys the prestige of being a Senator and seems committed to finishing his six-year term. In fact, he says he might consider running for President. “My wife always wanted me to be on the Supreme Court,” he says. “But while I know I can be a good Senator, and I know I can be a good President, I do know that I could never be another Oliver Wendell Holmes. I know I could have easily made the White House with Neilia. And my family still expects me to be there one of these days. With them behind me anything can happen.”
Neilia, the beautiful blonde he met during a college vacation in Nassau and married during law school at the University of Syracuse, still dominates his life.
His Senate suite looks like a shrine. A large photograph of Neilia’s tombstone hangs in the inner office; her pictures cover every wall. A framed copy of Milton’s sonnet, “On His Deceased Wife,” stands next to a print of Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty.”
Faithful Son ::: Patty Griffin
American Tune ::: Paul Simon
Faith of Our Fathers ::: The Harmonizing Four
Faithful And True ::: ZZ Hill
She Walks In Beauty ::: Sissel Kyrkjebo