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.
Q: The attacks set off the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Did either of you have an inkling that the mission that killed him was in the works?
JB: I didn't have a clue. Joe left early and was gone all day. Didn't come home for a meal — nothing. So I knew something was happening, but I thought it was about Libya. [When I heard,] I was grading papers and watching TV.
MO: I knew something was happening, but when it gets down to that level of secrecy, there's just a small number of people who know anything.
Q: So when did you find out?
MO: I was actually out to dinner with girlfriends, and I didn't know until I walked in the door. It was later in the evening, and Barack had his suit on, because he was going to the press conference. And I said, "What's going on?"
Q: And your reaction?
MO: I was, like, "Wow." Then I wanted to know the details: "How did it happen? Then what? And then what happened?" I was probably like every media person.
Q: Was he too hurried to explain?
MO: No, he sat down. And then I sat down and talked to Malia to make sure she was aware, because the crowds [outside the White House] were starting to form.
JB: We sat down, too. It was about 12:30 a.m. I had been waiting outside in my bathrobe, sitting on the steps of our residence, and I could hear people singing "God Bless America" in the distance. When Joe came home I said, "Did you call our kids?" And we just talked through it.
Q: There's the now-iconic picture of everybody gathered around the television screen in the Situation Room. What do you see in your husbands' expressions that others may not?
MO: You send 24 young men on a mission that you can watch but you can't do anything about. It probably felt —
MO: Surreal. And they probably felt as helpless as parents feel when they send their kids off to war.
Q: You said you sat down with Malia [who's 13]. What did you say, when all around her, people were celebrating a death?
MO: I think kids instinctively feel that ambivalence — is this good or is this bad? And then you have to explain in a way that says it's not good, but it's good. The older kids, I think, get it. It's a convoluted set of concepts. But I think they understand, when it's placed in context.
Q: The President has declared September 11 a National Day of Service and Remembrance. How do you get people to embrace it as more than a one-day wonder?
JB: Well, I think Barack has always said that this should be commemorated as an opportunity for service.
MO: And the population that AARP serves has some of the highest numbers of people who volunteer. But you don't have to wait till 9/11. We've got military families who are in need today, and our Joining Forces call to action is a way to use that wonderful time and energy and direct it toward some of these families.
Q: So how can people support Joining Forces?
MO: We're telling Americans to do what you do best. People don't have to reinvent themselves. If you live near a base, there are plenty of opportunities, whether it's throwing a baby shower for expectant mothers or doing things at the schools with military kids or offering to drive a car pool. Those things matter.
Q: And if you don't live near a base?
MO: Look within your own community. Look within your church, your kids' school. Connect with military families and find out what their needs are.
JB: I'm a community college teacher, and last year when my husband and I went to Iraq, one of the officers there told me this story about a six-year-old in his daughter's class. During a holiday program they played "Ave Maria," and the little girl just burst into tears. The teacher ran over and said, "What's the matter? Why are you crying?" And she said, "That's the song they played at my daddy's funeral. He died in Iraq."
And so when I came back, I talked to other educators, and as a result, we're close to getting 100 teachers' colleges to commit to putting into their curriculum lessons that help military children. The teachers there are also finding out about who's in their classrooms, and they're working with the PTAs. I know everybody in my classroom who's deployed, who's military, and what they're doing.
Q: You've talked enthusiastically about troop greeters.
JB: In Maine they're all senior citizens. And they greet the troops coming home, no matter what time of day or year. When my son came back into this country from Iraq, he landed in New Hampshire. And he said to me, "Mom, you have no idea how much it meant to get off that plane and look down and see two rows of veterans who were there, people saying, 'Thank you for your service, Soldier. Thank you for your service.'" And they had cell phones, and they handed them to the soldiers so that they could call home the minute they hit American soil.
Q: Let's shift gears a minute. You both have put your unique marks on your roles as First Lady and Second Lady. What was the thinking that went into how you would "be"?
Q: What about the First Lady role?
