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The man who is now one of his party's foremost orators suffered severely with a stutter in his youth. In freshman Latin class at a Catholic high school, recitation was particularly difficult for young Joe. "Jimmy O'Neill, a great prankster, hung me with the nickname Impedimenta, Biden recalls. "I was the impediment." Over the next few years, the youngster shook his affliction. "I forced myself. I memorized passages and practiced a cadence." Despite the speech problem, Biden had the good looks and sincere geniality that won friends. "I always knew I had the ability to persuade people," he recalls.
Although Biden has said that the civil rights movement in the early 1960s first awakened his political consciousness, he was no campus activist during his four years as an indifferent student at the University of Delaware. In fact, he now acknowledges that he participated in desegregation demonstrations "only in a very minor sense": black lifeguards at the swimming pool where he worked during the summer invited him to join in some picketing in Wilmington. Later, as a law student at Syracuse University, Biden avoided antiwar protests.
As a new lawyer in Wilmington, Biden flirted with the moderate G.O.P. establishment while clerking for a Republican firm. "I thought of myself as a Republican for six or seven months, no longer," he says. He quickly found more stimulating work as an assistant to a Democratic activist who specialized in criminal and negligence cases. In 1970, just two years out of law school, Biden ran successfully as an underdog candidate for the local county council. Even before he took his council seat, he was planning his next campaign, against Caleb Boggs, Delaware's Republican Senator who was generally regarded as unbeatable. After two years of campaigning, Biden upset Boggs by just 1% of the vote in 1972. At age 30, Biden would become the Senate's youngest member.
& Six weeks later his world was shattered. On a highway near Wilmington, a truck collided with the family station wagon, killing his wife Neilia, 27, and daughter Naomi, 13 months. His two sons, Beau, 3, and Hunter, 2, were critically injured. Rushing back from Washington, where he had been recruiting staff, Biden considered resigning. Instead, his sister Valerie and her husband moved into his house to care for the boys, and Biden began to commute daily between Wilmington and Washington by train, 90 minutes each way. The difficult routine became so much a hallmark of his Senate career that Biden chose the Wilmington train station to kick off his presidential campaign.
Although Biden stayed in the Senate, his loss left him morose and distracted. His characteristic ebullience did not re-emerge until 1975, when he met Jill Jacobs, a schoolteacher, whom he married two years later. By then, Biden, still an obscure junior Senator, was beginning to eye the White House.