New Jill Biden Biography Reveals a 'Funny' and Fiercely 'Protective' Mother and Wife: She 'Saved Him'

The book also delves into the first lady's craving for normalcy, her dedication to teaching that she balances with her political duties and how she "compartmentalizes"

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. standing with his family after announcing his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. (Photo by Cynthia Johnson/Getty Images)
The Bidens with their three children . Photo: Cynthia Johnson/Getty

The first time Beau and Hunter Biden called Jill Biden "mom" occurred not long after the future first lady had married the boys' father, a young Delaware senator named Joe Biden, in 1977.

One morning Beau and Hunter, whose mother and baby sister had died in a car crash some five years earlier, ran to catch the school bus — but came back to give their dad's new wife a kiss.

"Goodbye, Mom," the kids said, according to an interview with Dr. Biden featured in Jill, a biography of her by the Associated Press' Julie Pace and Darlene Superville that was published last month.

"I didn't say a word," the first lady told the authors. "We didn't recognize it. It just happened. And from then on, I was Mom."

The title may have been new, but the educator had cared for the boys throughout her courtship with then-Sen. Biden, who went on to run for president twice before winning on his third try, in 2020.

As has been woven into family lore, it took a couple of proposals and an ultimatum from the senator himself before Jill Tracy Jacobs agreed to marry him. Her first concern was the boys, who had already lost so much.

"They had endured the loss of one mother already, and I couldn't risk having them lose another. It was them against the world. And they were asking me to join that sacred circle," she wrote in her 2019 memoir, Where the Light Enters. "They trusted me to step into their lives and give them the love and devotion that had been stolen from them. They weren't afraid that I wouldn't measure up. But I was."

Jill: A Biography of the First Lady
Little, Brown and Company

Before and after she officially became a Biden, the future first lady was witness to, champion for and protector of the family through their many successes, setbacks and even tragedies.

Her devotion and vigilance — often enacted publicly but deeply ingrained in her private self — are explored in depth in Jill, which explains how her approach in part stems from the Bidens experiencing so much heartbreak in the spotlight. (Such as her husband's two failed presidential campaigns, Beau's death from brain cancer at the age of 46 when his dad was vice president and Hunter's longtime struggle with addiction.)

The biography also delves into Dr. Biden's craving for normalcy, her dedication to teaching that she balances with her political duties and how she "compartmentalizes" in order to better navigate her life.

"I think one of the important things to know about her is she is protective of her family, she's protective of their story," co-author Pace, the AP's executive editor, tells PEOPLE.

"There's a sense that they have shared quite a bit from the more personal and painful moments of their life with the public," Pace continues. "And I think she sees herself kind of as the guardian of that family story."

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The authors say they wrote Jill: A Biography of the First Lady, which is published by Little, Brown and Company, in order to relay the first lady's "relatability" — and the inspirational elements of her story. The book is extensively reported and features interviews with some of the first lady's dearest relatives and friends.

Only late in the process of writing did the authors learn that Dr. Biden, 70, would also participate: She sat for three interviews in the East Wing of the White House in the fall, at times insisting Pace and Superville, a White House reporter at the AP, try the tea and cookies offered.

"She's funny. She can be irreverent," Pace remembers. "But, in these moments, particularly when she's talking about teaching ... [and] about being a mom or a grandmother, you can really forget that she's also a first lady and has this big spotlight. She is quite normal."

Superville concurs, calling Dr. Biden "very comfortable in her own skin."

"She walks into a room and tells people, sometimes total strangers, to call her 'Jill.' Despite her title of 'first lady,' she comes across as a person who many people can relate to, who women can relate to," Superville tells PEOPLE via email, "because she has gone through many of the things women everywhere are going through, like juggling motherhood and career."

She has kept her humor, too, Superville adds: "I didn't realize what a practical joker she is. She likes to play tricks and pranks on people. She said she always tries to find the joy in life."

