“First sister” Valerie Biden Owens’ new memoir reveals the highs and lows of her 40+ career as her brother’s political advisor.
by Melissa Jacobs
“Good morning. What do you have for me?” So begins a conversation with Valerie Biden Owens, one of the brightest stars in President Joe Biden’s constellation of accomplished women. That same polite directness enabled Owens to lead her brother’s political campaigns for more than 40 years, a journey she chronicles in her new memoir Growing Up Biden.
The book is “West Wing” meets “This Is Us” – half political drama, half family history. She’ll discuss the book during her appearance at the Free Library of Philadelphia on April 13. Owens opens the book in The White House just after her brother’s contentious 2020 election, then restarts the story in Scranton, PA where she was born into an Irish Catholic family and became a sister to three brothers. The Bidens’ hardscrabble life in Scranton is well known, but seeing it through Owens’ eyes is a different experience.
With equal parts grit and grace, Owens writes about the struggles – economic and otherwise – her family experienced. It’s part of the fabric of the Bidens’ lives, as intertwined as their religious faith. Even people who disagree with President Biden’s politics consider him to be a man of integrity, and Owens illustrates the origin of his character, often better than he does when speaking about himself. “I don’t have a Ph.D. in political science, but I have a Ph.D. in Joe Biden,” Owens says, her voice authoritative but warm. “I know my brother and his values better than anyone.”
Owens also provides a new perspective on the tragic death of Biden’s first wife and daughter in 1972, just after his first election to the U.S. Senate. Owens takes readers inside the moments that Biden learned about their death, then into St. Francis Hospital in Wilmington where, surrounded by his siblings and parents, Biden stayed by his sons’ besides until they were discharged. After that, Owens moved into her brother’s house to care for Beau and Hunter. Her description of the young boys crawling into bed with their “Aunt Val” is heartbreaking.
Having “Aunt Val” at home with his sons allowed Biden to resume his Senate duties, a sacrifice she performed willingly, even though it seems to have hastened the end of her first marriage. But Owens had her own career, one that didn’t stop even when she had her own three children with her second husband Jack Owens.
Indeed, Owens led each of her brother’s seven successful Senate races. She was one of the only female campaign strategists at the time. “But I had it a lot easier than many women of that generation,” Owens says. “The person who sat at the head of the table was my brother Joe and he was the boss. He pulled out a chair at the table for me. But when Joe left the room, I had to prove myself.”
Owens recounts several spirited battles in the book, and in conversation she gets even saucier. Talking about one hired consultant who disagreed with Owens and threatened to have his boss call her boss, i.e. Biden, Owens said, “I’ll give you his number.”
Owens won that standoff and many others. Biden made a seat for her at the table, but she held it – for decades. “We talk about women being empowered, but we always had the power,” Owens states. “A woman is the primary force of nature. We just have to create opportunities to use our powers. That’s what we work towards.”
That is part of Owens’ work as vice chair of the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware and a partner at Owens Patrick Leadership Seminars. Owens has worked extensively with Women’s Campaign International, teaching women how to organize and develop communication and political skills.
Things have improved for female leaders, Owens believes. “In my generation, there was one slot and when a woman got it, she took it. Others had to wait their turn,” she says. “What I’ve seen lately is that women are banding together, especially in mentorship and sponsorship. By mentorship, I mean, ‘Come under my wing and I’ll teach you the ropes.’ Sponsorship is all of that and, ‘Here’s an opportunity and I’ll work with you on it.’ Now, I’m seeing more sponsorship.”
In her book and in conversation, Owens bestows accolades on other power women who share that mentality and mission. Dr. Jill Biden tops that list, and Owens speaks glowingly of Michelle Obama. “She is a woman of extraordinary poise and confidence. I admire her genuineness and strength. She’s a remarkable woman.”
Despite the insights and positivity in the book, Owens noticeably skims over a few dicey topics, like her brother’s notorious flubs and Hunter Biden’s troubles. Perhaps following Michelle Obama’s lead in her memoir, Becoming, Owens hardly mentions Hillary Clinton. And like Obama, Owens keeps her remarks about Donald Trump brief while leaving no doubt about her opinion of him and his effect on the United States. In talking about cable news networks, Owens repeats one of her mother’s favorite phrases. “Water seeks its own level,” she says, echoing Obama’s famous, “When they go low, we go high.”
Indeed, Growing Up Biden is reminiscent of Becoming in that it sheds new light on well-known political figures, and from decidedly female perspectives, while making clear that these women are inspiring in their own right.
Visit Free Library of Philadelphia’s website to buy tickets to her event on Wed., April 13 at 7:30 pm.
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