Doug Emhoff gets a lot of play these days. And, between his dispensing of a protestor and his tendency to refer to himself as Kamala Harris‘ “hubby” first and a lawyer second, we get it. But he and the Vice President aren’t the only couple we’ll have our eyes on come Inauguration Day.
Because we are here for Dr. Jill Biden‘s pump-up-her-man energy. Using a sign and some clever hand placement, she let the world know Nov. 7 that her husband Joe Biden had just gotten a huge work promotion, writing in her Instagram post, “He will be a President for all of our families.”
She’d seen that commitment many times across their 43 years of marriage, most notably on that June day in 2015 when just four days after he buried his eldest son Beau Biden—the 46-year-old having battled brain cancer for nearly two years, “I watched Joe shave and put on his suit. I saw him steel himself in the mirror, take a breath, put his shoulders back, and walk out into a world empty of our son,” Jill shared in her speech at August’s Democratic National Convention. “He went back to work. That’s just who he is.”
She admired the strength behind it, even as her own heart felt shattered, but she loved his reasoning even more. He did it, she explained, for those coping with illness, homelessness, abuse, those missing their military loved ones stationed abroad: “For all those people Joe gives his personal phone number to at rope lines and events,” she shared. “The ones he talks to for hours after dinner, helping them smile through their loss, letting them know that they aren’t alone.”
Because few people understand grief quite as intimately as Joe Biden.
As a 30-year-old freshly elected United States Senator, the Delaware resident had all the makings of a charmed life: A new job, having unseated a Republican incumbent, an enduring romance with his college sweetheart Neilia Hunter Biden and the perfect nuclear family with sons Beau, then 3, and Hunter Biden, then 2, and 13-month-old daughter Naomi Biden.
Then everything came to a literal crashing halt on Dec. 18, 1972, when a tractor-trailer slammed into the station wagon Neilia had used to take her three kids Christmas shopping. Neilia and Naomi were killed instantly “and they weren’t sure that my sons would live,” Joe reflected in a 2015 Yale commencement speech.
With his boys hospital-bound for months, Joe was sworn into his new position at their bedside. “The incredible bond I have with my children is the gift I’m not sure I would have had, had I not been through what I went through,” he noted in his speech, seeking out the thinnest of silver linings. “But by focusing on my sons, I found my redemption.”
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He also found love.
Three years later, Joe’s brother Frank Biden slipped him the number of a young divorcée by the name of Jill Jacobs, a senior at the University of Delaware who’d grown tired of dating “guys in jeans and clogs and T-shirts,” as she put it to Vogue in 2016. She saw Joe as, perhaps, the gentleman she’d been looking for; he saw her as salvation, a woman Neilia played a role in picking for him.
“She gave me back my life,” the 78-year-old President-elect wrote in his 2007 memoir Promises to Keep. “She made me start to think my family might be whole again.”
Taken with both the junior senator and his two young boys, the high school English teacher married Joe on June 17, 1977 in an intimate New York City ceremony that saw Beau and Hunter stand beside them at the altar. As Joe explained in his book, “The way they thought of it, the four of us were getting married.”
Thank goodness Jill is not one to place a lot of weight on first impressions.
“‘How did you get this number?’ Those were the first words I spoke to Joe when he called me out of the blue on a Saturday in 1975,” Jill, 69, noted in an August tweet. Separated from first husband Bill Stevenson, owner of a local college bar, Jill was preparing to go out with another would-be suitor when Joe took his brother’s suggestion to reach out.
“You said, ‘Do you think you could break your date?'” she told Joe in a video played at August’s Democratic National Convention. As for what happened next, she said, “Well, I called and told the guy that I had a friend in from out of town, and went out with Joe.”
From his perspective, the chemistry was instant. “I wasn’t big on the whole date scene,” he said. “But when I met Jill, I fell in love with her when I saw her.”
She was, how do we say, less certain. “He came to the door and he had a sport coat and loafers, and I thought, ‘God, this is never going to work, not in a million years,'” she recalled to Vogue. “He was nine years older than I am! But we went out to see A Man and a Woman at the movie theater in Philadelphia, and we really hit it off.”
