When Joe Biden was a young boy struggling with stuttering, his mother used to tell him: “Joey, remember that no one is better than you. But also remember that you are not better than any other person either.”
That message, and the values it implies, helped to make our president-elect the person he is today. I am privileged to know him and to have experienced his kindness, his warmheartedness and his desire to lift others up.
As a high school senior in in Wilmington, Delaware, my social life was spent with a group of friends who were students at the University of Delaware. One of those friends was a guy named Joe Eshbach, whose first cousin was the young Joe Biden.
When Eshbach and I married in 1983, I learned more about the Bidens.
My husband Joe had loved his Aunt Jean, Joe Biden’s mother, for the strong, loving, remarkable and inspiring woman that she was. She impressed upon her children the importance of character, family and service to others. When, in the late 1960s, my Joe needed a place to live, Biden and his first wife Nelia opened their home to him.
He stayed until shortly after their son Beau was born, then moved to Newark to attend the University of Delaware (and meet me); Biden, meanwhile, would go on to become a U.S. senator in 1973.
After Eshbach and I married, we busied ourselves with our family and careers, and when I assumed my first college presidency at Fairmont State University in West Virginia in 1996, I didn’t know Sen. Biden well. But one of my first responsibilities in the position was to travel to Washington, D.C., to pay my respects and establish a relationship with West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
On the first trip I took, and on subsequent trips to lobby on behalf of my institution, I made it a point to stop by Sen. Biden’s office. He always received me warmly, despite not knowing me all that well at the time. He graciously took me around to the offices of many highly influential members of Congress, introducing me as the president of Fairmont State University, and telling his congressional colleagues, with a broad grin on his face: “See, I always said that one day there would be a president in my family.”
Biden is down-to-earth, yes, but also incredibly impressive in his knowledge of the workings of Washington, D.C., and, more importantly, the world. It made me think that he should one day become president of the United States. Yet it seemed like a longshot, given that the senator represented the small state of Delaware.
Over the years my husband and I have been fortunate to interact periodically with Cousin Joe. We attended his mother’s funeral and the inaugural events when President Barack Obama and Vice President Biden were elected. In September 2018, when my son got married on the beach in Ocean City, Maryland, we were all surprised to see the former vice president walking along the beach by himself with no security escort, looking a bit out of place along the sand dune in a handsome suit and, of course, his signature aviator sunglasses. While we had invited him to the wedding, we had not expected that he would be able to come. As I hugged him and told him how much it meant that he had changed his speaking schedule to join us for our son’s wedding, he said: “Janet, this is about family.”
All of which is to say, Joe Biden’s priorities are in the right place.
He has endured so much profound loss over the course of his life, with the car crash deaths of his first wife and their baby daughter, and Beau’s death in 2015 from brain cancer, that I am reminded that hardship can make us stronger, can ground us and lead us to recognize the things that are truly important in life. Our nation has become so very divided, and many of us hope he will be the president who will help heal and unite us. We should all be reminded that — regardless of political party — what matters is character: Integrity, decency, civility and high ideals do matter in our elected officials.
My husband and I phoned Cousin Joe around noon on Nov. 7, the day The Associated Press and other media called the vote for President-elect Joe Biden. To our surprise, he took our call and heard our joy and expressions of best wishes. Above all, however, he wanted to hear about us, how our children and grandchildren were doing, what we were up to, what future plans we might have. He recalled the days back in the late 1990s when I was “the president in the family.” We thanked him for his public service and for his willingness to assume the incredibly difficult responsibilities that lie ahead. But again, he is unassuming and quickly turned the conversation around, telling us he was grateful for everything he had learned from my husband and me over the years. Grace, humility, character.
My family members and I pray for Joe Biden’s well-being and that of his loved ones. We wish him and members of his administration success. I smile to myself, remembering how he used to introduce me to others. Joe, you have more than earned the title of president.