Dr. Biden's perspective. Dr. Jill Biden gets the Vogue profile treatment. In the story, she addresses her comment that it's "time" for the public "to move on" from her husband's handling of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings—and gets compared to the '90s era of Hillary Clinton struggling to defend her husband. As first lady, she says, she'd prioritize education. Meanwhile, Joe Biden confirmed his support for the Hyde Amendment banning federal funds from being used for abortion and again joked about the allegations of inappropriate behavior women have brought forward. Vogue
Broadsheet, June 6, 2019.
Here is her Vogue interview.
Jill Biden and her grandkids.
It's the day after Joe Biden finally announces he's running for president, and I am with Dr. Jill Biden and her grandkids at their summer home: a rambling, three-story Colonial painted the color of just-washed denim. Nestled among scrubby pines on a tony cul-de-sac in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, it's a relatively new house, but designed to look like it's been there for decades—just like the Bidens' home in Wilmington, which Joe designed himself and which has a kind of low-key, baronial splendor. ("Looks old, works like new!"could very well be the theme of Biden's campaign—if slogans were brutally honest.) Two very mellow and very large German shepherds, Champ and Major, are asleep on the floor. Naomi, Finnegan, Maisy, Natalie, and Hunter (25, 20, 18, 14, and 13 respectively), still toweling off from a downpour they all just got caught in on the beach, are tearing into a pile of cheesesteaks. Amid this tableau—one that has all the markers of a Ralph Lauren ad—stands Jill, in black slacks and sandals, with a sweater pulled over a navy button-down. She, too, got drenched and is fussing with her hair. When I tell her she looks great, she says, "You should've seen me an hour ago," and cracks up.
Finnegan hands Jill a cell phone. "It's Pop," she says. Joe is on Amtrak, heading home from D.C., calling with news that his campaign has just raised $6.3 million in 24 hours, more money than anyone else who's running thus far, and with nearly all of the online donations from individual donors. This gives lie to one of the raps on Biden—that, unlike Elizabeth Warren or Beto or Bernie, he hasn't cultivated a grassroots donor base, today's must-have political commodity that signals you are not a swamp creature, beholden to lobbyists, bankers, and corporate bigwigs. Joe is ecstatic, and I can hear him from halfway across the room. Jill walks toward me and holds out the phone, with her husband now on speaker. "Hey, pal!" he shouts to me, and then he reiterates the news. Jill pipes up. "Even I made a contribution!" There is a long, baffled pause on the other end. "I'm kidding!" says Jill, laughing. "I'myour contribution!"
People can argue endlessly over Joe Biden's electability—whether he's too old, not sufficiently progressive, or the wrong kind of white man for this political moment—but let's get one thing settled. Dr. Biden, 68, an English professor with four degrees and five grandchildren, would be not only the most intriguingly reluctant First Lady—with a career she has no intention of giving up—but also the most surprisingly fun-loving person ever to hold that title. Jeremy Bernard, President Obama's social secretary, describes her as "a gem—my favorite person" from his time in Washington. "She is consistently warm and wonderful, never seems to have a bad day.
Joe is a great retail politician, but she is probably his biggest asset." Mary Doody, a former assistant dean at Delaware Technical Community College, where Jill taught for many years, says, "She's a practical joker. And so funny and irreverent." Indeed, Dr. Biden's eyes are lit with mischief, like she's constantly searching for something to make sport of. You find yourself hoping she'll get punchy just so you can hear her laugh some more.
