Jill Biden: The Very Picture of Empathy

10 mins read

Some political commentators felt sorry for Jill Biden, given that she had to follow Michelle Obama’s powerful Monday night denunciation of Donald Trump as the Democratic convention’s second night closer. They needn’t have worried.

Even though she spent eight years as Michelle’s understudy, Biden never craved the limelight and her personal story had remained untold – at least in her own voice — until Tuesday night.

It was finally time for her to step forward, and the former second lady benefited from her previous reluctance at playing the role of political wife while pursuing her own career as a teacher away from the media spotlight. She came across as unrehearsed and real and the best advocate for her husband’s ability to do for the nation what she saw him do every day as a husband and father: pick himself up from tragedy, move on, and heal and learn to thrive again.

Without expressing a negative word against President Trump, Jill Biden made the case for replacing him in the Oval Office with someone  who has shown he knows how to work through unthinkable hardships, drawing a parallel with the current national suffering during the coronavirus pandemic.

In deeply personal terms, Joe Biden’s 69-year-old wife spoke of dual life tragedies near the beginning and end of her husband’s career – how she joined Biden’s family after the death of his first wife and daughter in a car accident nearly half a century ago and how they worked together to create their blended family in a way she could never have foreseen.

“How do you make a broken family whole? With love and understanding,” she said. “The same way you make a nation whole: with love and understanding, and with small acts of compassion; with bravery; with unwavering faith.”

“You show up for each other in big ways and small ones – again and again,” she added.

Addressing their more recent loss, she was honest about the raw pain and how her husband’s resilience and commitment helped them get through it. “After our son Beau died of cancer, I wondered if I would ever smile or feel joy again. It was summer, but there was no warmth left for me.”

But then she found her anchor — in the family she had cultivated through the years and the support and normalcy it offered.

“We found that love holds a family together. Love makes us flexible and resilient – it allows us to become more than ourselves – together,” she said. “And it can protect us from the sorrows of life. It gives us a refuge – a home.”

She credited her husband’s work ethic and resolve for helping pull the whole family through it all, said he’s committed to getting to work for the nation to overcome the health crisis’ devastating impact on the economy and the everyday lives of all Americans.

“I saw himself steel himself in the mirror, take a breath, put his shoulders back and walk out into the world empty of our son. He went back to work. That’s just who he is.”

There were times when she didn’t know how he “put one foot in front of the other and kept going,” she recalled. “But I’ve always understood why he did it: He does it for you.”

Jill Biden took some time building up to discussing her greatest sorrows before the national audience, offering her remarks live from a classroom at Brandywine High School, where she once taught English in the 1990s. Her first comments Tuesday night were more halting – perhaps because they were focused on her own feelings about the pandemic and how it has halted regular public education classes.

“The quiet is heavy. You can hear the anxiety that echoes down the empty hallways,” she said. “There’s no scent of notebooks or freshly waxed floors. The rooms are dark as the bright young faces that should fill them are now confined to boxes on a computer screen.”

While offering a return to normalcy and decency, Biden sidestepped the violent racial unrest that has ripped across the country nearly three months since George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer. Heralding the protests as a racial justice reckoning, the Democratic convention has largely papered over deaths of innocents swept up in the violence, along with the divisive defund-the-police movement it spawned.

For weeks, Trump has touted his law-and-order message and has bluntly played upon swing voters’ fears over the turmoil – especially with the critical suburban women voters both sides are courting. As Democrats have downplayed the summer’s violence, gun sale background checks have tripled, an indication that Americans are concerned for their personal security.

But as Trump and his allies have taken aim at the Democrats’ selective description of what’s happening on the streets of this country  — Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham skewered Jill Biden for failing to hold Democratic governors responsible — the onetime second lady wasn’t pretending to offer a prescription for every social ill in the United States. She was, however, telling American parents that she shares their worries about the specter of empty classrooms. She was speaking from the heart, and from experience.

Biden insisted on maintaining her own teaching career even while her husband was vice president, continuing to work at a Northern Virginia Community College during the eight years of the Obama administration. She said she has heard from many parents and relates to the frustrations and challenges they face “juggling work while they support their children’s learning” or their fear about sending their kids back to school amid coronavirus contagion worries.

“Like so many of you, I’m left asking: How do I keep my family safe?” she said.

Even with so much anxiety about people’s physical and economic health hanging in the balance, she tried to focus on the hope she believes a Biden presidency could bring.

“If you listen closely – you can hear the sparks of change in the air,” she said. “Across the country, educators, parents, first responders – Americans of all walks of life – are putting their shoulders back and fighting for each other. We haven’t given up. We just need leadership worthy of our nation. Worthy of you.”

After her remarks were over, she appeared relieved – and pleased when the newly minted nominee appeared beside her to provide a big hug. There was some debate on Twitter whether Joe Biden flubbed his first line: “Hello, everyone. I’m Jill Biden’s husband.” Some said they heard “Joe Biden’s husband” instead.

For once, the verbal tick didn’t matter. The moment was refreshingly real and sweet – and just the kind of real-time screw-up the Bidens don’t take too seriously in the grand scheme of things.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.

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