That Time Nixon Called Biden
Nixon Recognized Rising Star in Late 1972
Editor's note: A version of
this appeared in the Wall Street Journal on November
16, 2020 as
"When Nixon Taped Joe Biden"
It was Tuesday, December 19, 1972. Richard Nixon had
spent the bulk of the transition at Camp David, planning an ambitious
second-term government reorganization. Senator-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. of
Delaware was the second youngest person ever elected to the U.S. Senate. He
defeated a popular incumbent, Caleb Boggs, who was a decorated war hero and
former governor who came to Washington with Nixon as a new member of
Congress in 1946.
Nixon won Delaware by 20 points on the way to a 49-state
landslide, thus took note of a rising political star who had flipped a
Republican Senate seat. “If I had gone to Delaware I don't think it would have changed
one iota,” Nixon said to Chuck Colson about Boggs’s defeat. “He just had a
damn good young candidate running against him.” Nixon saw in his morning news
summary that Biden’s wife and daughter had been killed in a car accident the
day before in Delaware. Nixon, whose childhood was scarred from losing two
siblings to tuberculosis, wanted to call. “Could you get the new Senator from
Delaware, Mr. Biden, on the phone please?” he asked the White House
from November 20, 1972 (:05)
- Nixon: If I had gone to
Delaware I don't think it would have changed one iota. He just had a damn good
young candidate running again him.
- Colson: That's exactly right.
from December 19, 1972 (:09)
- Operator: Yes, please?
- Nixon: Could you get the new
Senator from Delaware, Mr. Biden, on the phone please?
- Operator: Thank you.
Nixon and Biden had similar rises. They were
from hardscrabble families – one from Whittier, the other
Scranton. They had irascible fathers who taught them the
importance of picking yourself up after a defeat. Both were
self-conscious they did not attend the best schools. They had an
interest in foreign affairs. They served as vice president under
more charismatic presidents. They were never the in-crowd; that
drove them to work ever harder.
Nixon wasn’t sure how to pronounce Biden’s
name. “What’s the new Senator from Delaware’s name?” he asked
assistant Stephen Bull. “BYE-den,” Bull said. “B-I-D-E-N,
Biden,” Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman said, “that was a tragedy.”
It was news that momentarily stopped political talk in the Oval
Office. “He wasn’t in the car?” Nixon asked. “No, sir,” another
aid, Ken Cole, said, “He was up on the Hill.”
from December 19, 1972 (:58)
- Nixon: Who's the name of that
Senator -- Biden? The new Senator from --
Now wait a minute.
somebody just told me who it was.
- Cole: What,
- Haldeman: B-I-D-E-N, Biden.
- Nixon: Biden.
- Cole: Yeah,
that was a tragedy.
- Nixon: He wasn't in the car?
No, sir. He was up on the Hill whenever -- he was in Washington
apparently. He was in Washington when he got the phone call that
apparently a truck had broad-sided his car.
His wife and youngest child were killed and two other children were
in pretty bad shape --
-- but not killed. Wife's twenty-seven or something.
Twenty-eight. He's only thirty. Baby was eighteen months.
She was driving?
The truck hit her?
Hit her broadside. I guess they must have run an intersection or
It was a moment that brought two people
together who might otherwise never have connected in a personal
way. “Hello, Mr. President, how are you?” Biden answered. Even
in the U.S. Senate, one does not forget their first phone call
from a president. While Biden is only the latest figure to be
discovered on Nixon’s White House tapes, given the passage of
time he will be perhaps the last. “Senator, I know this is a
very tragic day for you,” Nixon said, searching for words, “but
I wanted you to know that all of us here at the White House were
thinking about you, and praying for you and also for your two
children.” It would not have taken much for Nixon to have become
emotional – a side that few saw.
"I appreciate that very much,” Biden responded. Nixon, about the
same age as Biden’s father, urged the Senator-elect to pick
himself back up after the greatest setback of his life. “You
have the great fortune of being young,” Nixon said. “I remember
I was two years older than you when I went to the House. But the
main point is you can remember that she was there when you won a
great victory, and you enjoyed it together. And, I’m sure that
she’ll be watching you from now on. Good luck to you.”
from December 19, 1972 (:58)
Mr. President, how are you?
Senator, 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 were thinking about you, and praying for you
and also for your two childen, and --
I appreciate that very much.
- Nixon: I understand
you were on the Hill at the time, and your wife was just driving
- Biden: Yes, that's
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. 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 that
she'll be watching you from now on. Good luck to you.
Thank you very much, Mr. President. I
appreciate your call. I appreciate it.
Nixon, who recognized the potential of Donald Trump in 1987, recognized Biden’s
fifteen years earlier. “Thank you very much, Mr. President,” Biden
responded. “I appreciate your call. I appreciate it.”