Unfortunately for Dr. Biden, there hasn't been much to laugh about lately. Just a week after my time with her in Delaware, the Biden campaign cranked into full swing while Jill launched a book tour for her just-released memoir, Where the Light Enters: Building a Family, Discovering Myself. The title alone gives you a sense of how gentle and earnest this book is—the work of someone who has been teaching writing, mostly at community colleges, for 30 years. But the book is also threaded through with sadness—the deaths of Joe's first wife, Neilia, and their infant daughter, Naomi, in a car accident in 1972; the death of Joe's son Beau Biden in 2015 from brain cancer—which Jill has to relive in every interview and at every reading. Like most wife-of-a-politician memoirs, it is meant to burnish, not tarnish. But because Joe instantly became the clear front-runner at the very moment her book tour began, and because his complicated record as a senator is suddenly under a microscope, otherwise cheerful morning-show interviews with the author turned into interrogations—the wife expected to atone for the sins of the husband—and Jill sometimes looked unprepared. In one week she was interviewed by Robin Roberts, the ladies of The View, and the roundtable on CBS This Morning. Each time she was asked to defend her husband against difficult accusations both old and new, from the recent reports of Joe touching women in ways that made them uncomfortable to his bungled handling of the Anita Hill hearings 27 years ago. As the week neared the end, Jill Biden said to NPR's Rachel Martin, "I watched the hearings like most other Americans, and so I mean, Joe said, as I did, we believed Anita Hill. He voted against Clarence Thomas. I mean, he's called Anita Hill, they've spoken. He apologized for the way the hearings were run. And so now it's—it's time to move on."
That last bit set the activist left aflame with outrage and ensured exactly the opposite: No one wants to move on, least of all Anita Hill. Three days later, The New York Times published an editorial by Hill. "If the Senate Judiciary Committee, led then by Mr. Biden, had done its job and held a hearing that showed that its members understood the seriousness of sexual harassment . . . the cultural shift we saw in 2017 after #MeToo might have begun in 1991—with the support of the government," wrote Hill. "Sexual violence is a national crisis that requires a national solution. We miss that point if we end the discussion at whether I should forgive Mr. Biden." Hill has said publicly that she did not hear an apology in an April phone call from Joe Biden, and she clearly has not forgiven him.
And yet Biden emerged from his campaign's launch with a vigorous lead. The huge post-announcement bump in the polls could be attributed to the anyone-but-Trump fervor among a huge swath of the electorate—but also, as Jill says to me, "People know Joe Biden. They've seen the strong parts of his character and how resilient he is." His appeal was summed up by David Brooks in a column in The New York Times the day after Biden announced: "Some candidates will run promising transformational change. Biden offers a restoration of the values that bind us as a collective." He is, of course, a beloved figure in Washington, and many Obama advisers will attest to his decency and tireless devotion to the president, from the way he oversaw the withdrawal from Iraq to his ability to work with Republicans in Congress to get a stimulus deal done in 2009.
(Even so, many can't fully commit to his candidacy. Of the 53 former Obama aides interviewed by The Washington Post, only eight were committed to Biden, while eleven have committed to other candidates; 34 said they were still waiting to decide.) This promises to be the most difficult election of our lifetimes, and it's far too early to know whether Biden will fade, Jeb Bush–style, or ride a wave of deep, anguished yearning for things to return to normal in Washington—even if that means turning back the clock to the establishment-moderate era of politics that he personifies.
Indeed, watching Biden struggle with not-quite-apologies while his wife struggles to defend him puts many people in mind of the Clinton '90s. You might say this is a strategy that looks old and doesn't work like new. Spend ten minutes on Twitter, and it becomes clear that if Joe does eventually emerge as the nominee, there will be those who see Biden as everything that has been wrong with the Democratic Party—and what led us to Trump. As the prominent feminist writer Rebecca Traister put it to me, "He has represented everything I have disliked about my party over the past five decades." She then enumerated his failures: mismanaging the Anita Hill hearings, backtracking on school desegregation, helping to write the 1994 crime bill, voting for welfare reform, objecting to the Freedom of Choice Act, describing Obama as "clean and articulate." "He's not a bad person. It's just this comfy white paternalism."
