President-elect Joe Biden has had a love affair with Nantucket for nearly half a century. He and his family began spending their Thanksgivings on the island in 1975 and have since become familiar faces strolling Main Street, attending the Christmas tree lighting and even diving into the frigid waters on Children’s Beach for the annual Turkey Plunge. During this historic election, Biden’s connection with the island only grew stronger as he enlisted summer resident Rufus Gifford as his Deputy Campaign Manager helping lead him to the White House. In honor of Joe Biden’s historic victory, N Magazine has excerpted a chapter of the President-elect’s 2017 memoir, Promise Me, Dad, in which he celebrates his longtime love of Nantucket. Here in his own words, President-elect Joe Biden pays tribute to the island.
The Biden tradition of Thanksgiving on Nantucket started as an act of diplomacy, back in 1975. I was a first-term senator and a single father of two boys—Beau was six years old and Hunter just five—and Jill Jacobs and I had started to talk seriously about a future together. Thanksgiving was the first holiday for Jill and me together, and we had too many invitations. My parents wanted us to spend the day with them in Wilmington. Jill’s parents wanted us in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. The parents of my first wife, who had died along with my baby daughter in a car accident a few years earlier, wanted us to bring their grandsons to upstate New York and spend the long weekend with them. No matter which family we chose, we were going to hurt somebody’s feelings, which was the last thing either Jill or I wanted to do. I was in my Senate office one day that fall, explaining this predicament to my chief of staff, and he said, “What you need is a nuclear Thanksgiving.” Meaning the nuclear family alone. Only Wes Barthelmes was a Boston guy, so what he actually said was “nucle-aah Thanksgiving.” I wasn’t sure what exactly he was trying to say, until he explained it might be easiest on everybody if the four of us—me and Jill, Beau and Hunt—went away alone. He suggested the island of Nantucket, which was an hour by ferry south of Cape Cod. Neither Jill nor I had ever been there, but we decided to go ahead and make an adventure of it.
We filled my Jeep Wagoneer with fifty-seven-cents-a-gallon gas and piled the boys and the dog into the backseat for what was likely to be a six-hour ride to the ferry in Hyannis, Massachusetts. Now, six hours is a long time for two young boys to be trapped in the backseat of a moving car, but Jill was already proving herself a resourceful caregiver. She had picked up every toy catalog and clothing catalog she could find, and when Beau and Hunt started to get restless she tossed the catalogs into the backseat. The three of them spent hours leafing through the pages, and the boys started making and refining their wish lists for Christmas gifts so they would have something to send to Santa Claus, up at the North Pole. Jill told them to take their time and make sure to get it right; there was no rush.
Nantucket turned out to be worth it once we finally got there, eight hours after we left our house in Wilmington. It was chilly on the little island at the end of November, but you could smell the tangy salt air of the Atlantic. The island had emptied for the season, so we had much of the place to ourselves. Most of the restaurants and many of the shops were shuttered. The downtown was tiny, maybe five square blocks, but we spent hours there casing the storefronts and going inside the ones that were open to look around. I told the boys I would buy each of them a single gift on that trip—whatever they wanted, within reason. They took their time to look around. Beau especially liked Murray’s Toggery Shop, home of the famous Nantucket Reds; the cotton pants were designed to fade to a soft dusty rose. Hunt fell for the Nobby Clothes Shop, where the owner made a fuss over him. We had Thanksgiving dinner at the Jared Coffin House, a 130-year-old inn built back when Nantucket was a commercial center of the whaling industry, and then we stayed around afterward to sit by the fireplace and play checkers. The next day we had lunch at a restaurant called the Brotherhood of Thieves, went to the little movie house in town, tossed a football on the beach, and drove back into town to watch the annual lighting of the Christmas tree. We took scouting drives around the island, and whenever we passed a radio transmission tower with a big red light on top I’d warn the boys to get down in the backseat so the Red-Eyed Monster couldn’t see them. We had such a good time that we even went to check out a little saltbox house that stood above the dunes at ’Sconset Beach. The asking price was too rich for a senator’s salary in 1975, but the four of us had our picture taken on the porch of the house, beneath a carved wooden sign that read forever wild. On the drive back to Delaware, I was already thinking about a return trip the next year.
Jill and I got married a year and a half later and our daughter, Ashley, was born four years after that. And time seemed to move faster. Beau and Hunt graduated high school, then college, then law school. Hunt married Kathleen in 1993, and they had three daughters. Beau married Hallie in 2002, and they had a daughter, then a son. Jill and I were no longer just Mom and Dad; we were “Nana” and “Pop.” Ashley finished graduate school and married Howard. And every year, even as the family grew, we spent Thanksgiving on Nantucket—or “Nana-tucket,” as our grandchildren took to calling it, even when they were old enough to know better. The little trip in the Wagoneer grew into a caravan of two or three cars, with grandchildren shifting loyalties among the fleet at rest stops. Then there was the final mad dash to catch the ferry, and hot chocolate or clam chowder for the ride across the water.
