To Valerie Biden Owens, President Joe Biden’s sister and longtime campaign manager, a supportive family is the key to a successful run in politics.
Owens spoke on Tuesday at the Clinton Presidential Center during a joint meeting of the Little Rock Political Animals Club and the Rotary Club of Little Rock. During the event, which Clinton Foundation Executive Director Stephanie Streett moderated, Owens told the audience that it’s difficult to campaign without the support of loved ones.
“If I’m running for office, and unless my house, my spouse, my significant other, my parents, my children, unless they’re with me and backing me, it’s pretty hard,” she said.
Owens’ memoir “Growing Up Biden” chronicles her professional career in politics starting with her upbringing as the only daughter of the close-knit Irish Catholic Biden family. Leaving the house for school each day, Owens said the siblings’ mother would say “Remember that you are Bidens.” The children weren’t royalty, she said, but they were four kids who had one another’s backs.
According to Owens, she and Joe have been best friends her entire life. As his trusted confidante, in 1972, Owens managed the first of her brother’s seven consecutive successful campaigns for the U.S. Senate. While she also held leadership roles during his next six Senate races and two presidential runs, Owens said her brother’s first try for the Senate was her favorite.
At the time, Biden was 29 and Owens 26.
“We knew we had no power, no money, no influence,” she said.
Working as a social studies teacher at Wilmington Friends School, Owens said she encouraged her students to take what they were learning in the classroom and go out and practice as campaign volunteers.
In what the press described as “The Children’s Crusade,” she said, these students helped Biden to narrowly win the election by a margin of 3,163 votes. Owens said she believes the teenagers’ parents saw their children’s involvement and, in turn, cast their votes for her brother.
When Streett asked how she differentiated her roles as Biden’s campaign manager and sister, Owens said at the time, there were no female campaign managers.
“Women were supposed to be in politics to open and close headquarters and to answer the telephone,” Owens said. “I had it a whole lot easier than a lot of them because my brother pulled up a chair at the table.”
Owens said her brother would introduce her to the men in the room and say, “This is my sister Valerie. Whatever she says goes, and assume that I’m saying it.”
When her brother wasn’t around to stand up for her, Owens said she had to prove herself. Even during the most recent presidential campaign, she said, some men viewed her as Biden’s “token sister” or “the token woman.”
“I handled it because I did the job,” Owens said. “And, again, I have the full backing of my brother, or the boss, so that gives me a great deal of confidence.”
During the Tuesday conversation, Owens said the fundamental threads that weave the fabric of family are commitment, loyalty, love, heartbreak, disappointment and loss.
These experiences show up in her memoir, but Owens said they are universal.
“What I would think of as success is if you can pick up the book and say ‘Ah, she got me. That’s me. That’s my mom. That’s my brother,'” Owens said. “That’s what I’m looking for. That would make me feel like I did a good job.”
When Streett asked Owens the reason she wrote her memoir, Owens said she never intended to write a book. She began writing as a way to process emotions as they came up, she said.
Over the years, though, Owens’ children heard these stories, and ultimately encouraged her to write the memoir, she said. Owens said when she asked her children, “Who cares if I write a book?” They told her, “We care. Your grandchildren care.”
When Streett asked the First Sister what she plans to do next, Owens said for now, she’s celebrating the release of her book and growing accustomed to life as an author on a book tour.
Owens also shared a lesson she teaches the students of the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute, where she serves as the chair. Life has a way of interrupting plans, she said.
“You might be driving down the road, you got it all together,” Owens said. “[You think] ‘I studied and I worked hard,’ and out of nowhere, life slaps you.”
Owens said serendipity plays a role in her life. Otherwise, she said, she wouldn’t be speaking, and she wouldn’t be an author.
“I never had any thought I would be writing a book or that I would be here with you,” Owens said. “And it is a privilege to be here with you.”