AJC Interview: Jill Biden talks joy, heartbreak and 2020 race

Jill Biden likes to live by a rule: Never let your emotions control you.

That stoic reserve has helped guide her during her husband Joe Biden’s up-and-down political career.

She refused to betray signs of weakness as Joe’s first run for president fell apart in 1988, and lived a “double life” as her son Beau battled brain cancer.

Now, as the former vice president embarks on a 2020 presidential bid, Jill Biden examines the tension between her public life as a political spouse and private persona as a college English professor in her new memoir.

The book, "Where the Light Enters." mostly skirts politics but pulses with the stories of her family's joy and heartbreak as Joe rose the political ladder.

A reserved introvert, Jill writes about how she grappled with the demands of “life in the spotlight that I had never wanted” and later the grief of losing her eldest son.

And she recounts how Joe courted her with the promise that things “will never change” - and how that broken vow set both on a course toward lives “more amazing and more unbearably difficult” than they could imagine.

Biden spoke with The Atlanta Journal Constitution ahead of her appearance Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Marcus Jewish Community Center to discuss the book. Here are excerpts of the interview, edited for clarity:

Q: How have you become more comfortable in your role in the public eye over time?

“I came at it incrementally. I was a Senate spouse for many, many years. I kept my own career. I was teaching and Joe was doing politics. I realized when we were elected vice president that I had a platform and I knew I was not going to waste my platform. It was going to focus women and girls’ education. At first, I was really unsure – I didn’t have the confidence in myself in speaking. But I thought I’d put myself out there and take a risk. And I worked at it.”

Q: What’s your philosophy to navigate work/life balance? 

“I believe that I really start with myself. I feel that exercise really balances me. Then I layer on the other obligations that I have. I’m good at separating things. When I’m in my classroom, I’m totally there. When I’m at an event, I’m totally there. And when I’m with my grandkids, my total attention is on them.”

Q: You continued your day job – teaching English at the community college – while still in the White House. What drove that decision? 

“It was absolutely the students. It was a way of keeping me grounded. I loved teaching English and giving my students confidence. The average age of a community college student is 28 years old. Its more than teaching them – If I can give them the confidence, I feel like I’m succeeding.”

Q: Your book explores the challenges of raising a blended family, and how you and your kids decided you weren’t going to be called a “step” mom. What brought that about? 

“The kids are the ones that first said it. They wanted our family to be a whole, complete family. They initiated that. In any interview, if the interviewer said step-mom, they’d pipe up and say, ‘We don’t say that.’ That’s how the kids wanted to define it.”

Q: You explore the grief of losing Beau and the resulting struggle with your faith. How has that loss changed you?

“I never gave up hope that Beau was going to live. Until he took that last breath, I felt like Beau would live. When he died, a part of me died, too. I feel like I will never be the same woman that I was before. I still struggle, and probably every parent who has lost a child struggles. Yesterday was Mother’s Day and it was really hard for me. I went to the gravesite because I was Beau’s mother, too.”

Q: How did you prepare your family for your husband’s run for president? 

“We talked to our older kids, of course, but we also called our grandchildren – we have five – and we had a meeting in the library. We said, ‘Pop is thinking about this, so many people have encouraged him to run.’ But we told them it’s going to be really hard, and if you don’t want us to do it, we won’t do it. They supported us. They said Pop has to run. To a grandchild, they all agreed. And hopefully they’ll be out on the campaign trail with us. It will be such an education for them to meet different people from all walks of life.”

Q: Joe once promised you that your life would never change, which turned out, as you wrote, to be “wildly untrue.” What has changed the most, and what has stayed the same? 

“A lot has changed, like the fact that we’re jumping back into this again. I kind of felt we were on a different journey, but now we’re on this one. Life is a journey and there have been some amazing highs and devastating lows.

“The resilience and the love my family has is the one thing that has not changed. We all support one another. That’s one thing that will never change. Love makes a family.”