Jill Biden Says 'It's Time To Move On' From Anita Hill Controversy

May 7, 2019
Originally published on May 7, 2019 11:16 am

Jill Biden is accomplished in her own right — she holds two master's degrees and a doctoral degree. But then, her husband is the former vice president and a top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination for 2020.

And so while she has maintained her own career, she has also taken her husband's aspirations in stride.

As the former vice president has launched his presidential campaign, she's had to prepare for the massive commitment required for a White House run, along with the scrutiny. That has meant defending her husband against uncomfortable accusations, both old and new.

When it comes to the recently renewed controversy over how Joe Biden led the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, in which law professor Anita Hill accused Thomas of persistent sexual harassment, Jill Biden tells NPR's Rachel Martin, in part, "It's time to move on."

Biden talked to Martin about her new book, Where The Light Enters, as well as her husband's presidential run.

On Vice President Biden's role in the Clarence Thomas hearings

Joe Biden's role in the Thomas confirmation hearings is one of the darkest clouds hanging over Biden's 2020 bid. At the time of the hearings, Biden chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he has faced heavy criticism over his handling of the hearings — particularly because of corroborating witnesses who were not called to appear before the committee to back up Hill's story.

In recent weeks, Joe Biden called Anita Hill, but in an interview with The New York Times, Hill wouldn't say she considered that call an "apology." After telling ABC's The View, "I don't think I treated her badly," Biden also recently told ABC's Good Morning America, "I take responsibility that she did not get treated well. I take responsibility for that."

Biden: I watched the hearings like most other Americans, and so I mean Joe said, as I did, we believed Anita Hill. He voted against Clarence Thomas. And as he has said, I mean he's called Anita Hill, they've talked, they've spoken, and he said, you know, he feels badly. He apologized for the way the hearings were run. And so now it's kind of — it's time to move on.

Martin: Why did he wait until [just before] he was running for president to call her?

Biden: Well, I guess it was just not the right time maybe. So, he wanted to call her. I think he didn't know whether she would take his call, and he was so happy that he she did take his call, and they spoke. And I think he was, you know, I think they came to an agreement.

Martin: Did you encourage him to make that overture?

Biden: No, that was his decision.

On accusations to Vice President Biden of unwanted touching

Lucy Flores, a former Nevada Democratic assemblywoman, accused Joe Biden this year of kissing the back of her head and sniffing her hair at a 2014 event, when she was a candidate to be Nevada's lieutenant governor. It was the first of several similar accusations Biden faced in the weeks leading up to his campaign launch.

Joe Biden responded with a video saying "governing, quite frankly — life for that matter — is about connecting" — words that Jill Biden echoes here. He also said "I get it" and said he would change how he campaigns. (Shortly after that video, however, he joked about the controversy at a campaign event.)

"He connects with people. And I think that's one of his strengths. And he heard [Lucy Flores] loud and clear, and he said he would take responsibility and he would you know honor people's space.

"And I write about that in my book, when I talked about when I met the Biden family and they were different. They were a very affectionate family. My family wasn't that affectionate. So that took me a little while to get used to that, but then I saw how Joe connected with people.

And now these are different times. Joe realizes these are different times. And believe me — he's very conscious of, you know, how he interacts with men and women today."

On connecting with other parents who have lost children

Beau Biden, a son from Joe Biden's first marriage, died in 2015 after fighting brain cancer.

In her interview with NPR, Jill Biden spoke about dealing with the pain of his illness and the lessons it taught her: "I lived a double life — I spent a lot of time at the hospital, every day at the hospital, and then I have to go teach and then come back or have to go to an event and then come back to the hospital. So it was hard, and that's what I try to get across to my students — that you really acts of kindness are so important, because you never really know what's behind someone's smile."

Martin: You write that you can almost see this pain in other people and how they carry themselves.

Biden: I can.

Martin: How does it manifest?

Biden: Well, it's strange, but I think I can see it in the eyes of people when they approach me, and a lot of mothers who have lost their children do approach me. And I can see it, I can feel it even before they reach me, and it's like I wrote in the book. Like a secret handshake. It's a secret society that nobody wants to be a part of, but we offer one another comfort because we know the pain that we still feel.

On maintaining her career

Jill Biden has taught for decades, at both the high school and college level. During that career, she earned two master's degrees and then in 2007, earned her doctoral degree in educational leadership. During the Obama presidency, she continued teaching at Northern Virginia Community College.

"I always wanted a career. And so I was able to — once I established myself as the boys' mother and I think that they felt secure and loved — I decided to go back to teaching, so I sort of dipped my toe back in, I started back part-time and then I went full-time. And you know, I think that made me a happier person that I was doing my professional life, doing my career, doing what I love, my passion, and Joe always supported that.

Simply continuing to work may not seem notable, but as the Los Angeles Times reported in 2009, she is "thought to be the first second lady to hold a paying job while her husband is in office."

