Jill Biden Reflects on Barbara Bush and What It Means to Be First Lady: 'Nothing Can Prepare You'

·3 min read
Jill Biden, Barbara Bush
Jill Biden, Barbara Bush

Roy Rochlin/Getty; Cynthia Johnson/Getty Jill Biden (left), Barbara Bush

While "nothing" can prepare someone to take on the duties of first lady, it helps to have good role models, Jill Biden said this week.

Dr. Biden, 70, reflected on one first lady in particular whom she hopes to emulate in her own role: Barbara Bush.

In remarks delivered at the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy's National Summit on Adult Literacy held Wednesday, Biden said Bush "was able to use her role to change lives for decades to come."

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"Mrs. Bush reminded us that we all have a role to play as we make our communities better and stronger. And she brought Americans from all walks of life together to do just that," Biden — a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College — continued. "I hope to do the same."

Biden then spoke about her own teenage years "growing up the oldest of five girls" and spending summers "watching Phillies baseball games and waitressing at the Jersey Shore to make money for college."

"I never could have imagined where my life would take me," Biden continued. "That one day I would eat dinner on china that Bess Truman picked out so many years ago. That I would wake up surrounded by priceless pieces of history. Or look out my window to see ancient Magnolias and Maple trees—artifacts of the great minds who built our nation and changed our world."

Jill Biden; Courtesy White House
Jill Biden; Courtesy White House

White House photo by Adam Schultz First Lady Dr. Jill Biden

Noting that had previously spent time at the White House when her husband, Joe Biden, served as vice president, Dr. Biden said that, still, "there's nothing that can prepare you to be first lady."

Bush, who died in 2018 at 92, "understood the incredible power of this platform" and invited even those with differences to see her perspective, Dr. Biden said.

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She offered one example of Bush's willingness to reach across divides: a commencement speech the then-first lady gave at Wellesley College in 1990, delivered against a backdrop of controversy at the prestigious women's college.

While students had petitioned against her appearance, Bush (who was asked to deliver the speech after the graduating class' first choice of speaker, author Alice Walker, declined) opted to move forward with the appearance.

Calling Bush's speech "funny and self-deprecating," Dr. Biden noted Wednesday that one line, in particular, brought the house down.

Speaking about her role as wife to the president, Bush closed her 1990 commencement speech by telling the audience: "Who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president's spouse — and I wish him well!' "

Wellesley College graduation ceremony, Massachusetts, USA - 01 Jun 1990
Wellesley College graduation ceremony, Massachusetts, USA - 01 Jun 1990

REX/Shutterstock Barbara Bush (left) and Raisa Gorbachev in June 1990

As Dr. Biden said in her own speech this week, "There are times when the role of first lady pushes you to show up, even when it's uncomfortable — when it calls you to rise to the needs of a moment. There have been times when I'm met with anger or hurt. But I've also found that the common values that unite us are deeper than our divisions."

She continued: "We can change the world in big ways and small ones. And Mrs. Bush reminded us that we need both."

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