Back at her Delaware home, “He shook my hand good night,” she continued. “I went upstairs and called my mother at 1:00 a.m. and said, ‘Mom, I finally met a gentleman.'”
Whether or not he was her gentleman took a little longer to work through.
“He said, ‘I’d really like to see you again,'” she recalled in the DNC clip of the end of that first date. “So he’s looking at his calendar, and he’s, ‘Oh, Thursday, no, no, I’m really busy…nope, I’m busy Friday…How about tomorrow?’ And I thought, ‘Buddy, you just blew your cover.'” Agreed Joe, “She’s owned me since then.”
In those initial months, Jill tried to set the pace. “She was just starting her own career,” Joe explained in his memoir of her substitute teaching gig that gave way to a full-time job at a private Catholic high school. “I think it was easier for her in the beginning of our courtship when I wasn’t thinking about marriage. We both just liked having fun with somebody again, and she wanted to keep it that way.”
Ultimately, it was the boys who pushed for more. Beau and Hunter “hit it off” with Jill from the first time they met, Joe explained, and welcomed her into the fold for all major holidays and regular weekday evenings.
“When Joe worked late, I would go over to make dinner and keep them company,” Jill shared with TIME in 2019. “I would help pick them up from school sometimes, or we’d pass an evening watching TV. We started to build our own relationship separate from their dad.”
It was enough to convince the boys they needed to take the next step. Months into the romance, “I’m brushing my teeth one morning,” Joe recalled in their DNC video, “and they came running in and Beau and Hunt said, ‘Dad, we think it’s time we married Jill.'”
His response, as he detailed in his memoir: “‘I think that’s a pretty good idea,’ I told them. I’ll never forget how good I felt at that moment.”
Jill, however, required further convincing. “I asked her to marry me five times,” he shared in their video. Responded Jill, “It wasn’t just my heart that was on the line. I loved the boys so much, I had to be sure that it had to be forever.”
Some of her concerns related to her first failed marriage. “After the disappointment of my divorce, I never wanted to feel so out of control of my heart again,” she explained to TIME. “But in the months that Joe and I were dating, that desire ran up against a new reality: I was falling in love.”
The prospect of life as a politician’s wife was daunting as well. Being with Joe already meant scheduling dates through staffers. Marrying him “would mean a life in the spotlight that I had never wanted,” she explained. “I was a college student when we’d first met, and I liked living under the radar. Joe lived with constant public visibility.”
But the biggest factor was always the boys. So as with the first, second and third proposals, she responded to the fourth—nearly two years into their courtship—by saying she wasn’t ready yet.
“Because by that time, of course, I had fallen in love with the boys, and I really felt that this marriage had to work,” she explained to Vogue. “Because they had lost their mom, and I couldn’t have them lose another mother. So I had to be 100 percent sure.”
Ultimately Joe made that part easy, supporting her graduate studies and her job as an English teacher, even attending a student production of William Shakespeare‘s King Lear. “It was done in Kabuki style and was absolutely unbearable, but he sat through the entire thing,” she told TIME. “We laughed the whole way home.”
In Joe, Jill told the magazine, she found a “good man and a caring partner,” the type of guy who drove his sons to school each morning, belting Helen Reddy‘s “You and Me Against the World” on the way. “I was unquestionably in love with him,” she continued. “He would make a great husband.”
So when he broached the subject a fifth time in the spring of 1997, dropping by her apartment en route to a Congressional trip to South Africa, she was ready. “‘Look,’ he said. ‘I’ve been as patient as I know how to be, but this has got my Irish up. Either you decide to marry me, or that’s it—I’m out. I’m not asking again,'” she recalled. “His blue eyes, normally alight, seemed clouded with gray. ‘I’m too much in love with you to just be friends.'”
He’d be gone for 10 days, she continued, but he expected a response upon his return. “‘When I come back,’ he said, ‘I need an answer, yes or no. You don’t have to tell me when. You just have to tell me if.'”
