Joe Biden’s life was forged in the school of hard knocks while Donald Trump enjoyed a privileged upbringing, with an obvious effect on the men’s politics, writes Bette Browne
Joe Biden once washed windows to help his family pay for school fees, while Donald Trump inherited his millionaire father’s wealth.
The US vice-president and the Republican White House contender, who arrive here next week, highlight the contrasts that define America.
But they also share some similarities. Both are in their 70s and both have nurtured presidential ambitions. Both also come from Celtic immigrant stock.
But while Biden embraces his Finnegan forbears and works for US immigration reform, Trump rarely mentions his Scottish-born mother, Mary Ann MacLeod, and calls Mexican immigrants “rapists” and criminals.
Unlike Trump, whose family sent him to an elite military boarding school at the age of 13, Biden’s life has been forged in the school of hard knocks.
His father, Joseph Biden, cleaned furnaces and worked as a used car salesman. But when he couldn’t find work after Biden was born and for several years afterwards, the family had to move in with Biden’s maternal grandparents, the Finnegans.
At one time Biden washed school windows and weeded gardens to help his family pay school fees. That, however, was the easy part. His adult life was steeled by family tragedy so devastating he once said it made him understand how people can contemplate suicide.
The tragedy that tore his life apart happened in 1972, the year he turned 30 and had just been elected the youngest senator in modern US history.
As Christmas approached that year, his family set off for a day’s shopping. But the young congressman never saw his wife or daughter alive again. His wife Neilia and 13-month-old daughter Naomi were killed in a car accident on December 18, 1972.
The following month Biden was sworn into the US senate at the bedside of his two injured sons, Beau and Hunter. He began to wonder, he said in his book Promises to Keep, if “God had played a horrible trick on me”.
Recalling the tragedy 40 years later, he told a gathering of bereaved military families: “For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide.”
In 1977, he met and married Jill Jacobs and went on to become one of the longest serving senators in the US before resigning his seat to be President Barack Obama’s vice-president in 2008, and again in 2012.
He ran for president himself twice, in 1988 and in 2008, faring poorly each time. Last year, he contemplated running in the 2016 race but decided against it after the death from cancer of his son, Beau.
Biden is known to be enormously proud of his Finnegan family roots in Louth. He also has links to Mayo and likes to credit his toughness and resilient streak to his Irish background.
“Being Irish, without fear of contradiction, has shaped my entire life,” he told Taoiseach Enda Kenny in Washington last month.
“In my family, politics wasn’t a dirty word,” he once said. “It was about righting things that were wrong.”
Trump sees politics differently. If Biden is a political insider, Trump is the ultimate outsider. He likes to bash politicians, touting the fact that he has no political experience and has never before run for public office.
Instead, his life has been about extending his family wealth. He became a flamboyant businessman by tapping his talents and ego and emblazoning his name on iconic real estate conquests around the world from Manhattan to Doonbeg, Co Clare.
His business skills have served him well in Ireland. In 2014 he bought the Doonbeg golf club and resort for €8.7m, which had been developed at an initial cost of €28m when it opened in 2002.
Where Biden was driven by a desire to give back to society, much of Trump’s record of personal promotion and wealth accumulation has sometimes been at the expense of others’ misfortune.
This tendency has got him into trouble in his presidential campaign after voters were reminded that as the 2008 housing collapse was looming in the US he said he was hoping for a crash from which he could benefit. “I sort of hope that happens because then people like me would go in and buy,” he said.
Another venture, his self-styled Trump University that offered real estate courses, has also become a major problem for him, with lawsuits pending in New York and California over fraud allegations, which he denies.
Trump will celebrate his 70th birthday a few days before arriving in Ireland — he was born on June 14, 1946.
While Biden, who is three years his senior, was moving up the Senate ladder in the mid-1970s, Trump was making daring real estate deals that set the stage for his career.
In 1975, he signed a partnership agreement with the Hyatt Hotel Corporation and when the Grand Hyatt hotel opened with its striking facade of reflective glass in 1980 it made 34-year- old Trump the city’s best known developer.
Five years later, he leased a site on Fifth Avenue adjacent to Tiffanys to build a luxurious $200m apartment-retail complex that became Trump Tower and won him worldwide attention. He then began to move into the profitable casino and gambling business, going on to buy Eastern Air Lines Shuttle for $365m, renaming it Trump Shuttle.
But disaster was looming. It was 1990 and the real estate market was declining, slashing the value of Trump’s burgeoning empire.
The Trump Organisation required a massive infusion of loans to keep it from collapsing and averting bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, his personal life was also collapsing around him. In 1991 he and his wife Ivana divorced. Two years later, he married actress Marla Maples, with whom he’d already had a daughter. By 1999 he divorced Maples. In January 2005, he married for a third occasion, this time to Slovenian-born model Melania Knauss. Among those who attended the wedding were Bill and Hillary Clinton.
By 2011, Trump’s business dealings had boosted his fortune to about $2.4bn. He has claimed that his net worth is over $10bn but in 2015 Forbes estimated it at $4.5bn, while Bloomberg put it at $2.9bn. Either way, he’s got plenty of spare change compared with Biden, whose net worth has been estimated at less than $800,000.
Trump made a high-profile foray into politics in 2012 when Obama was running for his second term, quickly incurring the wrath of Biden and others when he became a vocal supporter of the “birther” movement, peddling the erroneous notion that Obama was not born in the US.
In 2015, Trump announced he was running for the presidency and last month, after an incendiary campaign, he secured enough Republican votes to win the nomination.
So, once again, Trump is facing Biden’s wrath — “reprehensible” and “racist” were some of the terms Biden used against him on June 9 as the vice president formally joined the Democratic battle to elect Clinton.
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