By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."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.
"She got her doctorate under her maiden name," Doody says. "I guess she didn't want professors to feel like they would treat her differently."
"I had always kidded Joe and said the mail always comes 'Senator and Mrs. Biden,' " Jill says. When she earned her diploma, she found that her husband had mounted signs in the driveway. One said, "Dr. and Senator Biden live here."
Push for the White House
It was sort of Jill's idea to run for president this time around. Joe was already thinking about it but figured his family might ask him not to. Instead, Jill called a family meeting.
The Bidens are big on doing things as a unit. His sister Valerie Biden Owens, who had run all his Senate races as well as his '88 presidential campaign, was national chair of his 2008 campaign and relocated to Iowa in August 2007 in advance of the caucuses. Val's daughter, Missy Owens, helped run political operations. By the day of the caucuses in January, much of the Biden clan was in Iowa.
Joe had thought about running in '04, but Jill was against it. The Bidens' daughter, Ashley, born in 1981, was still in college and she herself was still working on her doctorate, and in her gut, it just didn't feel like the right time. (As she told Vogue magazine recently, she expressed her opposition one day when a whole bunch of political folks had gathered in the Biden living room to encourage Joe to run. She'd been sunning in a bikini, and she scrawled the word "NO" across her stomach and then walked through the gathering.)
But after George W. Bush won reelection, something changed.
"I literally wore black for a week," Jill says. "I just could not believe that he won, because I felt that things were already so bad. I was so against the war. And I said to Joe, 'You've got to change this, you have to change this.' Actually, I talked to the boys first before I talked to Joe, and they were surprised, but I was pretty adamant about it. I said, 'I want Dad to run.' "
The story of the Biden family is one of deep lows followed by fantastic highs, which is why Joe's longtime friend and adviser Ted Kaufman has called him both the unluckiest man in the world and the luckiest. Biden earned a measly 0.93 percent of the state delegates in Iowa and pulled out of the race that night. Months later, Obama picked him as his running mate.
"With everything that's down, something good comes out of it, and I think that's the way we look at things," Jill says.
In 1987, when he ran for president the first time, Biden dropped out well before the caucuses because of a plagiarism scandal. Shortly after, he suffered a brain aneurysm so severe that a priest administered last rites at the hospital. Jill and Val believe that if Joe hadn't dropped out of the race, he might've campaigned himself to death.
"He would've died, he would've definitely died," Jill says.
"But look what happened when we got out," says Val. "He continued the confirmation hearings of [Robert] Bork and was very critical in determining the makeup of the Supreme Court."
The story of how Jill and Joe met is also framed by tragedy. Joe's first wife, Neilia, and their baby daughter died in a car crash in 1972, six weeks after he was elected to the Senate at the age of 29. Their sons, Beau and Hunter, wound up in the hospital, Beau in a full body cast. Joe had to be persuaded to start his first term.
A few years later, Biden saw several ads for the New Castle County park system in the Wilmington airport. They were shots of the parks, with a blond young woman in them. He thought she was gorgeous. That was Jill, a 23-year-old senior at the University of Delaware who'd agreed to pose for a photographer friend of hers.
The way Joe tells it, that very night he came home, and his brother Frankie gave him the phone number of a girl he thought Joe would like. Joe called her the next day. When he picked her up, he was astonished to see who it was: the gorgeous blond girl in the ads.
They began dating. It was the boys who first suggested to Joe that "we think we should marry Jill." Joe asked her five or six times. She was nine years younger, she'd been married briefly before and she was not big into the idea of being a political wife. She worried she wasn't ready to be a mom to the boys. When she at last agreed, it was a wedding for the four of them. They were married in 1977.
The boys stood on the altar with them during the ceremony and joined them on their honeymoon. In time, they took to calling her Mom.The Call Finally Comes
When Obama called in June to let Joe know he was in the running, the Bidens called another family meeting.
"We never ever thought -- I mean we didn't even think about it -- that he would be chosen for vice president," Jill says. She's a runner, and she's tiny. Today she wears a red suit jacket and, around her neck, the diamond horseshoe pendant that her three children and two daughters-in-law gave her when she earned her doctorate.
As the papers reported at the time, the day in August that Joe found out, he happened to be with Jill at the dentist's, where she was getting a root canal. Afterward, she went out to the car.
"And no sooner had I closed the door and turned to him that he said, 'Jill, Barack called me and asked me to be vice president.' And of course I was just so happy and, you know, starting to cry, but I could barely laugh because my mouth was so numb."
By then she'd just started classes, and she hoped she could still teach: "I felt it was my job." She says she spoke with Michelle Obama after Joe was chosen and said, "I would like to be in the classroom four days a week and then I'll travel," and that Michelle said, great, because she herself was campaigning during the week and trying to be home with her kids on weekends.
"So, you see, our schedules would mesh beautifully," Jill says, and the campaigning thing would all work out. And if the Obama-Biden ticket wins, that would mean moving to D.C. and figuring out whether she might like to teach at a community college down in the capital. Because, she says, she would still like to teach. "I've been a working woman most of our married lives, so I'd still like to do that," she says.
And it would all work out, assuming, of course, that it all works out.