Ten Things We Learned From the Valerie Biden Owens Book

From a Washington Post story by Roxanne Roberts headlined “Ten things we learned from the new Valerie Biden Owens book”:

The president’s sister has just released her controversial new memoir, where she spills all the Biden family secrets and tells some pretty scandalous …

Oh, who are we kidding? “Growing Up Biden” is exactly what you expect: A loving tribute to Joe Biden from his only sister, loyal confidante and fierce defender. Valerie Biden Owens has been at his side for 76 years but has deliberately stayed in the background. As the mother of three children, teacher and longtime campaign manager puts it: “It’s fair to say that I lived the first forty years of my public adult life in Joe’s shadow.”

After his 50 years in politics, there’s not much the world doesn’t know about President Biden. When his sister and “best friend” decided to write a book, her older daughter asked what else Valerie and Joe had to say. “She was curious about what more we could share,” writes Valerie. “We hadn’t quite come up with anything, any big moment or anecdote that offered the key to understanding how we operate.” The best they could come up with? That one time when they disagreed about a campaign ad, but then made up within seconds and he kissed her on the forehead.

Undeterred and heavily caffeinated, we dove into the 274 pages. Here are 10 things we learned about the Biden clan.

1. The Biden clan has a unique bond

They’re a big, extended Irish Catholic family, but you already knew that. Relatives moved in and out of each other’s homes; the kids were raised by parents, aunts, uncles and anyone else who happened to be under the roof. “Our parents drilled it into our heads from birth that our most important job was to take care of each other,” she writes. “They taught us that we were a gift to one another and that our bond could never be broken.”

2. Valerie helped Joe’s campaigns by really understanding her brother

Joe is the oldest of the four Biden children: Valerie was born three years later, followed by brothers Jimmy and Frank. From the moment she was born, Valerie was his sidekick, playmate and confidante. For most of his political life, he trusted her to run his campaigns instead of consultants.

She was never, she admits, a political scientist or policy wonk. But she was an expert on Joe Biden: “He and I share the same moral compass and he looks to me to reaffirm for him what he already suspects to be true. We are both Bidens and no one else in a room full of experts knows what Mom would have thought or Dad might have done; none of them can verbally articulate what we feel in our bones to be true and why. It is from that deep well of shared experience and upbringing that I call my brother’s attention to what I think will be effective, serve as his sounding board or gut check, and speak as a truth teller.”

3. The family did what Joe needed to win

Beginning with his first campaign for the New Castle County Council in 1970, the Biden family made extraordinary sacrifices for their oldest son and brother. The young lawyer had recently purchased a home for his wife and two sons, which turned out to be just outside the district borders. His solution? Swap houses with his parents.

“After initial misgivings, they agreed,” writes his sister. “If this is what Joe needed, they would do it.” So their parents moved to North Star Road, a neat metaphor for the Biden ethos: Joe was the family’s north star, and everything pretty much revolved around him for the rest of his life.

4. Valerie jumped from high school teacher to Senate campaign manager at 26

Joe tapped his sister to be campaign manager for his first Senate race in 1972. He was 29, she was 26. No one questioned whether a high school teacher had the political chops to oversee the race because no one believed Joe had a chance in hell of winning — except the family, who threw everything they had into his candidacy. Long story short: He won by 3,163 votes, less than 2 percent of the vote. And so began the 50-year narrative that propelled Joe into the White House: Scrappy, working-class family man beats the odds and prevails.

5. Joe’s faith in colleagues is hard to shake

Six weeks after the election, his wife, Neilia, and baby daughter were killed when a truck broadsided her car. The story is well known: He thought he should resign to care for his sons, who were both injured in the accident; his colleagues urged him to stay, at least for a few months. Several senators wanted to come to a memorial service; Joe said no — but one showed up anyway: Sen. Robert Byrd West Virginia was spotted standing in the rain outside the church along with all the others who had come to pay their respects.

“The look on Joe’s face when he saw this old lion of the Senate, drenched through his clothes, was beyond politics,” writes Valerie. To this day, Joe’s ongoing faith in his Senate colleagues is based less on policy differences and more on personal moments like this.

6. When Joe’s wife died, Valerie moved into ‘the Station’

After the accident, she and her first husband moved in with Joe to care for his boys, and — after that marriage fell apart — Valerie’s second husband, Jack Owens, did the same. “Joe had bought a new house and we all moved in together — Joe, Jack, me, Hunter and Beau,” she writes. “A crowded house, you might think (that’s why we ended up calling it ‘the Station’ for all the comings and goings) but to us it was second nature.”

When Joe married Jill Jacobs, his sister moved to a house close by — but Valerie says she had a hard time giving up her role as mother to the boys. “I had to step back to let Jill fill the space.”

7. The family leans heavily on their faith

Their mother went to Mass every day, and the president attends services regularly. Valerie is a devout Catholic who says she never cared about celebrities except for the pope, whom she insisted on meeting when he visited the United States. Her brother made it happen.

Her first marriage ended in divorce at age 28, which could have been a source of contention in the family. But there were no recriminations; in fact, she was reassured by a priest: “The Catholic Church survived the Renaissance popes. It will survive Valerie Biden getting a divorce.” Her second marriage — to a law school friend of Joe’s — has lasted more than four decades.

8. Alcoholism runs in the family

It’s affected aunts and uncles and the president’s youngest brother. Which may explain why the president, famously, is a teetotaler, as is his sister. Valerie does not delve into Hunter Biden’s well-known battle with alcohol and drugs or his recovery.

9. Valerie didn’t want Joe to run in 2020

Her concern was the potential attacks on the family from Donald Trump and his supporters.

She had been Joe’s campaign manager for all of his Senate elections and for his two other presidential campaigns but could not translate the Delaware success to the national stage. She never worked for anyone else (“I was never trying to build a résumé. I just wanted to help my brother.”) so it was impossible to know if her political skills would have translated to any other candidate.

Joe’s 2020 campaign was managed by Greg Schultz and then Jen O’Malley Dillon, and it was a difficult adjustment for Valerie to go from boss to adviser. She writes: “I was asked by a reporter what it felt like not managing this final campaign and I said: ‘Damn frustrating.’”

10. Joe is still an ice cream fanatic

Recently, the president and his sister ate a White House dinner of salmon and vegetables selected by the first lady. It was not a hit with either of them.

“Damn, she makes me eat this healthy stuff all the time,” he said. He raided the fridge for lemon pound cake and ice cream, and went back an hour later for Round 2: Breyers chocolate chip ice cream, straight from the carton.

Roxanne Roberts is a reporter covering Washington’s social, political and philanthropic power brokers. She has been at The Washington Post since 1988, working for the Style section as a feature writer and columnist.

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