There's also this fuzzy perception that Biden has been running for president since the Nixon years, when, in fact, he ran twice, 20 years apart—in 1988 and 2008. He got out early both times—first because of evidence that he plagiarized speeches and then, in '08, because he came in fifth in the Iowa caucuses, getting less than 1 percent of the vote, just as the Clinton/Obama juggernaut obliterated everyone in its path.
When I first sit down with Jill in late April, she seems to intuit that things could get ugly. "I definitely know that there's going to be pressure on the family," she says as her grandchildren all settle on the screen porch, entranced by phones and laptops. "They know it—this isn't new to us. There has been pressure before. We know what we're getting into. . . ." Here a look of concern crosses her face, as if to acknowledge how radically the norms and rules have changed (or have ceased to matter) in the Trump era—borne out most ominously with the revelation that Trump thinks it's perfectly appropriate to have the Department of Justice investigate Joe Biden's son Hunter, who was a board member of a gas company in Ukraine while his father was vice president. "We also don't know what we're getting into." She pauses. "We don't know what's to come. And so because Joe is the front-runner he's going to be attacked from now until the primaries and caucuses. I don't know that you can ever be ready for it. I think Joe and I are used to the criticism, maybe, but I'm hoping that they don't criticize my kids. I hope that people are decent about that. I know Joe will be decent. He will not be bad-mouthing other Democrats."
I bring up the miraculously diverse field of Democratic presidential candidates. "I think it's great," says Jill. "I think maybe now more people will get involved in politics. Because if you have to think of a positive effect of Trump, that could be one of them: that more people have said, 'Hey, we're not going to put up with this.' And thank God more women are running. And they're interesting and they're doing it for the right reasons. If you have to find the silver lining, that's it."
But, I say, these primaries can be——
"Vicious," she says. "Yes, they are. We've had a bite of that apple."
THE NEXT MORNING, I head back to the house at 9:00 a.m. and notice a plaque hanging above the front door that I missed the day before in my rush to get out of the rain. It reads A PROMISE KEPT, and I assume it must have a political connotation, given that keeping promises is pretty much your life's work if you're the longest-serving U.S. senator in the history of Delaware. "The promise kept was actually this house!" says Jill, laughing. Joe put up that plaque, she says, "because he kept saying, 'When I write my book, I'll buy you a beach house.' " (The Bidens signed a reported $8 million three-book deal at the end of the Obama administration, making such a thing possible.) This morning, Jill's wearing pale-blue skinny jeans that match her eyes, a clingy cream-colored cashmere sweater, and platform wedge sandals that lace up her ankles. She is tan and blonde, with a tangle of fine gold chains around her neck. She tells me this was the first house they looked at, and she knew instantly it was the one. But Joe thought it was too expensive and wanted to see more. "He loves to look at houses," says Jill. "It's one of his things." They checked out two dozen more, and each time, Jill leveled him with a look: "Joe . . . you already know the house I like." Finally someone on his staff said, "For God's sake, just buy her the house she wants!" and he did. "I wanted it to be the kind of place where you can come in in your wet bathing suit and bare feet and I can just take the broom and brush out the sand. And that's what this is. Everything's easy."
The downpour of yesterday has turned into gale-force winds, and they are rattling windows and whistling through the pines as we sit in the living room. We've been talking about whether Jill is ready for the grind of the campaign trail, and then, teasing her, I say, "Do you have all your outfits together?" She shrieks with a combination of disbelief and delight: "Oh, my God! My outfits?!" And then she plays along. "I'm going to Pittsburgh on Monday for Joe's first rally, so I have to have an outfit for that, and then tonight I'm giving a speech in Miami and have to have a fancy outfit." She bats her eyelashes. "I have a pretty pink dress with sequins at the bottom." It's easy to see how Jill Biden might not be so easily restrained by protocol were she to become First Lady.
