Outside the sunny East Room of the White House, some 200 spouses and parents of military-service members are waiting in line. It's a slow march to the front, but nobody seems to mind: First Lady Michelle Obama and vice-presidential spouse Jill Biden have planned an elegant tea in their honor and are intent on greeting each, one by one. And so the guests present themselves. They laugh, cry, show pictures. They say, "Thank you." They whisper tales of pain and loss — "My husband came back from Iraq, then died....I lost my son....I'd like you to have this pin.…" In return, Obama and Biden offer a hug, a squeeze of the hand, a promise of prayer. And always, a "Thank you, thank you."
It's a scene the two have played out over and again during the past two years, but there's a particular poignancy to this moment: Just five days before, U.S. commandos had raided a compound in Pakistan, killing Osama bin Laden — the man behind the 9/11 attack that led to the war still rocking the lives of so many being honored this day. Biden later praises those special forces as "heroic," but really, she says, heroes are right in this room — living testaments to why, just weeks earlier, she and Obama had kicked off their Joining Forces campaign to rally support for military families.
By their lights, the idea is a no-brainer: Americans simply need to show more love for the families of those who serve. Making sure the country gets what that means (hint: it's not just about waving the flag) is now priority number one for Obama, 47, and Biden, 60. And while neither woman suffers a shortage of things to do — there's Obama's Let's Move! campaign to fight childhood obesity, and Biden's work on behalf of community colleges, for starters — it's this, they say, that most deserves their collective spark.
When AARP The Magazine sat down with them in the cozy comfort of Biden's office, the military-families campaign was top of mind. But the women also talked about 9/11, the death of Osama bin Laden, their high-profile roles in this administration, their families, aging, health, sacrifice, even running for office. At times philosophical, at times playful, Obama and Biden appeared purposeful, relaxed in each other's company — and clearly grateful for their privileged place in an extraordinary time.
Q: It's been a decade since the tragic events of 9/11. Where were you that day, and what went through your mind when the towers fell?
Jill Biden: Well, I remember I was getting ready for school. I had a 10 a.m. class to teach, and Joe was on the train going down to Washington from Wilmington. I called him and said, "You're not going to believe this." We were just shocked.
Michelle Obama: I'll never forget, because it was Malia's first day of preschool. It was a beautiful, crisp, bright day. And I remember feeling optimistic that my little girl was going off to school, and the world for her was just opening up. We were in the car, and I had NPR on and thought, "What does this mean for my daughter's life now? Has the world fundamentally been changed? Are we now a nation at war?" So for me it was about the future.