The first sister
- Credit: The Washington Post via Getty Images
Donald Trump is not the only candidate in this autumns’s race for the White House to rely on his family in key advisory roles. LUCIA GRAVES profiles Valerie Biden Owens, the woman who has been at her brother’s side throughout his political career.
Ever since he was a kid running for class president, Joe Biden’s right-hand man has been a woman – and specifically, his sister, Valerie Biden Owens.
It isn’t your typical little sister who helps her older brother overcome bullying for a stutter, as legend has it Owens did, or who organises his bid to run the senior high school class. But then she isn’t your typical sister and the Bidens aren’t your typical family.
When Biden was put on safety patrol in elementary school and Valerie was misbehaving on the bus one morning, he turned in his badge rather than report his own sister.
That would seem to have been a very good career move as she returned the loyalty a thousandfold, managing his runs for county council, US senate, the White House, and even – when tragedy struck and his wife and infant daughter were killed in a car crash – the domestic duties of his household, helping him raise his two young sons.
Biden’s campaign says she isn’t giving interviews for profiles, she’s a woman who prides herself on having helped out from behind-the-scenes all her life. But people close to them say they are best friends who finish one another’s sentences.
The two have been so close for so long, it can be hard to say who made who. And in a parallel universe (or perhaps if they’d been born a generation or several later) it could have been Owens running for president with her brother’s support.
As it is, Biden is entering the final stage of the presidential campaign in the midst of a pandemic and in a moment when democracy itself seems to be on the line with more than one unshrinking woman by his side.
“My brother is used to strong women,” Owens told an NBC News interviewer recently. And personally as well as professionally, it’s easy to see what she means.
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In March a clip from Biden’s Super Tuesday victory event went viral when Jill Biden physically fought back a protester rushing her husband onstage. Then last month he chose as his running mate senator Kamala Harris, who famously took him to task in a primary debate for his record on race.
His relationship with his sister is the bedrock, and though for the first time she holds no formal role in her brother’s campaign, insiders say her influence remains profound on everything from the campaign’s messaging to communicating policy and Biden’s backstory to voters in a way that lands with emotional resonance.
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She’s also served as a sounding board in navigating his toughest decisions this election cycle, insiders say, from weighing whether to jump into the presidential race, to his choice of his running mate. And his sister is the first person he calls for a gut check, according to Marjorie Margolies, a long-time friend and former member of congress who now runs the advocacy group Women’s Campaign International, where Owens volunteers.
“There’s nothing like having someone on your campaign who you just totally trust, who knows your eccentricities, who knows what’s happened most dramatically in your family, who knows your losses and sensitivities, and Val’s that person,” Margolies told me.
Biden likes to recall at campaign stops how his sister has been on his handlebars since she was three years old, but some of the most important roles she played for him came later in life as she helped him launch a remarkable political career from unremarkable origins.
She hadn’t heard of a county council race when early in his career Biden invited her to be the campaign manager for his, as he wrote in his 2007 autobiography. But she threw herself into the work and soon “had an index card for every block in every neighbourhood”, freeing him up to spend more time with voters.
And she did it again in his longshot bid for the senate in 1972.
He was just 29 years old when he went up against an experienced two-term incumbent Cale Boggs, with a campaign operation run primarily by his family rather than seasoned operatives. He’d been written off by the political minds of the day, including by Ted Kaufman, who’d been recruited by Owens to volunteer on that fateful campaign.
“I told him that, ‘I’ll be happy to help you, but I’ve got to tell you that you have no chance of winning,’” said Kaufman, who would become one of Biden’s closest advisors and one day succeed him in the senate.
Biden was “not only young, he looked young”, Kaufman recalled in an oral history housed within the Senate Historical Office. But he was also an “extraordinary campaigner” freed up to do what he did best in no small part by the way Owens held the office fort.
Owens was extraordinary in her own right too. And years later, in 1996, she would make a strong impression on Margaret Aitken when, as a young woman just starting out in politics, she stopped by Biden’s re-election headquarters to see Owens standing on a chair talking to a sea of volunteers about campaign literature distribution – a mundane task that suddenly seemed to Aitken imbued with incredible import.
“She’s this tiny person but she had this command of the room,” Aitken, who went on to become Biden’s press secretary in congress, told me.
In Delaware, the second smallest state in the country, there’s an expectation if you’re running for elective office you’re going to be everywhere, Aitken explained, “and because Val was running his campaign, he was able to be everywhere”.
Owens has also supported Biden in domestic ways, and specifically she did so when, in December 1972, shortly after being elected to the senate, Biden got the call, informing him that his wife Neilia and one-year-old Naomi had been killed in a car accident.
At first Biden didn’t think he could assume his new role in Washington, reasoning Delaware “could always get another senator”, as he put it at the time, “but my boys can’t get another father”.
Instead, Owens dropped her work as a teacher unprompted, moving in with him to help raise his two sons while he commuted back and forth to Washington. She was also weathering her own personal turmoil, unbeknownst to him, eventually divorcing her first husband.
It was a formative time that drew the Biden family closer together, as well as a personally productive one for Owens. She’d go on to marry her current husband, Jack Owens, and gave birth to her first daughter, all before moving out of her brother’s house four years later.
“The Bidens have a saying, ‘If you have to ask, it’s too late’,” Alan Hoffman, who worked for Biden for 12 years, including as his deputy chief of staff under president Obama, told me. “They never had to ask. Val was always there.”
When Biden left the vice presidency, he trusted her with a leadership position at his foundation before operations were suspended ahead of his presidential bid, and as vice chair of the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware. Beyond her work for Biden, Owens has also spent close to two decades as executive vice president of a political consulting firm, and served as a volunteer trainer for Women’s Campaign International, where she helps hone leadership skills of women in emerging democracies.
Sometimes Biden’s professional trust in his sister has led to questions about nepotism. She was briefly appointed alternative representative to the United Nations under the Obama administration, for example. And a 2008 watchdog report from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington put him on a list of top senators paying family members, with Owens and her daughter earning nearly $55,000 from his 2002 campaign.
She has joked her only role in a Biden administration would be as “first sister”, but nobody doubts that the influence she’s always had with him will continue in some form. The two share similar values from their Catholic upbringing and Biden trusts her implicitly, friends say, not just because of her judgment but also because he knows her chief agenda is his success.
“Valerie is smart enough to be able to do anything and everything – foreign policy, domestic policy, economic policy or politics, but she is very judicious in how she influences his decisions,” said Hoffman. “She doesn’t like to interfere with folks who are working with him because she understands the importance of those relationships.”
If anything, insiders have suggested her greatest weakness is she can’t stand to listen to anyone speak ill of her family. It’s been rumoured, for instance, she had a harder time than Biden getting past Kamala Harris’s attack on her brother during the primaries.
She can be confrontational, in a manner reminiscent of Biden himself, who has threatened in the past to beat Donald Trump up in the back of a parking lot. And on one occasion, according to Aitken, Owens even threatened to throw a punch.
That happened some years ago, when Aitken ran into an old acquaintance while waiting in line for an event with Owens. After she introduced Owens as Biden’s sister, he joked that it was a good thing he hadn’t said anything mean about the then-senator Biden. “Yes,” Owens replied, according to Aitken, “because I would hate to have to punch you in front of this church.”
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