The Frost/Biden tapes

The Frost/Biden tapes: The childhood stutter, the devastation over his wife’s death, and the woman who helped him dream again… no one has got to the heart of Joe Biden like David Frost. Now his son shares the story of their unique encounter

  • In 1987, David Frost sat down to interview the then American senator Joe Biden
  • Biden was at the time making first run at seeking the Democratic nomination 
  • ‘Frost/Biden’ is Episode 6 of the recently released Frost Tapes podcast series  

Back in September 1987, my father, the broadcaster David Frost, sat down to interview an American senator from Wilmington, Delaware, who was making his first run at seeking the Democratic nomination ahead of the 1988 presidential election.

The senator was not hugely well known and certainly few people in Britain would ever have heard of him. That is not the case today.

His name was Joe Biden and earlier this month, 33 years after that interview took place, he became President-elect of the USA.

Biden would drop out of the 1988 race just a few weeks later and, as a result, the interview with him, for a series called The Next President with David Frost, was never broadcast. Until now.

In 1987 broadcaster David Frost, sat down to interview Joe Biden who was at the time an American senator from Wilmington, Delaware

Biden was making his first run at seeking the Democratic nomination ahead of the 1988 presidential election

‘Frost/Biden’ is Episode 6 of the recently released Frost Tapes podcast series which has attracted more than one million ‘listens’ and counting.

Of course, there is now enormous interest in the man who beat Donald Trump and I believe that Dad’s two-hour conversation with Biden, edited down to 45 minutes, offers a fascinating and intimate insight into the thoughts and life experiences of the man who will take over the Oval Office. 

It is less a focus on politics than an exploration of Biden’s personal philosophy or, as my dad would say, ‘what made him tick’.

In that respect, the interview is timeless and indeed never more relevant as Biden bares his soul on the highs — and some of the terrible lows — of his life.

In November 1972, lawyer Joe Biden was elected to become America’s youngest senator, aged 29. But within a few short weeks that achievement was overshadowed by an unimaginable tragedy.

His first wife, Neilia, and his one-year-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car accident just before Christmas. His sons Beau, three, and Hunter, two, survived the crash.

In a desperately moving exchange, Dad and Biden talk about the aftermath of what the politician described as the most ‘wrenching moment of my life’ and how long it took people to recover from such catastrophe. 

‘I’m convinced everybody goes through several stages of recovery,’ Biden replies carefully. ‘I think at a minimum it takes one season of everything.

‘You must go through the first Christmas, the first birthday and the first movie, the first spring, the first autumn, the first snow, the first night alone in the same bed, the first time you put the key in the door, the first time you get in the car and you smell that fragrance.

‘I think it’s getting by every one of those things once. And once you’ve done that, I think then you are able to begin to recover, and I don’t think you … you never forget, but I think that, it’s hard to believe, but in time the memory brings a smile to your lips rather than a tear to your eye.’

The senator was not hugely well known and certainly few people in Britain would ever have heard of him. Pictured: David Frost interviewing Joe Biden in 1987

Biden would drop out of the 1988 race just a few weeks later and, as a result, the interview with him, for a series called The Next President with David Frost, was never broadcast

Biden has often referred to the impact of the tragedy on his life but not at such length or as freely and poignantly as he did during this interview.

He also raises the value of community — his desire to heal communities across America has been a recurring theme for him in recent months — and describes how his healing was aided by neighbours, friends and strangers, too, in Delaware who provided some solace as he was negotiating life as a single father to his young sons.

‘What I will never forget… it’s amazing how good people are,’ he tells Dad. 

‘People would come up and leave cakes at my door with no notes… little prizes for my children… they’d write long sympathetic notes to me, not just in the days after but two to three years after.’

Growing up, the influence of his family — he is the eldest of four siblings from Scranton, Pennsylvania — and particularly his father, Joseph, were, he says, key to the development of his own ‘character’.

‘My dad was a man who spoke of people with respect and treated people with respect,’ he says.

He describes Joseph, a car salesman, once giving money to a man begging in the street. ‘I said [to my dad] that he’s only going to buy some liquor… and I said: ‘Don’t you think you’re encouraging it?’

‘He said: ‘Honey, that could be you, that could be me, that could be anybody we know’.’

His father’s influence persists to this day. Last week, President-elect Biden was reminiscing once again about his father (who died in 2002), as he spoke of wanting to ’empower the voice of workers’.

‘My dad, when he lost his job in Scranton, we moved to Wilmington and he got a good job. He would say: ‘Joe, your job is about a lot more than a pay check.

‘It’s about your dignity, respect, your place in the community. It’s about being able to look your kid in the eye and say: ‘Honey, everything is going to be okay.’ ‘

Biden is also open about the role faith — he is a practising Catholic — has played in his life. 

President-elect Joe Biden speaks to crowds in Wilmington, Delaware on November 25

Dad asked him if the death of his wife and daughter had challenged his belief in God: ‘How, as a Catholic, as a Christian, as a believer, did you sort out God’s role or non-role in all of this? And whether it was God’s will or not?’

‘Well… I’m not sure I’d like to talk about that,’ Biden responds.

‘That’s awfully personal but let me just say I had the gravest doubts for about a year. My faith was sorely tested… but it came back, and it blossomed, but there was a period where I could not fathom that there could be a God and that could happen.’

Dad asks him if there was just ‘one event that brought back your faith?’ 

‘There wasn’t an event, but there was a constant occurrence and that was looking in the eyes of my sons who had survived, and thinking of the strength of the woman that I loved. I mean I know, [I] used to think, ‘What would [Neilia] do?’.’ 

