If Senator Biden is elected, he’ll bring along a close-knit family of strong, independent women—led by his remarkable wife, Jill. Jonathan Van Meter reports.
Photographed by Arthur Elgort.
The Biden family home sits in a hilly, verdant suburb of Wilmington, Delaware, the aptly named Greenville. It is a quiet neighborhood of big, stately homes, old-growth trees, and three-car garages. Their house, which sits on a pond at the end of a long driveway, is new but looks old—a very well-executed simulacrum of the crumbling old Georgian mansion where the Bidens used to live. (That house, not far away, was part of a du Pont estate subdivided in the seventies; Joe bought it for a song during the Carter recession.) This much more reasonable version, where they’ve been since 1996, was designed by the senator himself. “He is a frustrated architect,” says Jill. “And didn’t he do a nice job? I always told him if he wanted to leave the Senate and go back to school to become an architect, I’d support that.” (This from a woman who defended her thesis in her mid-50s.)
Indeed, the house is designed as much for public life as private: The ground floor feels a bit like “The Senator’s Home,” something out of a novel or a movie, with highly polished black-and-white marble floors in the foyer, leather club chairs and a big mahogany desk in the study, royal-blue walls and red damask curtains in the dining room. Framed memorabilia from 30-plus years of life in electoral politics hang on nearly every wall, including in the bathroom (an invitation, dated June 9, 1987, to the formal announcement of Biden’s first run for president). As I wander around the house, I half expect to find a velvet rope cordoning off a no-go zone.
If the Biden home feels a bit like a stage set lately, then today the entire cast and crew are here. Since the day Barack Obama announced Joe Biden as his running mate, things have gotten a bit surreal. “Really, with one phone call,” says Jill, “our lives totally changed. The day before, Joe and I were out walking the neighborhood at ten o’clock at night, just talking and enjoying ourselves, and then”—she snaps her fingers—”it just changed. We couldn’t leave our driveway without being followed, and the helicopters were circling. It was crazy.” When I ask Jill, who has been a relatively private person during the many years her husband has been a senator, if she ever wishes her life could return to normal, she says, “I can’t let myself think about that, because that means we’d lose the election.”
At the moment, CNN is setting up in the front yard to interview Valerie Biden Owens, Joe’s younger sister, who has managed every campaign since his original Senate run in 1972. In the backyard, a Vogue crew is corralling all the other Biden women who are here today—granddaughters, sisters, daughters, wives, and mothers—for a portrait of the four generations of “The Women in Joe’s Life.” There are balloons on the floor from ten-year-old Finnegan’s birthday party last night (she got her ears pierced), and the family’s big golden Labradoodle, Brother, is running around with Finnegan’s little sister, Maisy. There are hair dryers blowing; cell phones ringing; and Jill’s staff all hover around in a near-constant state of alert-but-texting. All the while, Joe Biden’s 91-year-old mother, Jean, known as Mom Mom, sits at the kitchen table, watching and smiling. “This house is always filled with family,” says the Bidens’ daughter-in-law Kathleen, mother of Finnegan, Maisy, and Naomi, who refers to the pool out back as “grandkid bait.” “There are like 20 Bidens here, always. They have done a great job of creating this environment.”
“This family is so close,” Jill’s press secretary, Chris Mather, tells me. “Personally, but also in a political sense.” In fact, during the very crowded Democratic primary, before Joe Biden and everyone else was edged off the stage by Clinton and Obama, the whole Biden clan was in Iowa for months, fighting for third place. Jill, who was teaching four days a week, “would get on that plane every Friday, and they would have events from seven in the morning to late at night,” she says. “Sunday I’d get back at around midnight and have to be in the classroom at 8:30 a.m. Those weekends were something else.”
“It was a full-blown family affair,” says Kathleen. “All the cousins were dispatched, the entire family in our Suburban. We’d pull over to eat sandwiches outside a convenience store, and we’d see Hillary’s ginormous motorcade go by.”
Though the Bidens went to the barricades for Joe, it was not his year. The twin Hillary and Barack juggernauts eventually steamrolled everything in their paths. “It was becoming clear that this was a historic election,” says Jill. “That it was going to be about an African-American and a woman. So when we pulled out, I was sad for Joe, but I still felt a Democrat would win, so that sort of kept me going. It didn’t even occur to me that Joe would be asked to be vice president. Everybody kept saying, ‘Oh, he’ll be made secretary of State,’ and I thought, You just never know what’s going to happen, so I didn’t take it seriously.”
