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Campaign Curriculum

The Middle Ground

In the campaign fight over who's middle class and who connects with the middle class, over who knows Joe the Plumber and who's been best buds with Joe the Plumber since grade school, or some such thing, Jill stands squarely in that middle. She's been working nearly all her life, she is married to one of the nation's least-wealthy senators (that's Senate poor, but still), and her students, she says, are working-class people trying to better their prospects in a bleak economy.

"I feel like I can make a greater difference in their lives," Biden says. "I just love that population. It just feels really comfortable to me. I love the women who are coming back to school and getting their degrees because they're so focused."

It takes a certain type of person to teach at a community college. You get the humble title of "instructor." You get brush-up grammar courses for the students who aren't quite ready for college-level writing. (Biden teaches one of those, in addition to her English composition courses.) You get students who have to drop school to take a second job, or students for whom the commute itself is a sacrifice.

"This is pretty personal," Biden says, "but when my mother died two weeks ago, I called everybody in my 8:30 class because I knew for them to come to school if they didn't hafta come there -- that it would save them the gas." She didn't explain, merely said, "Class will be canceled; check Blackboard."

She grew up Jill Jacobs in Willow Grove, Pa., the oldest of five girls. One sister is a flight attendant, another is a waitress at a breakfast joint, another a stay-at-home mom and the fourth was kept busy until recently taking care of their ailing mother.

Jill's dad became the vice president of a small bank. He died in 1999. Her mom, a homemaker, passed away during an astonishingly difficult week, even by the standards of presidential campaigns -- three days after Joe Biden's vice presidential debate against Sarah Palin and two days after Joe spoke at the deployment ceremony for their older son, Beau, the attorney general of Delaware and a captain in the state's Army National Guard. After finishing training, he's off to Iraq.

Pumping up voter-mobilization volunteers across Missouri through the weekend, Jill Biden talks about the importance of education, how tough the economy is for her students, about affordable health care and the war. Like Cindy McCain, who has two sons in the military, Biden wears a Blue Star Moms pin on her jacket. Unlike Cindy McCain, she backs Obama's assessment that the war can end "responsibly" and soon. It tends to be her biggest applause line. When she mentions her son's name during one speech, her voice breaks and she puts her hand to her chest and offers a wobbly laugh, the way people do when they're trying not to cry.

It's a little strange, being the Bidens and being in a contest against John McCain. They go way back. Joe and Jill knew John when he was a naval liaison to the Senate in the '70s, and Jill has danced with him, and they were there at a cocktail party in Hawaii when John made a beeline across the room toward a young blonde named Cindy Hensley. (And Jill notes with a satisfied air that she knew right away, and she told Joe, "I'm telling you, he is smitten with her." And Joe -- "You know how men are" -- he didn't see it.)

But in recent years, Jill says, "John's different than he was when we knew him. I don't think he's as easygoing. You know, I still like him. . . . But it's just, I don't know, the relationship is just more strained now."

Before Jill taught college, she taught in public schools and at a psychiatric hospital for troubled adolescents. She earned two master's degrees before starting in on her doctorate, while still teaching. ("I'd say, 'Hey, I might be a little grouchy this week -- I have a paper due just like you do.' ") When the day came to defend her thesis, says her friend Mary Doody, a fellow English instructor at Delaware Technical and Community College, Jill wanted to do it in private -- just her and the panel.

"Even Joe wasn't allowed in the room," Doody says. "Joe waited out in the hallway." Jill was nervous and didn't want an audience, and besides, her friend says, she didn't want her status as a senator's wife to affect how people perceived her.

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