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Dr. Jill Biden on family, teaching, loss and levity

Dr. Jill Biden on family, teaching, loss and levity
Dr. Jill Biden on family, teaching, loss and levity 09:24

It was one of the most striking scenes of campaign 2020: Jill Biden fending off a heckler who went after her husband.  

But then, Jill Biden has always stood up for her family. As she told correspondent Rita Braver, as a young girl, when someone was picking on her little sister by throwing worms at her, she knocked on the bully's door: "And I pulled back and punched him right in the face, and I said, 'Don't you ever throw worms on my sister again!'"

Decades later, she's more measured when it comes to President Trump's taunts of her husband as "Sleepy Joe."

Braver asked, "Would you call Donald Trump a bully?"

"I am not gonna call Donald Trump names," Biden replied, "because then I'm doing the exact same negative thing that he does to other people, and I won't stoop to that."

Dr. Jill Biden with correspondent Rita Braver. CBS News

That combination of grace and grit was forged in Hammonton, New Jersey, where Jill Jacobs was born in 1951.

Her dad's name, Donald Jacobs, is on the town's World War II monument. "We used to take polish, actually, and shine his name," she said.

Her mother's parents owned a pharmacy, where her mom worked behind the soda fountain. Her dad showed up, a lot.

Braver said, "He was kind of wooing your mother here, but your grandmother never really liked him?"

"Oh, no, he was – literally – from the other side of the tracks," said Biden. "She told my mother that she could not see my father."

But her parents married! And though they eventually moved away, they came back to Hammonton every weekend, with Jill and her sisters. Still, there was always a little tension, especially when it came to Sunday dinner:  "The grandmothers were kind of in competition with one another," Biden recalled. "So, we would start here at Grandmom Jacobs, we would have a typical Italian meal with bracciole. Then, Ma said, 'Wait, I made dinner, too, for you.'  We'd have to eat at both houses."

It was at the home of her paternal grandparents that Jill Jacobs first introduced the family to Joe Biden, the U.S. senator she'd been dating, a widower nine years her senior with two young sons. "My grandmother, when she saw Joe, she was so excited. I can picture her in her housecoat and her black lace-up shoes. She said, 'I am so excited to meet you!' Because she was a staunch Democrat."

Senator Joe Biden married Jill Jacobs in 1977.   Family Photo

Jill and Joe Biden were married in 1977.  She said she first fell in love with his boys, Beau and Hunter. And they were front-and-center in 1980 when she realized that she and Joe might be expecting a new baby. "They went with me to the drugstore to get the pregnancy test," Biden said. "It was a whole little conspiracy."

And they broke the news to Joe: "Yes, they told their dad, 'We're having a baby!' And I said, 'You can name the baby.'"

They chose Ashley.

But as much as Jill Biden loved being a mom, she also wanted a career. She got a doctorate in education, and has worked as a community college teacher for years, even as second lady.

"I teach a lot of immigrants, and refugees," she said. "I love their stories, I love who they are as people, and I love the fact that I can help them on their path to success."

"Do you think you'll keep teaching if you become first lady?" asked Braver.

"I hope so. I would love to. If we get to the White House, I'm gonna continue to teach. It's important, and I want people to value teachers and know their contributions, and lift up the profession."

"So, you're really planning to do it as first lady?"

"Yeah, yeah," Biden said.

At virtual campaign events,  Dr. B, as her students and staff call her, often speaks to teachers groups.

Braver asked, "Do you see yourself as someone who will be an advisor to the president?"

"It's a marriage," she replied, "and you listen to one another, you talk things out with one another."

"Have you weighed in on who you think would be a good vice president for him – and who might not be so good?"

"We've talked about the different women candidates. But it's gotta be Joe's decision – who he feels most comfortable with, who shares his values, and that's what he's always said he and Barack had."

Braver caught up with the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee last week: "What Jill is best at helping me do is figure out who the people around me would be most compatible with me," Joe Biden said. "She knows me, I think, better than I know me."

Braver asked, "What's the secret to this marriage?"

"I adore her," he replied. "It sounds, gonna sound so stupid, I was saying to her the other day, when she comes down the steps and I look at her, I still, my heart still skips a beat."

But in 2015, the couple went through the devastating loss of their son, Beau, to cancer.

Braver asked Joe, "What did it mean to you to have her at your side during this?"

"In one sense, I wish she hadn't been there, because I hated to see the pain," he replied. "We can be completely, totally open and let our grief show through with one another, and I've just been lucky to have her, as I had my son Hunter and my daughter Ashley.  They have been enormous strengths for us."

Flatiron Books

In her recent book, "Where the Light Enters," Jill Biden wrote that since Beau's death, "I'm definitely shattered. I feel like a piece of china that's been glued back together again. The cracks may be imperceptible – but they're there."

Braver asked, "You still feel broken?"

"You know, you can't lose a child and be who you [are]. You're changed forever," Jill replied. "You're not the person you were before your child's death. So, yeah, you are broken."

Still, she said, Beau wanted his dad to run for president, and she is all-in on the campaign.  But there have been plenty of bumps in the road, such as allegations that some women thought that Joe Biden had been too familiar with them.

"Well, I think it was a space issue," Jill said. "They felt that they wanted more space."

"He made them feel uncomfortable?"

"Joe realized that, and learned from it. I mean, he's totally aware of it now, and keeps his distance."

And she has watched as President Trump has tried to make their son Hunter's work in Ukraine a campaign issue. "It's a total distraction," Biden said. "We knew this, Rita, when we decided to run. But as I said to Joe, 'We have experienced the worst possible thing that could happen to us in life: We lost a child. Together we can handle anything.' And that's what we're trying to do."

Braver asked, "Do you hold a grudge against President Trump for some of the things he's said about your family?"

"I don't think he should be attacking my family," Jill said. "My family is not fair game. Joe is running against him, that's different.  Not my children."

Biden said if she becomes first lady, she'll advocate for free community college tuition, funding for cancer research, and support for military families, as she did as second lady.

Jill Biden with correspondent Rita Braver at Rehobeth Beach, Del., which the former second lady calls her "refuge." CBS News

But she will always make time for a little fun – and still laughs about a practical joke she played years ago, when she was the first to arrive at Air Force Two one day.

"I opened the overhead bin and I jumped into there," she laughed. "And then as soon as they went to open the bin, I jumped out and I scared everybody.  I think we laughed for, like, a half an hour!"

Surprise! Second lady Jill Biden pops out of the overhead bin on Air Force Two.  Courtesy Jill Biden

And if Jill Biden becomes first lady, Braver asked, "Will we see unconventional things from you?"

"I hope so – why not?" Jill replied. "Things are, they're so serious, and these times are so tough. Sometimes it takes a little levity, a little laughter to lighten things up. A little joy."

For more info:

Story produced by Jon Carras. Editor: Ed Givnish.

See also:

From 2009: Jill Biden, second lady of the land 10:08
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