Joe’s sister, Valerie—a glamorous, tough, working-class version of Jane Fonda whom her brother describes as “my best friend my whole life”—seems genuinely sanguine about their loss in the primary. “Not everything is supposed to come out the way you thought it would,” she says to me as we sit on the back patio. “I wanted him to be president. I campaigned for a year and a half. When we didn’t win, there were no tears. I knew that we gave it our best shot, and it didn’t happen.” She stares at me and yanks up the collar of her crisp houndstooth jacket. “Maybe this is the Catholic-school girl coming out in my old age, but things have a way of unfolding. There is some consolation that comes from: Be careful what you wish for.”
This could be seen as sour grapes, but Jill brings a refreshing perspective to the matter. “We’re not just a couple in politics, or one person. We’re a family in politics,” she says. “And I think vice president is the best place for us: The family can be at the residence, the family can come to the dinners, the family can go to the events. It would be more inclusive. We’ve worked so hard to get Joe to where he is. Besides, I’m ready for a new journey. Why not?”
A couple of days after the Obama-Biden ticket was announced, I read in The New York Times that Jill Biden earned a master’s degree in education from West Chester University in 1981. She was 30 years old and pregnant with Ashley when she attended my alma mater in Pennsylvania; I was an eighteen-year-old freshman that same year. I had not been aware of anyone in public life, other than a handful of semifamous football players and one porn star, having graduated from West Chester, so I found this bit of information oddly thrilling. Go Rams! Then I discovered that both of Jill’s parents were born and raised in Hammonton, a big town in southern New Jersey, halfway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Per capita the second most Italian-American town in America (fully 45 percent of the population is of Italian ancestry), it also happens to be the town where I rented my tuxedo for prom night. As if all of that weren’t enough, Jill also spent summers waiting tables on the Jersey shore—just as I had. Indeed, her sister Jan, who is a year younger, is a waitress in Ocean City to this day. (Her three other sisters are Bonny, Kim, and Kelly.)
Jill had a childhood that was both typical and unusual. She was born in Hammonton, but the family moved around as her banker father, Donald Jacobs, worked his way up the savings-and-loan ladder. He eventually became a vice president at a bank in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, and the family settled in nearby Willow Grove, where Jill attended Upper Moreland High School and graduated in the class of ’69. Throughout her childhood, the family would pile into the station wagon every weekend and drive back to Hammonton. “And I would stay with my dad at my one grandmom’s house, and Bonny and Jan would stay with my mother at my other grandparents’ house,” she says. “And then on Sunday, both sets of grandparents would fight about who was going to host dinner. My grandpop was Dominic Giacoppa, but they changed it to Jacobs. So I grew up eating one Italian meal on Sunday, with the wedding soup and the braciole and homemade pasta, and then we’d have to go to my other grandparents’ house”—Harold and Mabel Godfrey—”and have roast beef and mashed potatoes and homemade cake.”
When I express mystification at this odd weekend ritual, she explains, “My mother’s family was never quite comfortable with my dad, because his father worked at a furniture store and his mother did home-care nursing. My mother’s family was from the ‘right’ side of the tracks. They owned the local drugstore, her father was a pharmacist, her mother was a schoolteacher. We could feel that as kids.”
Perhaps because of this, Jill Tracy Jacobs developed an early independent streak. Her parents were not very religious, but Jill wanted to be part of a church. So in ninth grade, she took it upon herself to take the classes required to join the Presbyterian church. Around the same time, realizing that she wanted “my own money, my own identity, my own career,” she got a job at the age of fifteen. “I think I’m most like my father,” she says. “He seemed to be pretty independent, and with five girls, you can imagine, he was a strong man. He was certainly my first hero.” When I ask her when she first realized she wanted to be a teacher, something she has dedicated most of her adult life to, she surprises me. “I would say that my teachers are probably turning over in their graves,” she says. “I was rebellious in high school. I just had a good time. I enjoyed life. I enjoyed dating, I enjoyed my friends. But there was always that love of English class. My grandmother sent me books, so I loved writing and reading. That was a major part of my life.”