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 14: (L-R) Natalie Biden, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, U.S. President Joe Biden, Hunter Biden and family friend walk on the South Lawn of the White House on March 14, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden and the First Lady were traveling from Wilmington, Delaware, where they spent the weekend with family and friends. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
President Biden and Dr. Biden with their family. Tasos Katopodis/Getty

'Very Good at Compartmentalizing'

Jill traces the first lady's story all the way back to before the Bidens, when her failed marriage to first husband Bill Stevenson, when she was still a college student, left her hurt and disappointed.

"She had these expectations of sort of what that marriage was going to be, and the marriage did not live up to those expectations," Pace says now. "She was incredibly young and probably a bit naive about what life was going to look like, and it stings her. It really stings her, and it makes her question quite a bit."

Her divorce — which Stevenson has continued to address in the media, though she declined to personally discuss it in detail with her biographers last fall — was one of many disappointments that she "compartmentalized" in order to move forward, Pace explains.

"She's very good at compartmentalizing. I think that's another moment where she did that. She kind of compartmentalizes," the author says. " 'This was a failure, and I'm really pretty devastated about it, but I'm going to compartmentalize that, and I'm going to move on, and I'm going to start building out my career.' "

Dr. Biden's ability to contain her emotions is part of what differentiates her from President Biden, 79 — and makes them a good match — her biographers say. While they're "affectionate" with each other, when they're traveling separately the president is the one who calls more. Dr. Biden, in contrast, "can be a little more independent," Pace says.

"One of the things that people said is 'I think he misses her maybe more than she misses him when they're on the road,' " Pace says. "He's always wanting to know when they're going to see each other next."

"I think she kind of saved him and his family early on and I don't think that that dynamic has ever really gone away, that she really kind of rescued him," Pace continues. "For him, to have her by his side — not just figuratively, but literally — really means something to him."

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A Near-Death Experience

Even before Jill published, the book's harrowing, inside-the-hospital account of when the future president almost died of an aneurysm in 1988 made headlines: Then-Sen. Biden's health episode also cemented his wife as matriarch of their family, as she fervently advocated for her husband.

"In the context of all of the other tragedies that they've had, this one maybe doesn't get as much attention," Pace says of the president's long-ago crisis. "But he was quite at risk in that moment, and they didn't know for a long time, even after he recovered, what his life and his career would be. It was a really long process."

The authors explain that, even decades later, Dr. Biden still gets "emotional" talking about it: She "teared up" and her "voice broke" — especially in light of having to watch her stepson Beau's own decline decades later — when remembering how her husband's parents weren't allowed to see him after he came out of emergency surgery some 35 years ago.

"Those moments stick with you," the first lady says in Jill. "I thought, how could they say [that] to his mother and his father after he almost died? We didn't know whether he was going to live. They told us he may not come through this, and then to say, you know, no, you can't see your child?"

"Sorry," she told her biographers, catching herself. "It's just emotional moments."

As Pace tells PEOPLE: "[Dr. Biden] was as emotional — and can go right back to that moment in detail — as she is about any other moment in their life. You can tell that is one where she thought she might lose him. It does still feel very raw to her, I think, when she talks about that."

A Reluctant Return to the White House

When Beau — a National Guardsman, former attorney general of Delaware and heir apparent to his father's political legacy — died too young in 2015, there was a deluge of media coverage as the then-Second Family grieved.

"It is with broken hearts that Hallie, Hunter, Ashley, Jill and I announce the passing of our husband, brother and son, Beau, after he battled brain cancer with the same integrity, courage and strength he demonstrated every day of his life," Vice President Biden said in a statement at the time.

In Jill, Pace and Superville expand on past reporting about how he decided not to run in the 2016 presidential election because he'd just lost his eldest son. They write that Dr. Biden realized her husband and the rest of their family wouldn't be ready to launch a presidential campaign by Labor Day 2015, the deadline given to them by campaign aides.

"Jill grabbed Joe's arm. 'We can't be ready by then,' she said, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting," the authors write.

Despite her hesitations, Dr. Biden was ready to stand by her husband if he decided to run. But she knew that the family didn't have the "strength" or "capacity" for such a campaign, according to Jill.