We had some great years in that span, and we had some lousy years, but whatever was happening, whatever bumps and bruises we were suffering, we put it all aside and celebrated Thanksgiving in Nantucket. The holiday trip was a constant in our grandchildren’s lives from the time they were aware, and they made it clear how much it meant to them. Little notes started appearing at our house as early as September, even before the leaves started to change color, all written out in the grandkids’ hands: Two months to Nanatucket. Five weeks to Nana-tuck-et. Some had drawings of the houses we had stayed at, or the beach. Two weeks to Nanatucket. Only five days to Nana-tucket. The frolics and habits of our earliest visits grew into immutable family traditions: shopping downtown, lunch at the Brotherhood, the trips to the beach with football in hand. We went back to that little saltbox every year to get the family photo under the carved forever wild sign. Those pictures became a marker of our family’s progress, like the lines parents pencil in on the doorframe as a record of growth—first just the four of us, then five, eight, eleven, and after Beau’s son, Hunter, was born in 2006 and Ashley’s husband, Howard, joined the family a few years later, we were thirteen strong. The great work product of the Thanksgiving trip, year after year, continued to be the Christmas lists; it was painstaking, deliberate, and serious business. Nobody shirked, and nobody would be hurried in the enterprise. The catalogs usually came out midway through the drive north, somewhere between the Tappan Zee Bridge and Mystic, Connecticut. But that was only the beginning. There were long sessions after dinners, at whatever inn or house we were in. And it might be the night after Thanksgiving before Jill finally closed down the bidding, and everybody—children and grown-ups alike—had to present to her their Christmas list, maximum ten items, minimum ten items. I was invariably in trouble with my grandchildren at the close of business. Pop only has two! Again! There was one little hitch in the great Christmas list endeavor, and that was my becoming vice president in 2009. The entire clan flew together to Nantucket that year on Air Force Two, which struck me as a pretty welcome change after all those hours piloting a car up Interstate 95 during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year, and one that I thought would delight the grand- kids especially. But it’s not much more than an hour in the air from Andrews Air Force Base to Nantucket Memorial Airport—which turns out to be an interval of time wholly insufficient for catalog browsing. So on the flight back, after the vacation was over and that year’s Christmas lists were safely in Jill’s hands, my grandchildren filed into my private cabin on Air Force Two en masse, from fifteen-year-old Naomi to three-year-old Hunter. They had all talked it over and the finding was unanimous: this new mode of travel just wasn’t going to work for them. “Pop,” Naomi spoke for the group, “can we drive again next year?” I suspected the head of my Secret Service detail, in weighing this consideration against security concerns, was not likely to be swayed by the power of the Christmas list argument— no matter how heartfelt…
We got up Thanksgiving morning [in 2014] and did our annual Turkey Trot—a ten-mile run (for anybody who felt up to it) to the other side of the island. I rode the route on a bike with some of the grandchildren. We spent part of the day tossing a football around the beach. I showed young Hunter the bluffs where his father and his uncle used to jump off and catch passes when they were about his age. Beau and Hallie and their kids made sure to get some nice pictures of the four of them together on the beach. And we went over to the little saltbox house for our annual photo, but the lot was ringed with yellow police tape. The house was gone, a victim of rising ocean tides that had been washing away three or four feet of the ’Sconset Bluff every year for the past twenty. Bad storm years might take out ten times that in certain places. “Forever Wild” had finally run out of safe ground, and run out of time; it had been swept out into the Atlantic. The only thing left behind was a piece of the foundation.
We went back to town the day after Thanksgiving, making sure to be at the right spot around dusk, to watch the annual lighting of the Nantucket Christmas tree. Beau had proposed to Hallie at the tree lighting in 2001 and they were married at St. Mary’s church, in the heart of downtown Nantucket, the next year. Hallie always suspected it was Beau’s way of locking them into Biden Family Thanksgivings for all time. And it worked. They were celebrating their twelfth anniversary at the end of the week, and Hallie had never missed a Thanksgiving. Even the year Beau was stationed in Iraq, she insisted we all keep the tradition and go to Nantucket.
While we did our family stroll, I found myself mulling an issue that was beginning to weigh on me. I was getting a lot of questions, from a lot of different quarters, about running for president in 2016. Even President Obama had surprised me by asking directly about my plans at one of our regular lunches a few weeks earlier. He wanted to know if I had thought about all the things I could do if I didn’t run. I could still have an effect, he assured me. I could set up a foundation or a center for foreign policy. I could even do a few things I had never done before—like make some money. “But have you made up your mind [about running]?” the president asked me, point blank, across the table in a little private space just off the Oval Office. “No, I haven’t,” was all I could say.
At some point on the streets of Nantucket that day, I brought up the question of 2016 with my two sons. I had a feeling that they didn’t want me to make the run, and I said as much. Beau just looked at me. “We’ve got to talk, Dad,” he said. So when we got back to the house that evening the three of us sat down in the kitchen and we talked.
I knew there were plenty of good reasons not to run, and uncertainty about Beau’s health was at the top. And I really suspected that my sons, whose judgments I had come to value and rely on, did not want me to put the family through the ordeal of a presidential campaign just now. “Dad, you’ve got it all wrong,” Beau said when we settled down in the kitchen in Nantucket. “You’ve got to run. I want you to run.” Hunter agreed: “We want you to run.” The three of us talked for an hour. They wanted to know what I was doing to get ready, and when was the right time to announce. There was a strong argument being made by some of my political experts that if I was going to run at all I should announce right away, at the beginning of 2015. But I think the three of us all wanted a little more time to see what happened with Beau. When I decided was not crucial, my sons told me; they just wanted me to know that they were for it. Hunt kept telling me that of all the potential candidates I was the best prepared and best able to lead the country. But it was the conviction and intensity in Beau’s voice that caught me off guard. At one point he said it was my obligation to run, my duty. Duty was a word Beau Biden did not use lightly.
From Promise Me, Dad by Joe Biden. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of Flatiron Books.