Her college years also led her down an unconventional path. After an aborted attempt at studying fashion merchandising at a junior college in Pennsylvania, where she had been miserable, Jill married a boy she had been dating the summer after high school. The newlyweds decided to attend the University of Delaware together, where Jill majored in English. After a couple of years, the two “grew in different ways,” and when Jill was a junior they were divorced. She took a year off. “Things were a little too rough, too emotional,” she says. “But I knew I would finish. I was determined.”
Meanwhile, a 29-year-old alumnus of the University of Delaware, Joseph Biden, whose younger brother Frank was friendly with Jill, was making a historic run for the Senate, a race that turned him into a new political star on campus and would eventually make him one of the youngest senators in history. It was 1972, and Jill, voting for the first time, pulled the lever for Biden, whose hand she had shaken once at a fund-raiser. Then one day, shortly after Joe won the election, tragedy struck. “I had a final exam,” says Jill. “I can remember going out to the parking lot and getting in my car and my radio was on and hearing that his wife and daughter had been killed in a car accident. And I can remember turning off the ignition and sitting there and saying a prayer. It was just so awful. So tragic.”
The story of Joe’s almost unbearable loss of his wife, Neilia, and thirteen-month-old daughter, Naomi, has become an indelible part of Biden family lore, especially since the very moving Democratic Convention speech by Beau Biden. Biden’s two toddler sons, Beau and Hunter, survived the accident but were hospitalized for weeks. Joe wanted to give up his seat but was persuaded otherwise, and in January 1973 he was sworn in at his sons’ hospital room, where he had been living for weeks. When Joe took office, Valerie moved in to help take care of the boys—and stayed for five years. “Neilia was Mommy, and I was Aunt Val,” says Valerie. “I never wanted to confuse them, because I’d always hoped that someday Joe would be fortunate enough to fall in love and begin his life again.”
To make extra money, Jill had done a little modeling for a local agency in Wilmington. “I might’ve done five jobs where you get paid, like, 20 bucks,” she says. “But I wasn’t a model.” Nevertheless, Joe Biden saw her picture in an advertisement posted on a bus shelter and was smitten. As legend has it, Jill’s number was unlisted, but Joe’s brother Frankie procured it through a friend. “I was a senior, and I had been dating guys in jeans and clogs and T-shirts,” says Jill, “and he came to the door and he had on a sport coat and loafers, and I thought, God, this is never going to work, not in a million years. He was nine years older than I am! But we went out to see A Man and a Woman at a movie theater in Philadelphia, and we really hit it off. When we came home, we were standing at the door. During the seventies, usually the guy was groping you at the door—I don’t think that’s changed, really—but he shook my hand good night. And I went upstairs and called my mother at 1:00 A.M. and said, ‘Mom, I finally met a gentleman.’ ”
It has also become part of Biden family legend that Joe proposed to Jill five times before she said yes. True? I ask. Yes, she says. What did you say the first four times? “I said, ‘Not yet. Not yet. Not yet.’ Because by that time, of course, I had fallen in love with the boys, and I really felt that this marriage had to work. Because they had lost their mom, and I couldn’t have them lose another mother. So I had to be 100 percent sure. It was a big step. I was 25 when we got married. I mean, that’s a lot for a young woman.”
(Later, when I ask Joe what kept him from becoming discouraged after proposing so many times, he says, “OK, I’m just going to say it: I knew she loved me. I knew, though, that it was a daunting thing. But finally my pride overcame me. I had gone to Africa to try to see Nelson Mandela, and I came back after the ten-day trip and went to her apartment and I said, ‘Look, this is the last time I’m asking you. I don’t care when we get married. But I want a commitment.’ And she said OK. But it took that!”)
They took a train to New York in June 1977, got a marriage license at a courthouse in Brooklyn, and got hitched at the United Nations chapel, all in an effort to keep things quiet in Delaware. Jill moved into the old du Pont mansion, where Valerie and her family were also still living, and they all transitioned slowly so there would be no sudden changes in the boys’ routine. In 1980, she got pregnant with Ashley, but within two years she was itching to be more than just “the greatest mom.” She went back to school and back to work and began her slow accumulation of degrees—five years in a psychiatric hospital teaching English to “middle-class kids who needed help,” followed by a master’s in English from Villanova, which overlapped with another three years of teaching at Claymont High School, which led to Delaware Technical and Community College and finally a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware.
