Richard Nixon, Joe Biden and the Humanity of a Moment Shared by Political Opponents at a Time of Family Crisis

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James Robenalt is the author of January 1973, "Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, and the Month That Changed America Forever."

“Would you get the new Senator from Delaware, Mr. Biden, on the phone please?” President Nixon asked the White House operator.

The day was December 19, 1972. The night before President Nixon had unleashed a massive bombing campaign over North Vietnam in a last ditch effort to break the stalemate in peace negotiations in Paris. The bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong would become known as the “Christmas bombings.”

Joe Biden was the senator-elect from Delaware. He had just turned 30 years old and was one of the youngest persons ever elected to the United States Senate. His win was a complete surprise and not a happy event for Richard Nixon. Biden, along with several other new senators, added to the Democratic majority in the Senate despite President Nixon’s landslide victory over George McGovern. Facing a Democratically controlled Congress spelled trouble for Nixon.

But these political calculations were not on the mind of Richard Nixon when he asked to speak to Joe Biden. The day before, December 18, Biden’s family had been in a horrifying car accident, their station wagon broadsided by a flatbed truck on Route 7 in Delaware. Biden’s wife, Nealia, and his infant daughter, Amy, were both killed. Biden’s two sons, Beau and Robert, were badly injured.

The family had been Christmas shopping. Biden was in Washington hiring staff.

“Hello,” Nixon said in what had to be a very difficult call to make.

“Hello, Mr. President, how are you?” Biden reflexively responded. Typical of Biden, at one of his darkest moments, his instinct was to ask about others. On the tape, Biden sounds subdued and in shock.

Nixon was awkward, as he could be with strangers, so he tried to control and limit the call, barely allowing Biden to say anything as he rambled in free association. But give him credit—Richard Nixon was trying. He was acting like a leader. He was expressing sympathy on his behalf and on behalf of the nation.

“Senator,” Nixon started, “I know this is a very tragic day for you, but I wanted you to know that all of us here at the White House are thinking about you and praying for you, and also for your two children.”

Nixon continued without waiting for a response. “I understand you were on the Hill at the time and your wife was just driving by herself.”

“Yes,” Biden responded.

“So, ah, but ah, in any event, looking at it as you must, in terms of the future, because you have the great fortune of being young, I remember I was two years older than you when I went to the House,” Nixon fumbled along before finding his footing again. “But the main point is you can remember that she was there when you won a great victory, and you enjoyed it together, and now I’m sure she will be watching you from now on.”

Then Nixon clearly wanted to bring the conversation to a close. “Good luck to you,” he said.

“Thank you very much,” Biden replied, “I appreciate the call very much.”

The call lasted one minute and seven seconds.

When Biden and the new Congress convened in January 1973, the bombing was over, Henry Kissinger would negotiate the Paris Peace Accords, the war would end for the United States, and the POWs would return.

But Nixon’s bombing campaign, left largely unexplained at the time, was a final straw for a Congress already bristling over what they saw as the Imperial Presidency of Richard Nixon. It is no coincidence that just weeks after the Paris Peace Accords were signed, Congress voted to investigate Watergate and created the Ervin Committee.

We know what happened to Richard Nixon. But it is appropriate to look back four decades later to remember the humanity of a moment shared by political opponents at a time of family crisis. Our government needs more of that human touch and empathy today.

The nation has reason again to think of and pray for Joe Biden and his family.

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