Returning to her door a week-and-a-half later, he asked for her answer. “I could see that he didn’t want to lose me, but he would walk away for his boys,” she said. “I could feel his love, and I knew it was forever, unconditional. I knew that he and the boys had my heart, and we were too intertwined now to protect ourselves from each other. Marriage license or not, we were already a family.”
Months later, it was official.
Wed by a Catholic priest at the United Nations Chapel in New York City with just 40 guests in attendance, the newly formed family of four set off on a honeymoon together, exploring Budapest and Lake Balaton in Hungary. After their vows, “I took off time to establish myself as the boys’ mom,” Jill added. “We don’t use the term step-mother.” Instead, Joe explained, the boys came up with their own delineation: “Beau and Hunt said, ‘No, we have a mom and a mommy. Our mommy died, this is our mom.'”
When Jill felt several years later that she might be expecting, “They went with me to the drugstore to get the pregnancy test,” she shared of the boys in an August CBS News interview. “It was a whole little conspiracy.” Beau and Hunter were the ones to let Joe know the brood was expanding—”Yes, they told their dad, ‘We’re having a baby!'”—and when she gave birth in June 1981, the boys were tasked with selecting her name, Ashley Blazer Biden. As Jill noted, “Our family was complete.”
Together, the two Pennsylvania natives (the eldest of five girls, Jill grew up in Willow Grove some two hours south of Joe’s childhood home in Scranton) built a life together, their brood eventually growing to include seven grandchildren and future first dogs Champ and Major.
“I never imagined at the age of 26 I would be asking myself, ‘How do you make a broken family whole?'” Jill shared in her speech at August’s convention. “Still, Joe always told the boys, ‘Mommy sent Jill to us,’ and how could I argue with her?”
And so, she continued, “We figured it out together in those big moments that would go by too fast—Thanksgiving and state championships, birthdays and weddings, and the mundane ones that we didn’t even know were shaping our lives. Reading stories piled on the couch, rowdy Sunday dinners and silly arguments, listening to the faint sounds of laughter that would float downstairs as Joe put the kids to bed every night…We found that love holds a family together.”
An avid marathon runner, the type of person determined to accomplish whatever was set in front of her, Jill collected two master’s degrees before returning to her alma mater in her 50s to collect the degree that would make her Dr. Biden, to the consternation of weak-minded men everywhere. “I never, ever doubted that anything she set her mind to, she could do,” said Joe. “I got to hand her her doctorate degree in education at the University of Delaware.”
Though Joe has long been the headliner of the family, he’s always quick to give credit to the hard-working, endlessly supportive woman behind him. The one who juggled her work as Second Lady, teaming with First Lady Michelle Obama to found Joining Forces, supporting service members returning from active duty, with her position teaching English at Northern Virginia Community College—a job she’ll continue to hold when they return to the White House Jan. 20. “I want people to value teachers and know their contributions and to lift up the profession,” she explained to CBS News.
She’s also Joe’s partner in the Biden Foundation—formed in 2017 championing a range of initiatives from LGBTQ+ rights to ending violence against women, it was temporarily suspended to maintain financially transparent while he holds office—and his chief protector, stepping in as a human shield when anti-dairy protestors rushed the stage at a March campaign event. (Plus, she not too shabby with the pranks, once climbing into an overhead bin on Air Force Two to surprise everyone on board.)
“Folks, as I said many times before, I’m Jill’s husband,” Joe noted as he took the stage in Wilmington, Delaware to deliver his Nov. 7 victory speech. “And I would not be here without the love and tireless support of Jill and my son Hunter and Ashley, my daughter, and all our grandchildren and their spouses and all our family. They’re my heart.”
When they first met all those decades ago, the future president was still figuring out how to fit all those shattered pieces back together and for 45 years, Jill has proven to be his glue.
Quite simply, as he put it to CBS News when asked the secret to their decades-long marriage, “I adore her. It sounds, gonna sound so stupid, I was saying to her the other day, when she comes down the steps and I look at her, I still, my heart still skips a beat.”
Theirs is a coupling built on just the right combination of romance, partnership and extreme gratitude. “She put us back together,” Joe said in their DNC video. “She gave me back my life, she gave us back a family.”
(Originally published Nov. 20, 2020 at 12 a.m. PT)
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