When I was a child, my grandmother used to tell me in her South Carolinian drawl, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.” The refrain captured the idea that good girls like us should project a genteel, unthreatening sweetness, with no hint of our true inner lives. This advice was already dated when she gave it to me in the 1970s. I was born just late enough to more or less ignore it.

Jill Biden was born in 1951. Growing up, she probably heard some version of this saying, too, and she seems to have taken it to heart. Keeping to the blandly nice may be the guiding principle behind her book Where the Light Enters: Building a Family, Discovering Myself (2019).

Perhaps it’s unfair to expect a political memoir to be gripping, especially as this one came out on the eve of her husband’s successful run for the presidency. But Jill Biden, as the wife of a US senator, vice-president, and now president, has had a front-row seat to decades of American history—not to mention that an English professor who has taught undergraduate composition for thirty years ought to have a penchant for storytelling.

So I was disappointed that Biden’s own writing is largely unexamined, overly careful, and full of platitudes. (“This is the truest thing I know: that love makes a family whole,” she says.) In Jill’s telling, her childhood in a Philadelphia suburb was one long Leave It to Beaver episode, marred only by a maternal grandmother possessed of that great female personality flaw: she was judgmental. Family conflict and Joe’s political setbacks send Jill to the bathtub, or out for a run, but rarely to visible anger or confrontation. She skips over the Clarence Thomas hearings, the election of Donald Trump, and the stress of staying pencil-skirt skinny.

Biden casts the book as a parenting memoir (“This is the story of how Joe and I created our family—through traditions, through laughter, through the simple ways we found joy”) yet never mentions that two of the three children she raised have struggled with serious drug addiction. She avoids speaking plainly about the stigma and suffering that addiction causes.

Biden’s first-ever biographers, the AP journalists Julie Pace and Darlene Superville, met with a similar wall of pleasantness. In Jill: A Biography of the First Lady, they gripe that in their interviews Jill stuck to well-worn anecdotes and urged them to eat White House cookies. Their diligent, uncritical book tells the story of an introverted, apolitical naif who nail-bites her way through the early years of being a senator’s wife, then gradually embraces liberal politics and learns how to make a speech.

And yet the relentlessly wholesome story that Jill Biden tells about herself, and possibly to herself, doesn’t quite add up. She hitched her wagon to a man who, even when she met him in the 1970s, had world-historical ambition and was angling to become president. (Joe and his siblings openly discussed this plan, and his two brothers took Jill to dinner to be certain she was on board with it.) And she is now a barrier-breaking national figure: the first first lady in American history to hold a paid full-time job while in the White House, as a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College, and the oldest first lady in US history.

In American Woman, Katie Rogers, a reporter at The New York Times, sees Jill Biden as a one-woman force sniffing out her husband’s political enemies, bearing the Biden family grudges, and weighing in on everything from campaign strategy to cabinet hires. More recently, Jill, seventy-two, was reportedly crucial in urging her eighty-one-year-old husband to run for a second presidential term (he’d be eighty-six at the end of it), and she’s front and center trying to convince American voters—especially women—that he’s fit to serve again, and will serve everyone, not just his supporters.

Jill Biden has done all this without ever seeming calculating or ambitious. She appears to genuinely relish her role as camera-ready hostess-in-chief, fussing over the White House Christmas tree or making anodyne speeches with impossible-to-disagree-with applause lines.

But the result of her unceasing efforts to keep things nice is a certain remoteness that tends to dull interest in who she is. Though polls now show Joe nearly tied in a rematch against Trump, most voters say he’s too old to be an effective president. Jill isn’t sufficiently galvanizing to change public opinion about this. In a favorability poll a year and a half into Joe’s presidency, more than a third of respondents had no opinion of her or didn’t know who she was. Pace and Superville’s biography sold just 250 copies the week it went on sale.


