Over the past five decades and 10 election campaigns—some victorious, some not—there has been one constant presence by the side of the new president-elect Joe Biden: his sister Valerie.Valerie Biden (now Valerie Biden Owens) was his campaign manager in 1972, when, at the age of 29, Biden first challenged Delaware’s two-term incumbent senator, Caleb Boggs, and squeaked out a win that made him the fifth-youngest U.S. senator in history. She was there, serving as the senator’s campaign manager, when he won his next six re-election bids. She was there during his two failed runs at the presidency, in 1988 and 2008.
And she was there this year, working as a senior campaign adviser, when her brother finally achieved his longtime, elusive goal of winning the presidency.
“She has been my best friend my entire life,” Biden wrote of Owens in his memoir Promises to Keep.
“Val is kind of the connective tissue throughout the course of the campaigns from ‘72 to today,” Biden’s deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield told BuzzFeed News, referring to Biden’s sister as the former vice president’s “emotional guardrails.”
As the Washington Post recently pointed out, Owens career has long been tied to Biden’s over the past 50 years: “She has been paid by his campaigns, become a successful consultant in their home state, given speeches on his races and held top positions with a foundation and an institute connected with him.” (Owens is currently vice chair of the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware and previously was a resident fellow at the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.)
Owens rarely gives interviews, and she declined to cooperate with either The New York Times or The Washington Post for profiles the papers published earlier this year. But this week she talked to Axios on HBO in an occasionally frank interview that is now streaming on HBO Max.
One key moment comes when Axios’s Mike Allen asks her how her brother is dealing with the refusal of Donald Trump to concede the presidency, and she dismisses it as a temporary irritation. “He’s never going to see Donald Trump again,” Owens says, referring to the day of her brother’s coming inauguration. “Donald Trump is going off the stage on January 20th … That’s history, that’s past.”
She also said that while Biden recognizes the governing struggles that lie ahead, particularly if the Senate stays in Republican hands, her brother is uniquely qualified to meet them. “He is the most experienced person to ever enter the White House in American history, because of his 36 years in the Senate and then his eight with President Obama. So he’s very clear eyed,” Owens said. She added, “He really, really believes that where we are now in this country, we have such a tremendous opportunity to make things better for all Americans.”
She also acknowledged that her brother has a tendency to speak on and on (when he was vice president, one writer dubbed him the “garrulous uncle of the current White House”) and suggested it might be something of a family trait. “We all know him as a great talker,” she said laughing. “I mean: There goes Biden again—as I’m doing right now—talking and talking. But my brother’s even a better listener.”
Owens, 74, is married to her second husband, John Owens, a lawyer and businessman who was Joe Biden’s best friend at Syracuse Law School. The couple has three children
That first Senate campaign together—when Valerie was still a teacher at Wilmington Friends School and Joe was a city councilman—cemented the siblings’ professional relationship, as well as their personal one. “A lot of people thought it was a fool’s errand,” Owens told PBS’s Frontline this summer, pointing out that Boggs “had been twice governor, twice U.S. House, and he was running for his third term.” The press dubbed it, “The Children’s Crusade.”
She added: “We weren’t running against the man. We never attacked him, nor he us. We were running for civil rights and civil liberties, for the environment, and to stop the war in Vietnam. So we were running because whatever the senator was doing, Sen. Boggs was doing, we thought were not effective in those—addressing those three problems that we looked at, that weren’t being handled the right way.”
And it was definitely a family affair. As The New York Times described it: “One brother, James Biden, took charge of raising money. Another, Frank Biden, managed volunteers. Their mother ran kaffeeklatsches. Ms. Owens’s first husband, Bruce Saunders, handled the budget.” Ted Kaufman, a former Biden aide, told the Times that Valerie Biden quickly proved a skilled campaign manager. “She was really good at the management part of the campaign,” Kaufman said. “She got a lot of quality people really super involved.”
In a decided upset, Biden won by just over 3,000 votes. But then tragedy struck. His wife Neilia and their 13-month-old daughter, Amy, were killed in a horrific car crash that also severely injured the couple’s two young sons. Though a grief-stricken Biden was on the verge of resigning his newly won seat, the Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield convinced him to stay. Biden took his oath of office by the hospital bed of his two surviving sons, Beau and Hunter. Soon after, Valerie moved into the Biden household to help raise the children, doing so with the help of the Biden parents and the two other Biden brothers.
But, as Owens told Frontline, Joe Biden had to deal with an unimaginable loss in his own way. “At nighttime, when you closed the door, he was still alone, and a widower and a single dad, no matter all the help,” she recalled. “And our friends were wonderful. The state of Delaware was wonderful. But it was a very horrible, horrible time.”
Later, in the midst of a successful career in the Senate, and after meeting and marrying Jill Jacobs, soon to be the next first lady, Biden decided to run for president in 1988 and challenge the then-incumbent George H. W. Bush. Valerie was his campaign manager, one of the first women to run the campaign of a major presidential candidate. “He was a strong, solid voice for the Democratic Party,” Owens told Frontline. “People liked him. They wanted to hear what he had to say.”
But the campaign was derailed when Biden was found to have plagiarized a speech by Neil Kinnock, a British politician. He dropped out and returned to the Senate. In 2008, he tried for the presidency again, again with Owens as his campaign manager, but dropped out after a dismal showing in Iowa, ultimately becoming Barack Obama’s running mate and then two-term vice president.
This year’s presidential campaign was run by Jen O’Malley Dillon— “This is the first time I haven’t managed the campaign, and “I want to tell you, it’s damn frustrating!” Owens reportedly joked at one campaign stop earlier this year—but Biden’s only sister remained a trusted, hands-on adviser.
“She was there beginning, middle and end; morning, noon and night,” Sen. Christopher Coons, who now holds Biden’s old Senate seat and is a longtime family friend, told The Washington Post earlier this year. “She respects and admires him, and she helps him be his best self. But she can also look him in the eye and say, ‘Don’t do this.’ She can tell him the stuff that nobody wants to hear. Because you can’t fire your sister.”