Joe Biden and his wife Jill during the inauguration ceremony for President Barack Obama in Washington in 2009

He recounts with emotion how he ‘never gave up’ hoping that he might fall in love again. 

‘It was that sort of unyielding faith that never left, the centre that never moved that I got from my parents, that I think people have to be ready for love. I think they have to want it.

‘My mom has an expression… ‘You have to work at love. Love you have to work at every day’… once you begin to take it for granted, once you begin to think, ‘Well, this is established…’ that’s when you start to get yourself in trouble. Whether it’s between a father and son, or husband and wife, or whatever, I just think you have to work at [love].’

Biden did find happiness with his second wife Jill, a school teacher now poised to become First Lady. They married in 1977 and had a daughter, Ashley.

He says she transformed what had become a bleak existence. ‘What really changed my life, truly changed it, was my Jill, my wife… she allowed me to dream again,’ he says.

‘I mean, you know, up to that point it was, getting it done, getting my job done, whether the job was bringing home money to put food on the table or passing legislation, whatever. There was no sense of joy to my life and she brought that all back.’

His sons adored her, too, and were instrumental in Biden popping the question. ‘There’s a big old bathroom in this giant old house, like a gymnasium. They’d come in and talk with me. I was shaving one morning and Beau turned to Hunter and said: ‘You tell him’.

‘And Hunter, number two son, said: ‘Daddy, we were talking. We think you should marry Jill’. That’s the honest to God truth.’

He reveals how his sons kissed the bride even before he did at their wedding and how it became a tradition for the four of them — until Beau’s death from a brain tumour in 2015 — to celebrate the Bidens’ wedding anniversary together.

In addition to his marriages, Dad persuaded Biden to talk about other personal issues, including the stammer that had blighted his youth. 

‘I stuttered in circumstances that would require me to be in front of a large group of people I didn’t know or if I had to read aloud,’ he says. ‘I had great difficulty reading aloud without stuttering. I had an uncle, Edward Finnegan, a very bright man who stuttered very badly.

‘I observed how limiting it was for him in his life and his aspirations and how, in a sense, it almost embittered him. And I was just determined that never was going to happen to me.’

He explains how he would prepare the night before a school speech assignment by reading Ralph Waldo Emerson [the 19th century American writer] in front of the mirror.

‘I would read his essay, The American Scholar. And I would practice saying ‘meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty’. 

And so I would practise to try to calm myself down, to get the breathing in place.’ It is in the closing 20 minutes of the interview that listeners get a real insight into why Joe Biden went into in politics and why, more than 30 years ago, he wanted to be President of the United States.

My dad asks: ‘There was a time when the slogan was that what the American people needed was a chicken in every pot or then maybe a car in every garage or a home for every family. What do they need now?’

Biden replies: ‘A re-established sense of community, a sense of shared obligations and aspirations, a solid dose of idealism mixed with their newfound realism, a sense of that kind of optimism we’ve had before, that has always been the past, mingled with a sense of commitment to one another. 

‘I think the journey of the history of this country of ours has been that each generation by and large has viewed its obligation as leaving a country that was a little better off than the one they inherited.’

Just 20 days after the interview, Biden would end his campaign after accusations of plagiarism.

He was accused of stealing phrases from then Labour leader Neil Kinnock without attribution in his closing remarks during a debate. But in the interview with Dad, he goes out of his way to acknowledge the Kinnock speech as a source of inspiration to him.

‘You and I were talking earlier about the British election,’ he tells my dad. ‘Someone sent me the Kinnock 10-minute commercial. And he stood there and he said: ‘Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to go to university?’ 

And he turned to his wife and said: ‘Why is my wife the first in a thousand generations?’ He said that it wasn’t because [his predecessors] weren’t tough, and it wasn’t because they weren’t smart.

‘It’s because they had no platform upon which to stand… and I really think what’s at stake here is building a platform for our children, one upon which they can stand to realise their dreams.

‘And in addition to building it, once you’ve built it, the role of a president then, it seems to me beyond presiding over government, is the leading of society to realise what its potential is. And, I think, David, there’s a whole generation of Americans that are waiting for their chance.’

The Frost/Biden interview suggests the lack of attribution in the debate was the exception not the rule. 

Indeed, a later analysis of Biden’s speeches confirmed that he had used Kinnock’s phrases — with attribution — earlier on while on the stump. But his opponents seized the moment, and his campaign ended.

Fast forward, then, to January 20 2021 when Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of a nation that, for many, has never seemed more divided or ill at ease.

However, if nothing else, the Frost/Biden encounter reminds us that such divisions are nothing new as Biden touched on the legacy of then president Ronald Reagan: ‘This President, the thing that I disagree with him most about is the way he has divided this nation in terms of making [it] legitimate [for] one section of the country to say: ‘Let’s just worry about us and not the rest’.’

It is an extraordinary interview, made all the more extraordinary by the fact that it was never aired.

For me, however, there is one standout observation Biden made to my dad: ‘The harder test, David, it’s not the one ‘can I do it better than my opponent or my prospective opponent’, the harder test when everybody goes to bed and you’re sitting in this library by yourself and you ask yourself: ‘Now, can I be the kind of President that I think America should have?

‘Can I be the kind of president that Abraham Lincoln was? Can I be the kind of President Franklin Roosevelt was? Can I, can I, can I be a great president?’

America — and the world — is now waiting to find out.

Listen to Frost/Biden only on The Frost Tapes podcast, available wherever you get your podcasts, including on Apple podcasts here: tapes/id1532912344

Wilfred Frost is anchor of Closing Bell on CNBC. His fee for this article has been donated to The British Heart Foundation in memory of his late brother, Miles.

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