All the while, she has remained a relatively nontraditional political wife, keeping out of the spotlight and campaigning only rarely, when Joe has really needed her. Though there are other political spouses who have big careers (Elizabeth Edwards comes to mind), they have sought the spotlight and approval from the electorate in a way that Jill Biden never has. As Valerie says of her sister-in-law, “She knows what matters, what’s important. Every time she has needed to step up to the plate, she’s done it, but with grace. There’s nothing edgy or unpleasant about Jill—but she’s not a pious little milquetoast. She’s funny, she is fierce, she’s irreverent. She’s got a life! She’s focused but not driven.”
It is telling that Hallie, Beau’s wife and a more recent political spouse (her husband was elected Delaware state attorney general in 2006), speaks of her mother-in-law with a kind of hushed awe. “This is new to me, with my husband’s role, but I’m learning from Jill. ‘Make sure you have something for yourself,’ she’ll say. ‘Make sure you are not always at home, waiting. Make sure you feel independent financially and emotionally.’ I listen and I learn. I took a couple years off with the kids, but now I’m back to work.”
A week after my visit to Wilmington, I see Jill Biden backstage in an auditorium at a community college in Mason City, Iowa. She catches my eye and makes a beeline across the stage toward me. Stopping a few feet short, she makes the tiniest show of presenting herself and says, “How do you like my suit?” She laughs and flashes her 1,000-watt smile, and I think to myself, She’s a flirt! It has a sweet, schoolteacher quality, but it is flirting nonetheless. And it is absolutely winning. She spins around to show me the pleating on the back of her skirt and says, “I love this detail.” I ask her who made it. Rebecca Taylor, she says. “Isn’t it great? It holds up well, and it’s a suit an educator can afford.” She turns on her pointy black Manolo mules and heads off to an on-camera interview that will introduce her to the Obama online community.
Moments earlier, she had been sitting among a group of 20 teachers arranged in a circle on metal chairs before the press (including, weirdly enough, a freakishly tan and out-of-his-element Pat O’Brien). Jill Biden, now traveling in her own SUV motorcade (at last!), was there to listen to her comrades pontificating on the state of education in America today, just one stop on a two-day tour through northern Iowa as the Obama campaign continues its Jill Biden rollout. With her tan legs, long blonde hair, and a rather dramatic white ruffled-collar shirt, Jill looked like an exotic orchid next to all these Midwestern educators in their khakis, sweaters, and sensible shoes. But as soon as she opened her mouth and her surprisingly thick southern New Jersey-meets-Delaware accent rolled off her tongue, I began to sense, as did these teachers, that she has more in common with them than it initially appeared. When the one man in the circle who was not a teacher got his hand on the mike and wondered how he is supposed to “feed a family of five, work full-time, and go back to school” to train to become a nurse, Jill said, “First off, you have to start by voting for Obama-Biden.” The room burst into applause. “They’re the ones who are truly going to help you afford college. I taught full-time, plus an extra course at night so that we could afford to send our three children to college, so I know what a struggle it is.” (Later, she tells me, “As a teacher, I see how the tough economic environment affects people every day. Many people are struggling and counting on a change.”) She spooled her natural empathy out a bit further and then said to the man, “I teach a lot of nurses. I always say they are the angels in the hospitals. So good luck with your nursing.”
You can begin to understand why Barack Obama picked Joe Biden. Aside from the fact that he got a sweetheart deal that included Jill, the Bidens are about as typical a middle-class American family as they come. They may live in a big house in a fancy neighborhood, but, as evidenced by ten years of recently released tax returns, they are mortgaged to the hilt and have no savings—just like the rest of the country. Who knows? Jill Biden, a community-college teacher with a natural feel for the average Joe, could turn out to be the campaign’s secret weapon. As Kathleen Biden told me, “I have never seen her more energized and committed. She has embraced it so wholeheartedly.”
A week ago, back at the house in Wilmington, I asked Jill about the Obamas. She told me that she had met Michelle only twice during the primary, before her husband was chosen to be Barack’s running mate. “At one debate, she sat next to me,” says Jill. “I think it might have been New Hampshire. And we said very little to each other because, I mean, we were in competition and it’s all small talk, and you know how they parade the spouses out. So I was getting my impression of her from the media. And Barack just seemed more friendly to me, more gregarious. And I certainly saw much more of him.”
