A Friday afternoon. A small classroom at a Secret Service training facility, a sprawling campus deep in the anonymous exurbs of Maryland. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., age of seventy-three, walks into the room smiling his wide Joe Biden smile—the bright white teeth, the cherry cheeks, the sparkle in the eyes—because he has just been joyriding in his 1967 Corvette 327 ragtop, a wedding gift from his father when he married Neilia Hunter on August 27, 1966. (Today he was being filmed for the online video series Jay Leno's Garage, hosted by the peerless auto enthusiast and former Seniorhelpline contributor.) With him is his son Hunter Biden, age of forty-six, who has his mother's strong, perfect jaw and deep, warm eyes. Filling in around them are a few Secret Service agents, Biden's doctor, an aide or two, the press person. They all move deliberately, well practiced but casual, hovering around the mother ship before landing at their posts.
JOE BIDEN: I haven't been able to drive that sucker like that in eight years.
POPULAR MECHANICS: You got out there too, right, Hunter?
HUNTER BIDEN: Yeah, in the Porsche.
JOE: Hunter's car took 2.7 seconds to get to 70 before I hit the stop line. The Corvette looks more impressive, because it's fishtailing, but it takes 5.7 seconds.
PM: Did you learn how to work on cars together?
HUNTER: We learned how to drive cars.
JOE: The truth is, my dad, his grandpop, was a great driver. I mean, he could handle an automobile. He loved speed. He used to joke that his one regret was he didn't join the volunteer fire service so he could drive the ambulance. But we were never, you know, motorheads. We knew fast cars. We knew how to siphon gas—me—charge the battery when it was down. But never hot-wired a car.
JOE: The first car I bought his brother was—
HUNTER: Well, before that. Remember, the first car we got was a 1972 Caprice Classic convertible. Fifteen hundred bucks at the Manheim Auto Auction.
JOE: Oh yeah, big, old, green—it was beautiful.
HUNTER: It was as long as this room. And this is before the seat-belt laws, so you could fit about twenty people in the backseat and twenty in the front too.
JOE: The only car we had early on was the Corvette, so when he and his brother were one, two, three years old, they'd ride in our laps. Today they'd call it child brutality. I don't even think—did the big Chevy Caprice have seat belts?
HUNTER: It did. Maybe not in the back.
JOE: Everyone thinks because we love cars and our dad was in the business, we love the mechanical end of cars.
HUNTER: We just love beautiful machines.
PM: My dad loves cars too. It's something he's always been so good at—passing along his knowledge or love for something. I don't know how, he just manages to teach me things. I'm trying to do it with my two boys. Hunter, what's the best lesson your dad ever taught you?
HUNTER: The single best thing is, family comes first. Over everything. I can't think of anything that has been more pervasive and played a larger part in my life than that simple lesson. And as you said, he didn't have to teach it by saying it. It was just in his actions. After we lost my mom and my sister in the accident that my brother and I were also in, he was ever-present. Commuted every day back from Washington.
[The accident was seven days before Christmas, 1972. Biden had just been elected to the Senate, two weeks after turning thirty. Neilia was taking their three children—Beau, three; Hunter, two; and Naomi, just thirteen months—on some holiday errands. A tractor-trailer struck her car. Neilia and Naomi were killed. Hunter and Beau survived but were severely injured.]
HUNTER: After that, we had a rule, with Beau and I, which was that no matter what, as long as we were sincere about it and not trying to get out of something—but even sometimes if we were—if we wanted to go to work with Dad, we could go with him.
JOE: Anywhere. They could pick a day. They didn't have to explain. Just say, "Dad, I want to go with you today." They could miss school, travel with me to Washington, be in the office.
PM: Why was that so important?
JOE: I think—I hope—I was an attentive father when their mommy was alive. By the way, there's a distinction: There's Mom, that's Jill, and Mommy, that's Neilia. There's no step-anything in our family. I hope I was a good father, and I know their mommy, Neilia, was an incredible mother. But when they lost their sister and their mother in the car crash, and they survived, it was not only traumatic, but they were hospitalized for a little while. Hunter had a severe skull fracture, and most of the bones in Beau's body were broken. He was in traction in a body cast for a long time.
We have an expression in our family: If you have to ask for help, it's too late. We're there for each other. I have a rule for every single staff member who's ever worked for me in forty-two years: If you ever come to work when your kid has an important function, no matter what you're doing for me—if you ever show up for me and you miss your wife's birthday or your husband's birthday or your kid's thing, don't work for me. And I mean it. That is the God's truth. I can swear on my word as a Biden.
[His staff nods in unison, some of them smiling a little, looking around at each other.]
JOE: In the mid-sixties, early seventies, it was: You know, you have to spend quality time with your kids. Well there's no such thing as quality time. It's all quantity. It's all quantity. Every important thing that's ever happened to me with my children has been on unscheduled time. It's not like, Well now, son, we're gonna go fishing and we're gonna have quality time.