MO: My affinity and passion for military families came out of meeting many of these women while campaigning. Their stories moved me. So, like Jill, I have a big platform. We're professional women. We understand the issues. We understand the power of our positions and the delicate nature of them as well. Jill has been a U.S. Senate spouse for a very long time.
JB: My adult life. Exactly. [Laughs.]
MO: All your married life, right?
JB: Oh, yes.
MO: And I was a neophyte Senate wife. The beauty is, if you stick to your passions, the things that you really care about, then it's authentic. And that's one thing I've always said: If I'm going to do this, it has to be authentic, so that people believe you.
Q: But you're both juggling so many roles — mother, grandmom, professional, stand-in for your husband.
JB: Well, we're in unique roles. And really, I don't think there's anything I'd want to give up. I don't want to give up teaching, obviously. So I think we're blessed to be doing what we're doing.
MO: I look at it like this: If you're healthy, God willing, life is long. And there are moments when you sacrifice and you make changes that are necessary to get important things done, whether that's raising your children, following a career you love, or sacrificing for a spouse who is doing something important. I think throughout my life I've done a little bit of compromising and sacrificing and balancing for all of those. And when this is done, there's still a whole other season of my wants and needs. But right now, this is an honor and a privilege. And I think our goal is to be smart and strategic so that what we do has an impact.
JB: Speaking! I never used to speak at all. I always said Joe is the speaker of the family. I mean, I'd go to events and volunteer, but I was never a speaker. And now that has totally changed for me.
MO: For me it's sharing my husband with the world. You get a little selfish sometimes. But every time I get irritated, or feel a little lonely or tired, I just think this is our duty. These men are doing a phenomenal service, and they're doing it with dignity and calm.
Q: What about your mother? How much are you relying on her still?
MO: Oh, she's our foundation. She just is. She's that matriarch who is never too pressed about all of this, and that helps. The President is Barack, her son-in-law. And I'm Michelle, her daughter. And the most important thing in the world is to make sure that neither one of us messes up her grandchildren. [Laughs.]
JB: And she was there this morning at Grandparents Day.
MO: At Grandparents Day at our kids' schools. It is that intergenerational connection that is essential. I think that for many women who are juggling, having that mom or dad who can give the unconditional love only grandparents can give — who can let the rules slide just enough, so that kids feel they're loved, but can still hold tight to what's important, because they care so deeply about making sure that their grandchildren are decent human beings — that means the world. But Jill is doing that, too, and looking fabulous. [Laughs.] Jill is a grandmom.
Q: That's right. So if your kids are turning to you, whom do you lean on?
JB: I lost my mother two years ago, during the campaign, but I have four sisters, and I lean on them. I have great friends. I have Joe's sister, whom I'm very close to. And Joe really is my person to turn to. And our staffs — they're friends, really. It's women supporting women — a really important thing.
MO: Well, it's something that we need to work on — renewing the respect and value of public service. I think the cynicism that we naturally fall into about government affects whether a woman decides to make the level of sacrifice it takes to do this. I mean, Joe has sacrificed throughout his career and has needed a good, solid partner by his side. If a woman is in that role, she needs that same solid partner. So you've got people who have to weigh all that.
JB: And we need so much more diversity — racially, culturally. We need women to better reflect the social fabric of our society.
Q: Would either of you ever —
MO: The answer is N-O. Period, dot.
JB: No. [Laughter.] We're emphatic.
Q: That was pretty definite. And that's because?
JB: There was never a desire. I never wanted to run.
MO: I think one reason Jill and I are comfortable and happy is that we're doing what speaks to us. And what I've learned as a woman growing up, getting older, is you've got to know who you are. And a politician — it's never been who I was or wanted to be.
JB: I never took a political science course. [Laughs.]
Q: What have you learned from each other?
JB: Michelle is such a really great friend and a strong woman. I loved it when I opened the paper yesterday and saw her out there dancing with the kids for a Let's Move! thing. She has such positive energy, and she is making such a difference.
Q: You have a few years on Mrs. Obama. Have you given her any advice about living life after 50?