"You can't just lose a child and then think you can get out on the campaign trail and go talk to people," Dr. Biden told the authors, per the biography. "You just can't."

Pace says that one piece of information that surprised her the most about that time was Dr. Biden's reluctance to return to the White House after her son's death. While the then-vice president buried himself in work in order to "cope," his wife struggled.

"I didn't realize just how much she had withdrawn, and how for her, coming back to her office, coming back to the White House, that was not something that she was able to do easily," says Pace. "It took her a lot more time to get there. That kind of contrast between how they each handled that, to me, was really striking."

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Saul Loeb/UPI/Shutterstock (12399411ay) First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden arrive for the inauguration ceremony at the Capitol in Washington, DC on January 20, 2017. Washington DC Prepares For Presidential Inauguration, District of Columbia, United States - 20 Jan 2017
Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden in 2017. Saul Loeb/UPI/Shutterstock

An 'Emerging Friendship'

The first lady's roles as wife and mom are an important part of her story, her biographers say, but so are other bonds. In Jill, the authors write about her connection with former First Lady Michelle Obama, dating back to their early days in the White House.

Pace explains that first and second ladies don't always connect or work together — but in this case, the two women quickly decided to work together to support military families when Barack Obama was president.

"Even on the campaign trail, in the 2008 campaign, they they kind of gravitated toward each other," Pace says. "And they had similar priorities and similar interests. I think they found they could rely on each other. And truly, I mean over time, the two couples really do become quite personally close."

During the 2008 campaign, Dr. Biden was struggling because her mother was in declining health and Beau had been deployed to Iraq. Her "emerging friendship" with the future first lady was a bright point, according to the biography.

After a week-long bus tour together, Mrs. Obama gave her a hug and told her she loved her.

"I could not be more grateful for her friendship," Mrs. Obama told the authors in a statement for Jill.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock (11736376aj) President Joe Biden kisses first lady Jill Biden before boarding Marine One to visit wounded troops at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, on the South Lawn of the White House, in Washington Biden, Washington, United States - 29 Jan 2021
President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock

A Passion for Education

Dr. Biden has only been first lady for a little more than a year, but she's already made a bit of history by keeping a paying job outside of the White House. (When her former Chief of Staff Cathy Russell learned that she wanted to continue to teach while she was second lady, Russell told her she was "crazy," per the book.)

Just as Dr. Biden herself has said before, Superville and Pace explain that her work as an English professor — now at Northern Virginia Community College — is "essential."

"It's her identity. She often says teaching isn't what she does, it who she is," Superville says.

"I think that's something that will be part of her legacy, is that ability to show future first ladies or first spouses that you can maintain this independent part of your life," Pace says. "I think it's hard for me now having sort of known so much about her, to imagine her not teaching at this point. That's how essential I think it actually is to who she is."

Education has been a way for Dr. Biden to center herself — and her identity — outside of her other duties, including those to the public.

She hasn't forgotten the impossible-to-keep promise that her future husband made to her before they were married. "Oh, Jill, don't worry," she recalled Sen. Biden saying to her during his final, successful proposal. "Your life will never change."

Still, Dr. Biden has been able to carve out a life for herself as a teacher — a role that hasn't prevented her from supporting her husband or taking on the role of first lady. Pace says she has always been one of the president's "biggest advocates" and has "embrace[d]" her new position.

"I think she cares about being a good first lady and helping her husband and the administration in as many ways as she possibly can," Superville says. "She cares about education, military families, community colleges, cancer research and she is working to promote all of them. She has said that if she was fortunate enough to become first lady, she wouldn't waste it and I do think we are seeing that from her."

Even in the glare of a global spotlight, and all of its attendant scrutinies, the Bidens stick together.

"It's a marriage. She has described it that way, not as a political partnership," Superville says. "But at the same time it's hard not to look at it as a political partnership because that is the lens through which marriages between presidents and first ladies are often seen, especially knowing how involved she was in this last improbable presidential campaign of his."

She goes on: "There's a lot of love and affection between the president and first lady, a bond made stronger perhaps by the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows, packed into nearly 45 years of marriage."

Jill is out now.

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