[A few Secret Service agents are chatting in the hallway, the murmur of their conversation unsettling the stillness of this room. The press person, Meghan, quietly gets up to close the door.]
JOE: I'm gonna embarrass Hunt: My fondest memory of that Corvette, I guess he was a little over three years old. You were sitting on my lap while I was driving—I know it's bizarre now to say that. We lived out in a rural area, and we came to a stop sign on a country road. A beautiful day like today, and he's sitting on my lap, and he turns around and puts his hand on my face and he says, "Daddy? Daddy? I love you more than the whole sky."
[Hunter watches his father as he tells this story. He is not embarrassed at all.]
PM: How is being a grandfather different from being a father?
[Biden smiles and looks down.]
JOE: Ohhh, God.
HUNTER: I don't know if he really understands the distinction.
JOE: It drives him crazy—
HUNTER: No, don't even say it.
JOE: —when I talk about my granddaughters to other grandparents. I'll say, Aren't granddaughters better than daughters? And my daughter Ashley will go, "Daddy, stop saying that!" But the reason is that daughters always love their father. They don't always like their father. [Hunter laughs quietly at this, too.] At least in my case. But I taught his daughters how to drive. He taught them too, but I would take them out from even before they were sixteen—on the driveway, or there's a big school next door with a lot that's chained off. And the thing that I remember teaching each one of them: When you're driving down the road, and you see a car coming, don't look at the driver. Look at the front wheel. Look at the front wheel. [Hunter stares at him intently.] Because that's the first sign that something's gonna go wrong.
HUNTER: Oh yeah. Beau's first car was a stick. My first car was a stick.
PM: How about your daughters?
HUNTER: No. Not anymore.
JOE: It's hard to find a stick!
PM: Hunter, your dad has shown strength through the kinds of pain no parent should ever have to endure and through the challenges of politics. What have you learned, watching him fight through it all?
HUNTER: That's easy. No matter what, you get up. No matter what, you fulfill your responsibilities. No matter what, you are there for the people who love you and who you love. There's never been a time, whether it was purely personal or a political disappointment—which are trivial compared to the other events in our lives—when he was not available to not only us but to every other person in our family.
[Biden watches his son, then stares off past him, past the stillness of the classroom.]
JOE: It's not hyperbole, what I'm about to say. [He pauses.] One of the reasons for the special, incredible bond that Beau and Hunt and I had is that any loss that I had was their deep loss as well. There's been sorta like a—I don't want to make it sound like we're special. We're not. It's nothing to do with being vice president or senator—but we've always taken care of each other. What the boys have done for me from the time of the accident on, it's always been, You okay, Dad? Come here, Dad. Dad, you're not getting enough sleep.
[Biden's staff, some standing, some sitting, watches him, hearing every word. No one is thumbing a smartphone.]
JOE: Every time I'd wanna just pack it in, all of a sudden I'd feel one of them climbing in bed—I mean even when they were fifteen years old. Hey Dad, come on, you okay?
When the most embarrassing thing happened—I got accused of cheating, which I never did—in '87, and I got out of the race for president. And everything in our family was built on the notion of honor. And these guys … remember you made me go to the Columbus Day parade, and I didn't want any part of going out? I'd been accused of plagiarism and cheating—I always turned out to be exonerated, but at the time it was on every television show in the country, and I didn't want to go anywhere. And they said, "Dad, every year you show up to the Columbus Day parade. The community loves you. We're going." They dragged me out, walked up the parade route with me with thousands of people. And it was the best thing, because people knew me in Delaware, so they embraced me.
It sounds strange to say, but this is the brightest guy I know. Just like his brother. His brother never made a speech and I never made an important decision without consulting with the other two. We've been a team. I know that sounds strange to say as a father. But it's been one unit. Right to the very end.
HUNTER [quietly]: That's true.
JOE: I'm a pretty good skier. I taught them to ski. I used to lace their boots. I took them out from the time they were four and a half, five and a half years old.
JOE: My sister helped me raise the boys, and we had a boys' week out from the time they were little. We'd go west and we'd ski together. I taught them everything about skiing. They were fourteen and thirteen and we were at Aspen, and I'm having the best damn run I've ever—I'm a good skier. I'm blowing down that mountain on a black diamond, I'm having the best damn run of my life, and I swear to God—my word as a Biden—I hear, familiar voice, "On your right!" This one goes flying by me. Two seconds later: "On your left!" Beau. And I was skiing the best I've ever skied in my life! And I can remember my heart almost popping out of my jacket like God, damn—I mean darn!
There's nothing like teaching your kids something and seeing them get to the point when they do it better than you.
[Hunter smiles, then his face turns solemn, and he speaks softly, slowly.]
HUNTER: He can't say it, but I can say it: He wasn't just a good dad. He wasn't just a great dad. I know a lot of great dads. And I know a lot of people that have great relationships with their father. He was—he is still—an extraordinary dad. If I could be half the father—
JOE [almost in a whisper]: He is.
