EXCERPT: Jill Biden, navigating a prominent platform

·8 min read

The following excerpt is from the introduction of “Jill: A Biography of the First Lady,” by Associated Press journalists Julie Pace and Darlene Superville. The book details the life of Jill Biden. Superville covers the White House for the AP; Pace, a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief, is now AP's executive editor.

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As a teacher for more than 30 years, Jill Biden had long been accustomed to waking up in the dark — but this was something else entirely.

She heard the whistle of the 5:20 a.m. Northeast Regional train break the still air as it sped by her home in Wilmington, Delaware. The winter of 2017 felt especially cold and dark. After eight years at the highest levels of the U.S. government, Joe and Jill Biden had left Washington behind. Donald Trump was now in the White House, and the 19th-century mansion on the grounds of the Naval Observatory that had served as the Bidens’ home during Joe’s two terms as vice president was occupied by the new second family, Mike and Karen Pence.

But Jill Biden continued teaching at a community college just outside Washington that had become a second home for her, a place where she could channel her passion for education and escape the political pressure cooker.

Teaching English classes at Northern Virginia Community College — which everyone called NOVA — now required a train ride, the same commute her husband had made for 36 years to his job in the Senate. Amtrak had renamed the station in Wilmington after Joe Biden five years earlier in recognition of the thousands of hours he’d spent commuting.

Teaching was about the only thing that could draw Jill Biden back to Washington at the time. It was never a city she considered home, despite her husband’s profession. She and the couple’s three children had always lived in Wilmington, part of a close-knit community of family and friends. She had embraced her role as second lady, but Washington was also filled with difficult memories, most recently the loss of her son Beau to cancer.

From Wilmington, she would take the 1 1/2-hour ride to Washing- ton’s Union Station and then request an Uber for the nine-mile drive across the Potomac River, a trip that wound through areas of DC that mixed the grand and the grimy, past the Jefferson and Air Force memorials, and around the Pentagon to NOVA’s Alexandria, Virginia, campus. It was only a 20-minute ride on a good day, but Washington traffic was always bad in the mornings. She did the whole thing in reverse to get home later in the day. Despite the commitment she felt to her students, many of them immi- grants and the first in their families to attend any type of college, the long commute was beginning to wear on her.

Jill Biden’s time as second lady had brought her great joy and meaningful work. She helped lead President Obama’s proposal for free community college — an ambitious plan that ultimately went nowhere in Congress — cofounded an organization to support military families called Joining Forces with First Lady Michelle Obama, and had successfully taught at NOVA for all eight years.

Recent heartbreak had left both the Bidens battered. Beau died in 2015 at 46 of an aggressive brain cancer, leaving behind a wife and two young children. After a lengthy period of indecision following Beau’s death, Joe Biden had decided not to run for president in 2016; Hillary Clinton had run instead, and lost to Trump. Their younger son, Hunter, who had long struggled with drugs and alcohol, now seemed to find his life disintegrating into hard drug use, long disappearances and a bitter, public divorce.

Returning to a more private life, Jill had to relearn its rhythms — of driving, of walking into a store without an ever-present entourage of staff and Secret Service agents. She had to learn new tools, like Uber and Venmo, to maneuver through the world.

In the past, she would have found the fun in all of that. She’d always been a gleeful and lifelong learner. But Beau’s loss hung heavy over her every move. She wasn’t just moving on — she was moving on without her son.

“Life just felt different,” she said, looking back on that time during an interview in 2021. “You just can’t lose a child and say, ‘Oh, now we’ll go on.’” She often turned on the early TV news as she got ready in the morning. The new administration was like nothing she had ever seen. She tried not to dwell on Trump’s swift demolition of so much that Obama and her husband had built. She knew that any new president, Republican or Democrat, would have changed things done by their predecessors. She could only hope that Trump wouldn’t be as bad as many feared.

Even with Joe Biden out of politics for the first time in his adult life, they found new ways to serve. They were both devoted to cancer research. Biden met with scientists and experts; Jill Biden with families and caregivers. They worked on establishing the Biden Foundation, which would fund initiatives on causes that had long been dear to the Bidens’ hearts, like preventing violence against women and expanding access to college.

She was teaching, speaking, and starting work on a book. It was, Jill felt, a full life.

And she still had NOVA. She adored her students and was deeply invested in their future. The diverse and international backgrounds of her students had opened her eyes.

“I saw this whole world at NOVA,” she said. “I just couldn’t go back.”

So she made the early Amtrak train her alarm clock, knowing by the time she reached Washington, the gloom of night would give way to brisk morning light. Life, in its unrelenting way, continued on.

As quickly as Jill tried to settle back into life outside of politics, politics pulled her back in. Her husband launched his third, and perhaps least anticipated, presidential campaign, successfully unseating Trump in November 2020, in the midst of a pandemic and deep partisan divides.

Jill Biden assumed the role of first lady decades later than she originally envisioned.

She arrived hardened, and at times jaded, by the harsh realities of American politics and the personal tragedies her family had endured in the public eye. Yet she also stepped into the White House as a symbol of resilience and relatability — a woman fiercely protective of her family and her passions and ambitions.

By choosing to keep her teaching position at NOVA while her husband occupied the Oval Office, Jill Biden became the first first lady in American history to continue her career while in the White House. She spends her weeks crisscrossing the country, grading papers while she flies, and urging Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or comforting those whose lives have been upended by natural disasters. Then she returns to Washington to teach her twice-weekly writing classes, where her students often refer to her simply as Dr. B. She taught virtually during the pandemic and returned to the classroom, masked like her students, for the fall 2021 semester.

Elected to public office at 29, Joe Biden has been a senator, vice president, and president through tumultuous, historic times. In this book, we set out to learn what those years looked like from Jill Biden’s perspective.

Since Joe Biden has taken office, Jill Biden — like many first ladies before her — largely steers clear of active politicking and the heightened partisanship that has led millions of Americans to wrongly believe that her husband was not legitimately elected. Yet in private, she bemoans the corrosive nature of modern American politics, which has repeatedly put her family in the crosshairs.

She is, above all, a fiercely protective wife, mother, and grandmother.

She published a memoir, “Where the Light Enters,” in 2019, after her time in the Obama administration, but ours is the first book to capture her in her own words while serving as first lady.

First ladies have been a source of fascination to the American public since the nation’s founding. They have been both beloved and vilified, idolized and scrutinized. They hold no formal office and carry no official mandate from voters. In modern American politics, they are expected to have weighty policy priorities, yet also know how to stay on the right side of the imaginary line that separates them from their elected husbands.

“The first lady, at least in my research, has not been reflective all the time of what’s going on in society,” said Myra Gutin, a communications professor at Rider University who studies first ladies. “Sometimes they’re much more reflective of the time in which they were born.”

Jill Biden brings childhood values forged in the 1950s and 1960s, the experience of coming of age in the 1970s, a political life amid the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, and a Blue Star mother’s experience of the post-9/11 era. Her past informs her perspective on the present and her role as one of the world’s most prominent women. Her future, however, is deeply uncertain, interwoven with America’s heightened polarization and political uncertainty, and the legacy of her husband’s presidency. The present gives her one of the most prominent platforms in the world.