When they became part of the ticket and started traveling together, she says, “we began to like each other, and it became a truly warm relationship. We just clicked on so many levels. And our families, I mean, heck! Her mother is so wonderful, and she and her brother get along. It was just this mesh of families. My granddaughters went to a sleepover with Sasha and Malia and had a great time. Toward the end of that week, we were about to say goodbye, and Michelle and I put our arms around each other and she said, ‘I love you,’ and I said, ‘I love you, too.’ I mean, in a week it got to that point—and it wasn’t phony! I think that’s very unusual—maybe for two men to sort of hit it off it’s not—but I think it’s more unusual for two women to click so quickly.”
For her part, Michelle Obama remembers that debate in New Hampshire as well. “I sat right next to her, and it’s funny: We said hello, but I didn’t talk because I was so nervous. I sat like a stone! I was afraid to move a muscle because I was so focused on the first debate. I didn’t have a chance to chat.” But once the ticket was announced and the two women were thrust together, nerves dissipated. “When I first gave her a hug,” says Michelle, “I could feel that she was, like, real people. You know? You can sort of tell. She was sweet, down-to-earth and very open and honest, and I liked her right away. And now I just love her to death. She’s raised great kids. I think our families are a lot alike. As quick as the decision was made, their families rallied around them. And that’s what happened in our family. I respect the fact that they didn’t move to Washington, which was similar to the choice we made. Joe spent all those years in the Senate and managed not to become part of Washington, because his family lived outside of D.C. Jill and I talked about how much pressure we feel to live in Washington, but you want your kids and your life to stay as normal and untouched by all this stuff as possible.”
The big thing that Jill Biden and Michelle Obama would seem to have in common is that they are political spouses with independent careers who have pushed back against their husbands’ ambitions, put their children first, and have been cautious about what kind of public role they play. The difference, however, is a bit more complicated: If the Obamas’ Achilles heel is that they are still seen as a bit too exotic or too cerebral for some Americans, and if Michelle, in particular, is seen as elitist or “scary” (an idea that persists, despite the campaign’s efforts to counter the impression), then Jill Biden is unimpeachably easy to relate to: She is the athletic girl-next-door who grew up to be the pretty teacher everyone has a crush on.
And if neither Michelle nor Jill comes by campaigning naturally—it does not seem to be in either woman’s DNA to want to do it—when asked, they both rise to the challenge, partly because they love their husbands, but mostly because they genuinely want to see the country move in a different direction. It wasn’t all that long ago that Jill Biden was forbidding her husband to run for president. She tells a funny story about a day when a bunch of Democratic Party bigwigs had planted themselves in her living room to try to convince Joe Biden that 2004 was his year to unseat George Bush. Jill was sitting out by the pool in a bikini—fuming. Unable to stand it any longer, she got up, found a Magic Marker, and wrote the word no across her stomach and then paraded through the meeting. “They got the message,” she says with a laugh.
What a difference four more years makes.
One day, Joe Biden calls me on the phone. He is in a car on his way to an event in Media, Pennsylvania, campaigning with the Obamas. “The real measure of strength and resolve is when someone does things that don’t come naturally,” he says. “But they do it because they think it’s important. The thing about Jill that I find so amazing is that here’s a woman who does not feel comfortable standing before a crowd of people and making a speech about presidential politics. But because it’s me, and because she cares so much about it, that’s exactly what she does. It would be like asking me to get up and sing, which I could never do. It’s just amazing what she can do. I used to kid her when we first got married. She’d say, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ I would say, ‘You remind me of a great sprinter who is running a 10.5-second 100 meters, and you’re capable of running a 9.9. You have no idea how good you are!’ I really mean that. It just absolutely blows me away.” He pauses. “I’m obviously proud.” Another pause. “Look, I just pulled up to a place where there’s a couple thousand people, and I’m supposed to go out and speak. Can I call you back?” No need, I say. “Sorry that I have to go do this.” And then, sounding truly torn, he says, “I’d rather talk about Jill.”
Photo: from left: Senator Biden’s niece, Missy Owens; her mother, Valerie Biden Owens; Hunter Biden’s wife, Kathleen; her daughters Maisy, eight, and Finnegan, ten; Jill Biden and daughter Ashley; Senator Biden’s mother, Catherine (“Jean”) Finnegan Biden; Kathleen’s eldest daughter, Naomi, fourteen; Beau Biden’s wife, Hallie; and her daughter, Natalie, four.
“All the Vice President’s Women” has been edited for Style.com; the complete story appears in the November 2008 issue of Vogue.