On the other hand, maybe there's never been anyone who's been so close to the Sturm und Drang—the sacrifices and drudgery—of the highest offices in the land for so long. For eight years, she lived in the Naval Observatory, the vice president's residence, just three miles from the White House, where Joe Biden had breakfast with then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton every week. She describes her relationship with Michelle Obama, with whom she worked very closely supporting military families, in glowing terms. "We leaned on one another. Michelle and I traveled together with our Joining Forces initiative. It was like no other administration, and I think Americans felt that—they felt the love, they felt like, Hey, this is solid." Jeremy Bernard agrees. "It was so clear—it was real. I remember one day the Bidens were already in the Blue Room for something, no cameras around, and Michelle came in and they were laughing and talking, and then the president walked in, and Jill is facing the other way, and he put his arms around Jill and she didn't even look up—she knew it was him, and they're all joking. And I remember thinking, Nothing like this ever happened with Reagan and Bush."
I first interviewed Jill Biden ten years ago, in September 2008, just two months before Obama's historic election. I spent several hours hanging around the Biden house in Wilmington, with the whole clan wandering in and out, the grandkids (then 2 to 14 years old) playing on the verdant lawn that slopes down toward the pond. That day, Jill recounted my favorite political anecdote of all time. We were talking about how her enthusiasm over Joe's running for president has waxed and waned over the years. She told me that when George W. Bush won reelection in 2004, she wore black for a week because she was "so despondent about the fact that things would be the same for the next four years" and that when she came out of mourning she told Joe he had to run in 2008. "I said, 'You've got to change this. I was the one who pushed him in—of all people! Because, believe me, he wanted to run before this, many times, and it was . . . no, absolutely not! No. And in 2004, you don't know how many people tried to get him to run. And I can remember one day, there was a group of people here, and they kept pushing and pushing and pushing. And finally, I was so mad. I was sitting out at the pool in a bikini and got a Magic Marker and I wrote no on my stomach, and I walked into the library. That got his attention. I won't tell you who was sitting in that room, but they got the message."
JOE BIDEN HAD EVERY REASON to think he should run for president in 2016, but many people thought it was Clinton's turn—including Obama himself. As late as October 2015, Joe was still wrestling with the decision, partly because, as we learned from Maureen Dowd, it was Beau Biden's dying wish for his father to be president, at long last. Beau died in May after being sick for close to two years. "He kept going for chemotherapy and radiation, and we kept waiting for him to turn the corner and get better," Jill says. Her eyes well up with tears. Presidential campaigns are tough because you're attacked by your opponents, of course, but they can be excruciating for someone like Jill, an admitted introvert, who must excavate her pain on a daily basis. "It's still taking me out," she says.
"There's not a day that I don't think about him. And I think Joe felt like he lost a part of his soul. You have to remember, when Neilia and Naomi were killed, Joe pulled the boys in even tighter because they survived the accident. When I came into that relationship, I saw how strong that bond was and how dependent the three of them were on one another. It was like this tight little circle. And they let me in."
Jill says Biden eventually decided that a father in such acute grief was in no shape to run for president, a decision, she tells me, he doesn't regret in the slightest. Ironically enough, it was at a funeral last December when he finally admitted he wanted to launch a campaign for 2020. "He was really hesitant," Jill says. "And there was a lot of pressure. Fundraisers were calling. People were calling him from all over the world, not just in the U.S. At one point, I said, 'Joe, you have to make up your mind.' Because otherwise, I thought it would damage him; people were getting their hopes up. And so we went to George [H.W.] Bush's funeral in D.C., and afterward I said, 'Joe, let's just go out and have a nice lunch.' We went to BlackSalt, and I said, 'It's getting too close, people are thinking about announcing; you've got to make up your mind.' And he looked at me and he said, 'I want to be president.' And that was the first time he said so and that I actually knew. It's one of those things where you put your foot into a stream that is moving so quickly."