HUNTER: —to my children that he has been, I'd be a success in my entire life, no matter what else happened. We don't have a complicated relationship. And the reason we don't have a complicated relationship is that I know that no matter what, he loves me, and no matter what, I love him more than anything in the world. And I guess that's the root of all of it. We did everything together.
JOE: I mean everything.
HUNTER: We mowed the lawn together. We planted trees together.
JOE [smiling]: Oh, yeah.
HUNTER: We planted … how many trees do you think we planted?
JOE: We planted over 270 leylands.
HUNTER: With a post-hole digger.
JOE: No, the fence was a post-hole digger. For the trees we used a shovel.
HUNTER: Well … exactly. A shovel.
JOE: The context is, I bought a house that was built in 1918.
HUNTER: He removed—by himself, after work, coming back from the Senate, and then getting up at six o'clock in the morning—he removed … the entire basement was, what, five thousand square feet, and he removed all the asbestos insulation from the piping. You did it.
JOE: Yeah, I did it. But I had the suit!
HUNTER: Yeah, you had the suit. It would be one o'clock in the morning and Dad would be coming up in one of those Tyvek spacesuits, removing asbestos out of his home.
JOE: I gotta admit, that's true.
HUNTER: The first house I bought, we did all the work on it.
JOE: We've done a lot more on houses than we did on cars.
HUNTER: Everything from putting in an entire new bathroom, the plumbing—
HUNTER: The tiling.
PM: And you knew how to do that?
JOE: Well, we learned how to do it. We didn't have any money.
HUNTER: That was the reason.
JOE: Jill would be mad if I said this, but I made a—it wasn't silly, actually—but I made a commitment when I ran as a twenty-nine-year-old kid in '72. In a debate at the Rotary Club, I get asked the question: "One last question, councilman! I want to know your position, if you're elected, on three things: One, what will you do with your law firm? What will you do with your stock? And what will you do with honoraria?" I said, "I'll immediately divest any interest I have in my law firm. I will never own a stock or a bond"—and I even added "a debenture." I didn't even know what the hell a debenture was. "I'll never own a stock, bond, or debenture as long as I'm in public life. And I'll never take an honorarium from anyone who has an interest before the Congress." And I kept that promise. So I am listed as having, when I did my financial disclosure—
HUNTER: Mom's gonna kill you.
JOE: I know, she's gonna kill me. But it's quoted in the Washington Post—as she would say, you could Google it—they said it's probable that no person has ever assumed the office of vice president with fewer assets than Joe Biden. They listed my assets as between 100 and 150 thousand dollars. That's not right, because—
HUNTER[laughing, but not kidding]: You don't have to go into it.
JOE: Rush Limbaugh, when he read that, he got after me for saying—
HUNTER: No, yeah. I know, but—
JOE: "He has no money! How can we trust him to do the budget?"
HUNTER: I know. Dad—
JOE: But I have a lot of equity in my home.
HUNTER: Oh man.
JOE: I don't have a savings account. I don't own any—
JOE: But the point is, that—
HUNTER: The whole point of the story is, that's why—my friends had a joke: If you go over to the Biden house, you better pick your times. Because you'll end up working. You'll be planting trees. A five-minute visit to pick Beau and me up—
JOE: Poor Eddie White.
HUNTER: —would turn into, "We're gonna move this room today," or "We're gonna paint." We painted that entire house.
JOE: We did. Outside. With a four-inch brush. Stucco.
HUNTER: Hanging me from the roof.
JOE: That's true. We put a harness on you, hung you over the roof. You were older then, though.
HUNTER: Oh yeah, I was at least fifteen.
JOE: Hunt wrote Beau's speeches. Beau was a smart guy himself, but Hunt was his main political advisor. And Beau was a two-term attorney general who could have taken a Senate seat but decided he had an obligation to finish his job. Decorated military—but there wasn't a single day that Beau and I didn't talk, because we all were dealing with the same thing. Hunter's the chair of the World Food Program USA, his sister runs the largest nonprofit for criminal justice in the state of Delaware.
It was like an epiphany a year and a half ago: My daughter said, "You know Dad, all this time I never believed I did politics. But that's all I do. Politics is about feeding the poor, getting people out of jail, making sure people are having a second chance." There was an article in the Delaware Today magazine, and there was a picture of Beau and it said "Family Business." And it wasn't about holding office. It was about, whatever we do, it all has sort of fit together. It's like if your father's a mechanic and you work with your father as a mechanic. Every day you have some reason to connect. And it's just been an enormous, enormous gift.
Beau and Hunt decided, before Beau died, that they were gonna do once a year, the whole family, all their cousins, all of us spend a three-day weekend at Beau's house. Right?
[The vice president sits back in his chair, takes a sip of water, looks at his son and then away.]
JOE: It's just, I don't know. Our time together is not at the expense of anything else, but it's so reinforcing. It's reinforcing.
It was just one of those things you just …
This is family, man.
"He removed—himself, after work in the Senate—all the asbestos insulation from the piping."
"Yeah, I did. But I had the suit!"
This interview originally appeared in the June 2016 edition of Seniorhelpline.