"I just had to keep teaching, and once we were elected I said to Joe, 'I can't do your life. I have to be true to who I am and I want to keep teaching,' and Joe said, 'Yes, you should.' So honestly, five days, seven days after the inauguration, I was in the classroom, and I taught the entire time."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You know an election's around the corner when a barrage of political memoirs start coming out. The latest belongs to Jill Biden, wife of former Vice President Joe Biden, who is running for president a third time. Jill Biden recounts some better-known stories of her life, like juggling what happens in the White House while teaching at a community college or initially rejecting Biden's many marriage proposals years ago. But she also shares some intimate anxieties, including becoming a permanent presence for Biden's two young boys after they lost their mother and baby sister in a car accident.

JILL BIDEN: I had to be 100% sure that this marriage was going to work because they had already lost one mother, and I wanted to make sure that they didn't lose a second mother, you know, through divorce. So that was really important to me.

MARTIN: Jill Biden's book is called "Where The Light Enters." And a big part of her own story is navigating the role of political spouse.

You make clear in your book that this is a family that makes decisions together. And when it comes to your husband's presidential ambitions, you haven't always thought it was the right time for him to run.

BIDEN: No.

MARTIN: You have nixed that idea before.

BIDEN: Right.

MARTIN: Why do you and your family expect things to be different this go-round?

BIDEN: Well, I know things will be different this time around. And we talked to our older children. And then just a couple weeks ago - couple months ago, we called our grandchildren together, all five of them, into the library. And we said, Pop's thinking about running. And we said to them, this is going to be hard. You've been through races before. But if you don't want this to happen, we will not do this. And, I mean, they were so enthusiastic. Yes, Pop has to run. He has to run. This is his time. And I felt like it was his time too because Joe unites people, and I think that's what this country is looking for now.

MARTIN: This presidential campaign comes at this moment in our culture where we are all paying so much more attention to allegations of sexual assault, allegations of sexual harassment. And in the week or so since your husband announced his bid for the presidency, critics have levied some claims against him, in particular revisiting his role in the 1991 Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. What do you remember of those hearings?

BIDEN: Well, I watched the hearings like most other Americans. And so, I mean, Joe said, as I did - we believed Anita Hill. He voted against Clarence Thomas. I mean, he's called Anita Hill. They've spoken. He apologized for the way the hearings were run. And so now it's kind of - it's time to move on.

MARTIN: Why did he wait until he was running for president to call her?

BIDEN: Well, I guess it was just not the right time, maybe. So he wanted to call her. I think he didn't know whether she would take his call. And he was so happy that she did take his call, and they spoke. And I think he was - you know, I think they came to an agreement.

MARTIN: A lot of people know your husband because he has been so transparent about his losses that have been immense over a lifetime, including the death of your son, Beau Biden, who died of cancer in 2015. And this is such a personal pain, and it's hard to imagine trying to endure it in the public eye. And you all went to great lengths to make sure that it was personal when he was sick and getting treatment.

BIDEN: Yeah. We really did not tell anybody and - except for Barack and Michelle. And, you know, Beau wanted to keep it private. He didn't want people to feel sorry for him. And I have to tell you, Rachel, I mean, I - as a mother, I mean, I never thought he would die. I mean, I kept that hope till the end that he was going to live, and he was going to get well. And then he was going to go run for governor. And that was the hope we had.

But we lived a double life. I spent every day at the hospital. And then I'd have to go teach and then come back or have to go to an event and then come back to the hospital. So it was hard. And that's what I try to get across to my students, you know, that acts of kindness are so important because you never really know what's behind someone's smile.

MARTIN: There is a part in the book where you describe what it is like to be bonded to other people who have lost children. And I wonder if you wouldn't mind reading a section of that.

BIDEN: Sure. (Reading) Membership to this fraternity comes with no guide, and I have no advice, no wisdom to dole out to new initiates. A friend of mine lost her son, a firefighter, in a terrible blaze. He was young with two kids. And they carried his body to the grave wrapped in an American flag. I wanted so badly to offer her words of hope or to tell her it's going to get better, but I don't know if that's true. Instead, I wrote her a note to say I was thinking about her, and that she isn't alone. That's the truest thing I can say to parents who know this impossible pain. You are not alone.

MARTIN: You write that you can almost see this pain in other people in how they carry themselves.

BIDEN: I can.

MARTIN: How does it manifest?

BIDEN: Well, it's strange. But I think I can see it in the eyes of people when they approach me. And a lot of mothers who have lost their children do approach me, and I can see it. I can feel it even before they reach me. And it's like it's a secret society that nobody wants to be a part of, but we offer one another comfort because we know the pain that we still feel.

MARTIN: So more conversations like this, more personal revelations, more scrutiny, more campaigning, having to defend your husband's record, the anxiety of a potential loss after giving so much - are you really ready to do this again (laughter)?

BIDEN: I am ready. I am ready. I wouldn't have done it...

MARTIN: Guess that's a setup question.

BIDEN: I wouldn't have done it if we weren't ready. And Joe's ready. Our family is ready. We'll do it like we've always done it. We'll do it as a family.

MARTIN: Former Second Lady Jill Biden. Her memoir "Where The Light Enters" is out today.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBIENT JAZZ ENSEMBLE'S "MY FINAL SCENE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.