Many a Washington figure expects to be addressed by his or her full name and title. Not so the nation's current Second Lady . . . Rita Braver explains why in our Cover Story.
When you watch Jill Biden shaking every hand in sight . . . stuffing gift bags for soldiers . . . inviting veterans and their families to the vice president's house, you may be tempted to say, "Isn't she nice!"
That would be a mistake!
"'Energetic,' interesting,' 'vivacious,' but 'nice' is blah. It's just too bland. So I never want to be 'nice.'"
Her friend, First Lady Michelle Obama, says Jill Biden is so much more than nice: "She's an incredibly passionate, focused woman."
"I think, after her family, you are the number one fan?" Braver asked.
"Oh yeah, I'm up there, I'm up there. But you know my husband loves her, my mom loves her, so she's got a lot of fans."
Yet to the public, 58-year old Jill Biden is the least known of the "Big Four."
"I heard a great story that you were out jogging with one of your staffers in Central Park in New York," Braver said, "and at the end you were kind of stretching, and there were Secret Service cars around . . . "
"And there were women standing all around, they said 'Who's here? Who's here? We wonder if it's somebody important?' I love that, I love that!"
But now Jill Biden has a new, high-profile role, capitalizing on her long record as a community college professor with a doctorate in education.
"That's why I've asked Dr. Biden to travel the country promoting the opportunities that community colleges offer," President Obama said at an appearance at Hudson Valley Community College in New York in September.
So, Dr. Biden . . . as she's known at the White House, though she prefers just Jill . . . tours schools like Gateway Community College in Arizona, where they showed her the latest techniques in medical education.
She made the trip on a day off, because two days a week she's still teaching English at a Washington, D.C.-area community college, where she keeps a low-key profile.
"You even ask your security detail to kind of dress down a little bit," Braver noted. "Your office is not . . . "
"I have a cubicle!" she said.
"Your cubicle is not plastered with pictures of your husband. Why?"
"Well, because I think it's important that they see me as their English teacher."
(Left: Jill Biden talks with service members and their families at Kessler Field, a U.S. Army Garrison, in Schweinfurt, Germany, on July 4, 2009.)
She may try to keep her two worlds separate (she didn't want us to tape her on the job), but she's become expert at changing personas.
"One day I was teaching my class and then I had to go to the White House right after," she said, "so literally, I took my dress to school. After my classes I went into the ladies room, changed into my outfit, got into the car, went to the White House. So there are real, you know, Superman moments!"
Jill Jacobs Biden grew up near Philadelphia, the oldest of 5 girls . . . her dad a banker, her mom a homemaker.
Briefly married and divorced after high school, she was a senior at the University of Delaware in 1975 when a young senator was pressed to by his brother to take her on a blind date:
"And Frank said, 'I know this beautiful girl, you'll love her. She was in my English class and she hates politics!'" recounted Vice President Joe Biden.
"I found him interesting, and charming, as he is," Jill Biden told Braver. "And he shook my hand good night, and that was so different from . . . "
"He didn't try to grab you."
"No, no! And at one o'clock in the morning, I called my mother and I said, 'Mom, I finally met a gentleman.' And that's what hooked me. That's what hooked me."
After dating Jill a year and a half, Joe Biden - a widower whose wife and daughter had been killed in a car crash - heard from his two young sons:
"Beau said, 'Dad, Hunter and I were thinking we should marry Jill,'" Joe Biden said. "Swear to God, true story. I didn't have the heart to tell them I'd already asked her, and she said no!
"I had to ask her five times!" he laughed.
Why did she say no?
"Because here were these little boys who had lost their mom and their sister, and I had to make sure that this marriage was going to work," Jill said. "Because I just couldn't have their hearts broken again."
They were married in 1977. He commuted to Washington, she stayed in Delaware raising the boys and Ashley, the daughter Joe and Jill Biden had together.
She also taught full time:
"I don't want to, you know, say to Joe, 'Hey, Joe, can I have a hundred bucks for this?' I think it's important for every woman to have her own money and be independent."
She hasn't been a traditional political wife, but she campaigned for her husband in his Senate races and through two unsuccessful runs for president.
Then one day in the summer of last year, Joe Biden took Jill to get a root canal. When they got back to their car, Jill recalled, "We got in, and he closed the door, and he said, 'Barack called, and asked me to be the vice president.' And I just burst into tears. And I said, 'Joe, you deserve it. I'm so happy for you.'"
"Did you take into consideration at the time how much your life would change?" Braver asked.
"Not really. I don't think you can every really know what it's like."
She says one thing that's made it easier is her relationship with Michelle Obama.
"I think we respect one another, and we have a good time together," Jill said. "I mean, she's fun. She is a fun woman to be around."
Michelle added, "She's somebody that you want to go on a shopping trip with, or, you know, the things you do, with women who are your friends, who you love to be around, who make you feel good, who have a wonderful spirit. That's Jill."
But when Jill Biden was on "Oprah" right before the inauguration, she unwittingly made some news.
"Joe had the choice of Secretary of State or Vice President," she said.
Did the statement, and the resulting response, make her think Oh, gosh, I have to be a lot more careful from now on, asked Braver.
"Well, not a lot more careful, but a little more careful," Jill said.
But she never measures her words when it comes to supporting military families. The Bidens' son Beau was in Iraq for a year. Jill Biden understands when mothers tell her I have to be strong. I can't let my son cry.
"And I say, 'Cry here with me. But you'll be strong for your son or your daughter,'" Jill said. "See, it's a ver . . . it's just an emotional thing. Because I just don't want other moms to have to go through that."
She makes time to talk to families at places like Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. She also talks about this to her husband. "Absolutely," she said.
In fact, as we learned when we flew with them aboard Air Force Two, Jill said that, 'If I want him to get my position on something, I scotch tape it to the bathroom mirror."
"Not a joke!" said Joe.
"Is that true?" Braver asked.
"Absolutely," said the vice president. "You go into my bathroom at home, or in the vice president's residence, and it'll be up on - literally, she'll scotch tape an article, she'll scotch tape something. When she's mad at me about something, about a position, she'll scotch tape it."
Well, we didn't go into the vice president's bathroom, but we did get to see the vice president's residence decorated for Christmas, and even meet their German shepherd, Champ.
And even after being here almost a year, Jill Biden - teacher, wife and mom - still seems amazed to find herself living in the center of everything.
She appears amazed in a photo of her with Joe and the Obamas. "It's almost like you're looking at the others and saying, 'Gee, what am I doing here with them?'"
"That is funny," Jill said. "It goes through my mind every day, every day. It still has a surreal quality to it. It still does."
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