Thursday, October 23, 2008
EXCELSIOR SPRINGS, Mo.
Jill Biden still teaches Monday through Thursday back in Delaware in the frantic last days of the presidential campaign.
Her students may know who she is, or they may not. She tends to think not. They are busy people, community college students, many of them holding down jobs and raising kids while they put themselves through school. And if they've Googled her and figured out who she is, they've mostly been too polite to say. When asked if she is Joe Biden's wife, Jill always has told her students she is his "relative," and let the question drop there. She is their English instructor, and that's the most important thing.
Of course, the Secret Service has made it slightly more difficult to remain undercover. The officer dresses down, but still.
The other day "one of the students in my 10 o'clock composition class said to me, 'Hey, Dr. B, can I ask you something personal?' And I said, 'Yeah, long as it's not my age.' "
Jill Biden, 57, is leaning forward in a hotel room chair here, her glasses dangling from one hand. She exaggerates her Philadelphia suburbs accent, which is already pretty strong. "He said: 'You know every morning I come in here, there's a guy with an earpiece in his ear. What's that all about?' I said, 'I don't know,' " Biden says, widening her eyes and raising her arms in an expression of true (fake) wonder.
On the campaign trail, it's the opposite. There, many people don't know her except as Joe Biden's wife, the woman who will be second lady if Barack Obama wins the presidency. They see a wife who is not the most polished political performer, reading carefully from her speeches and talking through applause. They may not know she's been teaching for 27 years, or that she earned her education doctorate just last year, or that she graded three essays on the way to this event. They don't know that last week she came home from a Pathmark grocery store and told her daughter, "People are comin' up to me I don't even know" -- and that her daughter had to remind her, as if patiently instructing an elementary school student, that yeah, Mom, that's what happens when you appear on national TV.
Strangers sometimes act as if they know her, and in a way, maybe they do. She seems real. And familiar. At one stop, while Biden is working the room, a woman reaches out to pull a loose blond hair from the back of her black sweater dress. The Secret Service agent makes a please-don't-bother face, but the woman shrugs and persists, gently snagging the hair without Biden noticing. "Dr. Biden doesn't wanna have a loose hair hangin'," she explains.
Here in Excelsior Springs, at a luncheon for the Clay County Democrats, Biden makes a speech and then works a rope line, where she is buttonholed by a woman in her early 50s who is crying. The woman wants to thank Joe Biden for writing the breakthrough Violence Against Women Act, which became law in 1994. If that law had been on the books when she was a teenager, the woman tells Jill, "my sister would still be alive." Jill hugs the woman and says that she will tell Joe, and then she reaches out and peels off the adhesive name tag the woman is wearing. She lifts the bottom of her suit jacket, exposing a white blouse, and presses the name tag against her abdomen . ("So that I could write her a note," she explains later. "So I wouldn't lose it.")
The woman, Diane Simonds-Carrell, a former legal secretary now on disability, sits back down at her table. Tears are still running down her face. "Finally I got heard by somebody who counted," she'll say later.
She sees Biden afterward in the lobby and gets her autograph. Biden writes, "To Diane: Things will get better, I promise."