JB: Oh, please! [Laughs.]
MO: Let me tell you something. Jill gives whatever aging means this level of grace and excitement. She's smart, she's gorgeous, she's accomplished. She has a strong marriage. And the bonds she has built with all of her children are real. She has created a real family in the midst of Washington, D.C. She's managed to maintain that balance and still be down-to-earth.
Q: That's what AARP is all about.
MO: That's what I'm saying! Jill and I have an age difference, but [looking at] what she is doing at her age, I feel like I still have so much more to do. And that's the beauty of it — mature women are showing us that it gets even more fabulous if you've got it together and maintain your health, which Jill does. She is a runner. She is eating right. She is active and engaged. If I'm where Jill is at her age, I'm a happy camper.
Q: Add to all that your teaching, Dr. Biden. Do people treat you differently, thinking you will have political sway?
JB: No, they don't. And the students don't treat me differently. A student came into my classroom and she said, "Dr. Biden, this weekend I saw you on a magazine cover, and you were with our First Lady!" [Laughs.] So she had no idea. And I have a lot of students like that. I mean, there are a lot who do know, but you know what? They know I'm in that classroom as their English teacher, and they respect that.
Q: When people talk about you, Mrs. Obama, they often note how comfortable you are in your own skin — that you don't try to play down your roots. How important is this to your legacy?
MO: When we did a Sesame Street event in Columbus, Ohio, we did an event for military kids, and there were a lot of African American young girls out there — little black girls who were just proud because they see themselves in somebody who they think is great. And it means something. You can see it in their eyes. You can see it with the hugs and the way they hold on so tight. It matters. So I do embrace it. That said, I feel that same connection with every little child that I meet. I know so many young kids of all colors for whom Barack Obama is "their" President. I don't care what [ political] affiliation their parents are; there is something about that connection. And I think it's more than race. I think it's our age. It's our family. It's the fact that we have young children. I think there are people who see me as a mom, and they connect with that. And, yes, that's a hugely important legacy to leave. When kids feel a connection, they start to imagine their world is a bit bigger.
MO: I think we've learned an important lesson as a nation over the decades: that no matter what our political views are about war, any war, we must always rally around the troops. I think we've grown in that respect. So we don't run across people who say, "I won't help because I don't buy into this or that." People understand that this is a national responsibility, and as long as we enjoy the freedoms that 1 percent of the population protects for the other 99 percent of us, then the rest of us need to step up and make sure that their lives and their families' lives are secure. Because when soldiers come home, that's when the hard work for those families begins. We're talking about the mental health issues that come with post-traumatic stress disorder, with spouses dealing with reconnection. Someone comes home wounded, with severe burns, a lost limb. The impact of war lasts forever. So we can't turn our heads when things feel good and we feel safe. This is a forever initiative.
Q: But some of these are really big problems that the average person can't even begin to address. How does the campaign deal with those?
MO: We're reaching out to corporations. Jobs are key for the spouses, who often struggle to create a coherent work track because they move so much. Imagine if you're trying to maintain or develop a career or finish a degree. National companies like the Walmarts and the Sears have found ways to make sure spouses working within their companies can retain a post if they move within the country. Those are the kinds of creative things that every institution can do.
Q: How will you know if your campaign is a success?
MO: This will be successful if military families feel the change all around. We're not into platitudes. This is about real change on the ground. And whether it's for another two years or another six years , that's a short period of time to have impact. So we don't want to waste it.
Q: Okay, last thing — I've got to ask. There's a video of you, Mrs. Obama, doing the Dougie [a celebratory dance popularized by athletes] at a Let's Move! event. How long did it take you to learn that?
MO: Hey, I've got little kids. They're always trying something. And I happen to be very good at dance-mimicking. [Laughs.] For some reason, if I watch somebody do a move for a while, and it's not too hard or complicated or requires me to throw my leg over my head and flip, I can sort of figure it out.
JB: And I can do the twist! [Laughter.] See? It's generational. [Laughter.]
You may also like: Homes for military families in crisis. >>