Bush's funeral in December was, among other things, a bipartisan cavalcade of old, establishment Washington, and all of that somber camaraderie had the unintended effect of making even some of the staunchest liberals long for a gentler past. Did it affect Joe that way? I ask. Is that what made him finally decide? "I don't know," says Jill, and then ponders the thought. "Maybe being there with former presidents? Maybe just seeing the decorum of it, the respect, the dignity afforded the former president? So I think . . . maybe . . . what it used to be, what it used to feel like, when there was decency in politics. . . ." She trails off, and then suddenly one of her staffers comes into the room and hands her a cell phone: "It's Joe." They talk for a minute, and I take the opportunity to quickly eat the small bowl of fruit salad that Jill made and that has been sitting untouched in front of me for over an hour. "Mmm-hmm . . . all right . . . love you . . . bye-bye." She hangs up, and stares at me for a second and then starts to laugh. "My God, you're shoveling it in! Eat slowly. Before you choke. Just take your time." She's laughing harder. "Joe does the same: eats too fast while he's standing! I say, 'Siiiit dooown. This is a meal.' " What was Joe calling about? I ask. "He just wanted to say he loved me before I get on the plane to Miami today."
There's lots of cheerful, contemporary art on the walls, including an enormous photograph of what looks like a shimmering blue pool, and a huge white frame hanging in the dining room with two vintage women's bathing suits—one red, one blue—floating under the glass. There are also lots of enlarged family photographs, including one of Jill and her sister-in-law, Valerie Biden Owens, that has an eighties vibe. They both have numbers pinned to their chests, huffing it to the finish line of a race. Jill has been running since her 40s as a way to stay focused and centered. When I ask about the picture, she tells me that she can no longer run because "standing around in high heels for eight years destroyed the pads on the balls of my feet." She is not one to complain, but this does convey how difficult it must have been for her to maintain a full-time career as Second Lady. "Most nights we had receptions," she says, "so I would come home from school and I would take a half an hour down, and sometimes I would just be"—she starts to laugh and then flops back on the cushion of the sofa—"flat on my back on the bed getting my head together. And then I'd get up and go downstairs and do a receiving line."
Jill Biden knows it's jinxy to talk about what she would do as First Lady—not just yet. But she does say this: "The beauty of it is that you can define it however you want. And that's what I did as Second Lady—I defined that role the way I wanted it to be. I would still work on all the same issues. Education would be right up there—and military families. I'd travel all over this country trying to get free community college." She also talks about prioritizing preschool and kindergarten. "We need good reading programs, and we need equity in schools. We're competing in this global market, and the U.S.'s standing has got to get better."
Biden has worked hard to keep up her dual existence—as a senator's wife and then Second Lady, all the while working as a writing professor. Most of her students had no idea. She asked that the Secret Service dress like college students and sit unobtrusively out in the hallway, on laptops. This worked. "At Delaware Tech, they simply did not know that she was Senator Biden's wife," says Mary Doody. "She kept it under wraps. And when she got her doctorate she got it under 'Jacobs'; she didn't use Biden, because she has just always wanted to be her own person and for the students to know her as a teacher and not as the wife of a senator. She doesn't need that affirmation. It's just who she is."
This reminds me of something Jeremy Bernard told me about his second day in Washington. "I remember seeing her at Whole Foods shopping, the night before I started my job as social secretary, and we started talking and she was like, 'Oh, you've got to come to barre class with me!' There were Secret Service whom she obviously wanted at a certain distance, but I don't think anyone else noticed that it was her. There was never a feeling of an entourage or of seekingany attention."
JILL BIDEN IS A HUGGER. In fact, as I am leaving the house on Friday evening so that she can spend time with her grandkids, I keep getting drawn into conversations as I walk through the rooms saying goodbye to everyone, and Jill hugs me goodbye four times. When I arrive the next morning, she greets me at the door with another big, enveloping hug, and because she has just come downstairs after getting ready for our interview, I catch a whiff of her perfume. You smell good, I say. "So do you," she says, and cracks up. When I went back to reread the piece I wrote about Dr. Biden ten years ago, I was a bit startled to see that I described her as "a flirt." Would I use that language today? We both agree probably not and that the long-overdue reckoning of #MeToo has been a great, if painful, thing. We also agree that what once seemed simple no longer does—that harmless intimacy that sometimes magically transpires between two people who don't really know each other.