It’s not just the American electorate that can’t quite figure her out. Aside from Joe’s own writings, the many Biden family memoirs barely mention Jill, maintaining a cautious—or perplexed—distance. Joe’s sister and original campaign manager, Valerie Biden Owens, writes in Growing Up Biden: A Memoir (2022) that when a twentysomething Jill joined the Biden family—a clan prone to bear hugs and loud declarations of affection—she seemed pleasant, guarded, and frustratingly indirect. “Jill had learned to speak in a circuitous way that I sometimes had to decode,” Owens writes.

In fairness, it would have been difficult for anyone to find their place in that family, which had endured so much. Two years before Jill began dating Joe, his first wife, Neilia Hunter Biden, and their one-year-old daughter, Naomi Biden, were killed when a tractor trailer smashed into their car. The couple’s sons, Hunter and Beau, then two and three years old, were in the car and survived.

Joe was thrown into a grief he would later describe as “a black hole you feel in your chest,” and in his darkest moments considered jumping off the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Instead, he plastered his Senate office with photos of Neilia and rushed home by train from Washington to Wilmington each evening to see the boys. He dated a bit but longed for a return to stability. “Basically I am a family man,” he said at the time. “I want to find a woman to adore me again.”

In 1975 Joe was at the Wilmington Airport when he noticed a photo of a blond woman in a tank top in an advertisement for New Castle County Parks and Recreation. “That’s the kind of girl I’d like to date,” Biden reportedly told his youngest brother, Frank. (Joe has told different versions of this story over the years.) “Well, why don’t you, then? I know her,” Frank said. “You’ll like her, Joe. She doesn’t like politics.”

The woman in the photo was twenty-three-year-old Jill Stevenson (née Jacobs). Joe got her number and asked her out for that same night. He showed up in a suit and drove her to Philadelphia to watch Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman, about an affair between a young widower and a beautiful, ambivalent widow.

Both Joe and Jill were photogenic white middle-class products of the Delaware Valley. But Joe, then thirty-two, was a supremely self-confident first-term senator from Delaware. He had come from far behind to defeat the entrenched Republican incumbent, J. Caleb Boggs, modeling himself on another Irish Catholic Democrat, John F. Kennedy.

Jill, born to a homemaker mother and a father who rose through the ranks in a local savings and loan association, had grown up attending patriotic parades with her registered-Republican parents. Despite coming of age in the late 1960s, Jill barely clocked the civil rights movement and the feminist struggle, and she registered as a Republican, too, effectively by default, since “I didn’t really know the difference,” as she told Pace and Superville.

At eighteen she married Bill Stevenson, a rough-around-the-edges local boy whom she’d met six months earlier at a New Jersey beach. He’d spent a semester or so playing football for the University of Delaware, then dropped out and eventually opened a club called the Stone Balloon. (He was later convicted of writing bad checks and federal bank fraud.) Their breakup devastated Jill and left her newly determined to be independent. When she met Joe, she was finishing her bachelor’s degree in English and aiming to teach in a local school.

Joe describes finding once more an “absolute attraction”; in her reserve, he saw steadiness, strength, and emotional efficiency. “Above all, Jill wasn’t going to allow herself to be swept away,” he writes in Promises to Keep (2007). He told Beau and Hunter that Neilia had sent Jill to them.

After some initial reluctance, Jill slid into the Biden family. She forged a strong bond with Joe’s elder son, Beau, who had an even-keeled, even courtly disposition. But her relationship with Hunter was more complicated. In his alternately confessional and defensive 2021 memoir Beautiful Things, which is worth reading to understand the sheer debauchery of his lifestyle leading up to the 2020 election, Hunter says it was emotionally confusing to have Jill step into the void left by his mother’s death: “It was as if someone had torn a section from a painting and replaced it with a lovely likeness.”

Joe is a teetotaler because of his family’s history of alcoholism. In this and many other things, Beau took after his father. But the wounded Hunter writes that he sneaked his first drink when he was eight, at his father’s 1978 Senate reelection party. Shortly after high school he was arrested outside a party for possessing cocaine.


Joe and Jill’s daughter, Ashley, born in 1981, apparently struggled with addiction from an early age, too. In a handwritten diary that she kept in 2019, which was stolen, sold to the conservative group Project Veritas, then later published on the website of a different group called National File, she wrote that she “started lying about addiction since age 13.”

