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First sister Valerie Biden Owens

·5 min read
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"I do love in hearing about your own career and your work on the campaigns, that you've been described as 'an iron fist in a cashmere glove,'" said "CBS Evening News" anchor Norah O'Donnell.

"Oh, that sounds pretty cool," replied Valerie Biden Owens. "I like that. I'll take that. Thank you. Do you want me to comment on that? (laughs) I'll just say thank you. I better leave it alone."

Owens may have the message control her big brother, President Joe Biden, sometimes lacks, but that doesn't mean she's afraid to speak her mind.

Take the code word that the Secret Service gave her: "Hurricane," she laughed. "I took that as a compliment, that I was a force of nature. But I was a good force of nature."

"And how have you been a force of nature for Joe Biden?"

"I've been a sister. That's what you have at the end of everything. You go to family."

Valerie Biden Owens stands with Vice President Joe Biden and Jill Biden during a Super Tuesday election night party at Baldwin Hills Recreation Center in Los Angeles, March 3, 2020. / Credit: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Valerie Biden Owens stands with Vice President Joe Biden and Jill Biden during a Super Tuesday election night party at Baldwin Hills Recreation Center in Los Angeles, March 3, 2020. / Credit: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Family is at the heart of her life story, now told in her memoir, "Growing Up Biden." The book is populated by her parents and three brothers, whom she calls Jimmy, Frankie and Joey.

Since age 25, she's led her brother's seven Senate races and first two bids for the presidency. Valerie Biden was the first female presidential campaign manager.

O'Donnell asked, "After years of success, you were often up against people who thought a woman couldn't, or shouldn't, run a political campaign."

"I had it a lot easier than some women," she said, "because my brother pulled up a chair to the table, which was men, [and] he said, 'This is my sister. She speaks for me. What she says, assume that I say it.'

"But then, I had to go it on my own."

"Would there be a President Joe Biden without Valerie Biden?"

"Oh, sure," Owens replied. "Joe's president because he's Joe. And I will always be the president's sister."

"That's your Catholic humility!" laughed O'Donnell.

Valerie Biden Owens with CBS News' Norah O'Donnell on the campus of the University of Delaware in Newark, home of the Biden Institute.  / Credit: CBS News
Valerie Biden Owens with CBS News' Norah O'Donnell on the campus of the University of Delaware in Newark, home of the Biden Institute. / Credit: CBS News

The campaign that cemented the Biden legend was Joe's 1972 Senate run. His unexpected victory was followed by unspeakable tragedy – a car accident that killed his wife, Neilia, and 13-month old daughter, Naomi. Sons Beau and Hunter were badly injured.

"The president said of you, 'She has not only believed in me, she helped me believe in myself,'" said O'Donnell.

"We did the improbable, winning this Senate race by 3,163 votes," Owens said. "And we had this young, promising Democratic star, who was now a young widower with his heart ripped out. And he said, 'The boys cannot get another father. The state of Delaware can get another senator.' That's when my belief in Joe was so powerful that he could do both. I said, 'Joe, you gotta do it,' because my brother is about purpose. And he needs a purpose."

The crisis gave new purpose to Valerie, too. She quit her job, and moved in to become like a parent to Joe's boys.

Valerie Biden with Hunter and Beau Biden.  / Credit: From "Growing Up Biden"
Valerie Biden with Hunter and Beau Biden. / Credit: From "Growing Up Biden"

"In spite of the tragedy, it was really a magnificent time," she said. "Beau and Hunt were two and three years old. And I remember every day saying, 'I promise you, Neilia, I'll love them like they're my own.'"

She eventually married Joe's law school friend, Jack Owens, and has three kids of her own – as well as a career as a campaign strategist and advocate for women. Today, at age 76, she chairs the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware – her, and her brother's, alma mater.

O'Donnell asked, "What does the Biden Institute do?"

"We try to educate the next generation of young leaders," she replied.

The 2020 campaign was the first she didn't manage for her brother. It was also the first she didn't want him to enter. "I believed that 2020 would be a bloody battle," she said. "The opponent, the former president, would stop at nothing. The best way to go after Joe, you know, would be go after the family.

My expectations were exceeded. But Joe said, 'I'm doin' it.'"

 / Credit: Celadon
/ Credit: Celadon

In her book she writes, "Joe was the right person at the right time to lead our country."

O'Donnell asked, "The campaign had practiced that Vice President Biden wouldn't respond, wouldn't take [Trump's] bait."

"Yeah."

But then, at the September 29, 2020 debate, Biden told Trump, "Will you just shut up, man?"

"Yeah, so, there's a time and a place!" Valerie laughed. "And it was, like, 'Enough!' I was really thrilled. I don't speak for the American people, but I believe most, many of them, said, 'Yeah! This is a bully! Stop!'"

Plain talk has its place on the campaign trail, but this past week, the world focused on nine unscripted words about Vladimir Putin, with President Biden said, "For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power."

O'Donnell asked, "Some called it a gaffe, some people called it unvarnished truth."

Valerie Biden Owens, the younger sister of President Joe Biden. / Credit: CBS News
Valerie Biden Owens, the younger sister of President Joe Biden. / Credit: CBS News

"Well, first of all, when anybody says Joe's 'gaffe,' a gaffe is he speaks the truth," Valerie said. "Joe had just come from spending the afternoon with mostly moms and their children that have been families destroyed. That's Joe. He knows what grief and that pain is."

"Do you want Joe Biden to run for president again in 2024?"

"Oh yeah. I think he's the right person at the right time for the right job," said Valerie. "So yeah, watch us."

"He'll be in his 80s?"

"Watch him."

Back at the Biden Institute campus, O'Donnell asked, "So, why would Joe Biden want to run for president again when he could come back here?"

"Because he has things still to do," said Valerie.

"And he has the stamina to do that?"

"Yes, he does. Yeah. He's good. It's not easy raising an older brother!"

For more info:

"Growing Up Biden" by Valerie Biden Owens (Celadon Books), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon and Indiebound | Author tour infoBiden Institute, University of Delaware

Story produced by Ed Forgotson and Julie Morse. Editor: Ed Givnish.

See also:

Jill Biden on being first lady ("Sunday Morning")Dr. Jill Biden on family, teaching, loss and levity ("Sunday Morning") President Joe Biden: The first year ("Sunday Morning")Hunter Biden on his memoir "Beautiful Things" and his struggles with substance abuse ("Sunday Morning")

Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad sharing life beyond cancer

Pianist Ruth Slenczynska on her life in music

Passage: In memoriam