What's fascinating, though, is that when I ask her directly about #MeToo, her answer reminds me of the disappointment that Anita Hill must feel about the Clarence Thomas hearings. "Most women I know have been harassed in some way. And you never wanted to report it, because you were afraid of losing your job or you felt like, hey, did that just happen? I think it's good that women now . . . have the courage! Because it's not easy. Because you tamp it down, like, Gosh, did he do that because I gave him the wrong signal, or maybe I was wearing the wrong thing? You always think, Oh, was it my fault? But now women have the courage to say,'No. It was not my fault.' "
Jill writes at length in her book about how Joe's affection took her aback at first. Today she says, "When we started to date, Joe and his family were very touching and loving—always touching the boys and running their hands through their hair—and it took me a minute to kind of get used to that. And Joe said, 'I just grew up differently; that's all.' My mother and father didn't touch us constantly. I'm more affectionate now. I just sort of . . . slid into his way of being."
I ask her if she was surprised by the women who have been made uncomfortable by Joe's touching.
"It did surprise me," she says. "You know, I've been married to Joe for 42 years, and I've seen how he interacts with people—but times have changed. And he's said, you know, 'I'm going to take responsibility for this, I hear this,' and he's much more aware of how he interacts with people now."
Does it feel like it's still a problem or an obstacle to his candidacy?
No. It was addressed and he heard the message and moved on."
Moved on—there's that phrase again. And it makes me wonder how much the Biden instinct to look forward, to move past concerns and questions—especially from the youthful, insurgent left—coupled with a perhaps constitutional inability to just say, "I'm sorry," will haunt the campaign. When I speak to Jill in May, as she is preparing for a major rally to be held, Rocky-style, on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, she is all sunny optimism. "It really does feel different this time," she says. "People are positive. I think people have hope that the tone is going to change in this country. Even last night at my book talk I got lots of questions from the audience: What's this campaign going to be like? And I said I think people are tired of the vitriol and divisiveness, and I said Joe wants to bring the country together. Boy, you should have heard the crowd."
She was just as optimistic ten years ago. That time, as I was leaving the Bidens' house in Wilmington, Jill grabbed me by the shoulders, looked me in the eyes and said, "If we win . . . when we win, I am going to come to Manhattan and take you out for martinis and French fries to celebrate." I was pretty sure it was just a rhetorical flourish, an optimist's exclamation point at the end of a very long day. Sure enough, eight months later, my phone rang and it was Jill's then–press secretary, calling to see if I was available for lunch. We met at the Blue Water Grill on Union Square, Jill and two or three junior staffers, with a Secret Service security detail dining at a table nearby. As I'm saying goodbye to Jill in Rehoboth, we try to remember when exactly our date happened and what the occasion was. Her chief of staff Anthony Bernal pipes up: "It was the day before your birthday, so it was June 2, 2009." Jill is impressed by his recall. "We had to go to New York for Ann Curry or something like that," Bernal continues. I tell her that I remember hemming and hawing over whether to order a second martini—and we did. She cracks up laughing.
"Well, that's the most fun, right?"
Vogue, Jill Biden on the Campaign of a Lifetime by Jonathan Van Meter
June 5, 2019
June 6, 2019
Voices4America Post Script. Some insist we need Biden for our candidate. I hear FEAR talking ("Only a white man can win"). I recall that Al Gore & John Kerry lost. I recall our 2018 women, folks of color won. I also recall Anita Hill & the Hyde amendment. This is Jill Biden's defense of Joe. #BlueWave2020