With Joe’s lengthy commute, Jill was the children’s main caregiver, but she seems to have remained aloof from their more serious troubles. In Ashley’s diary, written while she was in her late thirties and being treated at a rehabilitation clinic in Florida, she blamed her overinvestment in romantic relationships on the contrast between Jill’s distance and Joe’s closeness and warmth. “What made me so attached?” she wrote. “My mother not emotionally available—my Father was—message—I could get love from men.”

Jill could have just played the role of senator’s wife as she reared this bruised family. Instead, and to her considerable credit, she attended graduate school classes part-time for fifteen years, while teaching high school on and off. She earned a master’s degree in education with a specialty in reading from West Chester University, then a master’s in English from Villanova and a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware.

Her professional liftoff came in 1993, when she joined the faculty of Delaware Technical Community College to teach English literature and basic composition. It was a portal into an unglamorous, less privileged side of America. Community colleges teach some 10 million people a year—over a third of all undergraduates. Many of Jill’s students were poor single mothers or immigrants who hadn’t mastered English. Most were in their twenties or thirties and worked full-time. Biden quickly felt at home. Having struggled to feel competent as a senator’s spouse and a replacement mother, “I saw myself in those students. And I knew at that point that I would be a community college professor for the rest of my career,” she writes.

Jill was also finding her way in the public sphere. Joe launched his first presidential bid in 1987, and the introverted Jill spent a summer stumping for him in Iowa. She was just starting to find her stride—she’d met a group of friendly fellow teachers there—when, at a Democratic primary debate in the state, Joe used remarks originally made by the British Labour leader Neil Kinnock without crediting him, as he had in past speeches. Reporters discovered that Joe had used parts of a speech by Robert F. Kennedy without credit and that he’d once been charged with academic plagiarism in law school. Joe withdrew from the race, leaving Jill shattered and furious. She felt that her husband had been judged unfairly, and that the media and other Democrats had gleefully piled on. She began nursing the first of many grudges on behalf of the Biden family.

“The setback had ignited a stoic, fiery streak in her,” writes Rogers. Several of Joe’s advisers were surprised that Jill had become so invested in her husband’s political success. Soon afterward, as he led efforts to block Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court, one aide heard her telling Joe, “You better win this Bork fight.” He did.

A few months later Joe was hospitalized; two aneurysms were approaching his brain. As his mother and siblings argued over his treatment, Jill—until then the obedient newcomer—stepped in, Rogers reports: “He’s my husband,” she shouted. “I should be making the decision here.” The family ceded control.

Jill’s most powerful input was on whether Joe should run for president. This was fair enough: as the wife of a serial candidate, Jill understood that she and the children would be roped into whatever adventure he undertook next. Joe, continuously smitten (he joked to aides that “good sex” was the key to a successful marriage, Rogers writes), was keen to keep her happy.

In 2003 Jill was still smarting from the 1987 race and dreading the effects of a new campaign on the family. (Hunter, by then married with three young children, was drinking heavily; he went into rehab that year.) A group of aides was in the Bidens’ living room, pressing Joe to run against George W. Bush, when Jill, who was “fuming” by the pool, grabbed a Sharpie and “drew NO on my stomach in big letters, and marched through the room in my bikini.”

As 2008 approached Joe equivocated about running again. (“I’d rather be at home making love to my wife while my children are asleep,” he reportedly told an audience.) But Jill urged Joe to run, in part to end the Iraq War. (Beau would be deployed to Iraq in October 2008.) “After almost eight years of George W. Bush, with two wars hanging over Americans’ heads,” Jill writes,

there was one thing that was clear to me: Joe needed to run. So we called a family meeting, and I basically told him it was decided—he was ready, we were ready, and we weren’t taking “maybe next time” for an answer.

Joe ran but dropped out after placing fifth in the Iowa caucuses, and eventually accepted Barack Obama’s offer to be his vice-presidential running mate.

Jill began campaigning more seriously, with her own staff, a chartered airplane, and a speaking coach. After the Obama–Biden ticket won, Jill took a full-time teaching job. She insisted that members of her Secret Service detail dress like undergraduates and that students—many of whom apparently didn’t realize that she was second lady—call her “Dr. B.” She marked papers (former students describe her as a “tough grader”) while riding on Air Force Two. A student without medical insurance said that when she developed bronchitis the second lady helped her find a doctor. “She didn’t have to do that,” the woman said. “No one else did it.”

Jill and Michelle Obama kept a cordial distance at first. Michelle was raising young children and arrived in Washington with many close friends and a pathbreaking trajectory; Jill was a grandmother effectively working a pair of jobs.

Then, in May 2015, the middle of Obama’s second term, Beau died of brain cancer. He was forty-six years old. The Obamas were among the few people who had known Beau was sick, and the families had grown closer during his nearly two years of treatment. “They had become our family,” Jill writes. Barack gave the eulogy at Beau’s funeral.

Beau’s loss set off detonations inside the Biden family. Hunter embarked on a four-year cross-country spree of despair, progressing from alcohol to nearly constant use of crack cocaine. He had an affair with Beau’s widow, prompting his wife to finally file for divorce. Around the same period he fathered a child with a woman from Arkansas whom he claims not to remember sleeping with.

In 2014 Joe was vice-president, Beau was in treatment, and Hunter had just been discharged from the Navy Reserve after testing positive for cocaine. Joe was overseeing White House policy toward Ukraine, and Hunter was named to the board of the Ukrainian gas firm Burisma, to the tune of $1 million per year. (According to Beautiful Things, Joe called Hunter to say, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”) A fifty-six-page indictment of Hunter in California alleges that between 2016 and 2019 he spent some $4.9 million, including $683,212 on “various women” and $188,960 on “adult entertainment,” but evaded taxes and filed a false return.

In 2016, reeling from Beau’s death, Hunter’s spiral, and Obama’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton, Joe ruled out running. But four years later he and Jill decided that, because of his experience, centrist views, and comparatively calm demeanor, Joe was in a strong position to defeat Donald Trump. Jill’s most trusted adviser, Anthony Bernal, became Joe’s deputy campaign manager. Jill crisscrossed Iowa and New Hampshire, asking voters, “How can I convince you?”

After Joe won, advisers warned that if Jill kept working while she was first lady she risked violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bans presidents from taking money from states. (Northern Virginia is a state school.) Joe gently broke the news that teaching might not be possible, Rogers says, so he was surprised when—in a conference call soon after the election—Jill declared that she wouldn’t just continue teaching as first lady; she’d do so full-time. She said that White House lawyers, aides, and the Secret Service would just have to sort out the details. They did: the school pays Jill’s $86,000 salary out of something called a nonprofit fund-raising account.

What did Jill achieve with her new political platform, once she finally got it? At the start of Joe’s term, she championed making community college free and personally lobbied one of the two Democratic holdouts, West Virginia senator Joe Manchin. According to Rogers, Jill told him that many of her students work two or three jobs, yet “I have kids in my classroom who don’t eat, who can’t afford books. Just last week I gave somebody a grammar book.” Manchin refused to budge, claiming that his own son—who now runs Manchin’s coal business—paid for college himself. The White House eventually dropped the measure, and Jill expressed her disappointment at a meeting of community-college leaders. “It was a real lesson in human nature,” she said.

Rogers depicts a harmonious codependence between the president and his wife: the couple typically spend evenings together in the White House residence reading their briefing books. She’s a confidante and gut check, though her influence has limits. “Stop it, stop it now, Joe,” he recently said she told him about the slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

She studies press coverage of her and Joe’s events to track any public flubs and chastises aides who let them happen. (Between Joe and Jill, aides agree, “she is the one who is not to be crossed.”) She holds her own interviews with potential hires for top jobs in the administration and polices who’s allowed into Joe’s inner circle. But in public, when she doesn’t have something nice to say, she still mostly stays mum.