“We aren’t elected. We have to define this role ourselves,” said Biden during a speech in Washington honoring former first lady Barbara Bush at an event for the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. “We are thrust into the national spotlight in a way I know none of us could have anticipated.”
Biden for the first time talked publicly about how weird it was for her to have something as innocuous as her ponytail scrutinized.
“A few months ago, I went to a bakery to buy Valentine’s Day cupcakes and the fact that I wore my hair up in a scrunchie made national news. Can you believe that? I was so surprised,” she said. “As first lady, everything you say or do carries more weight. And while that can be intimidating at times, it’s also what makes this role special.”
Biden’s insight into how she views the role of presidential spouse came in tribute to Bush, a recent predecessor, whose work on behalf of literacy in America “change(d) lives for decades to come,” Biden said.
Bush, who died in 2018, formed the foundation that continues the work of her first lady initiatives. Bush’s daughter, Doro Bush Koch, serves as honorary chair of the foundation and was in the audience for Biden’s Wednesday speech.
Biden alluded to the path Bush unknowingly carved for her, and how when Bush was up against those whose political ideologies did not match those of her husband or his party, she urged Americans to respect each other’s differences instead of focusing on them.
Biden said she has recently confronted the same experiences in a country experiencing a deep and divisive political battle. Biden has traveled to 32 states as first lady, discussing topics that vary from vaccination to education and health care and poverty.
“People have asked me why. Why go to Mississippi or Alabama or Alaska – why talk to people who will never agree with you?” said Biden. “The answer is that I’m their first lady too.”
Biden noted she has attempted to overlook the constituency that greets her with anger.
“When our neighbor is sick, we don’t ask who they voted for – we just bring over soup,” she said.
Though she vented her feelings on the overarching scrutiny put on her as first lady – a direction in which she said she “never imagined my life would take me” – she did so in an effort to explain the unanticipated challenges of a job that leaves its definition to the person who holds it.
“Like Mrs. Bush, I spent a lot of time at the White House when Joe was vice president,” Biden said. “But there’s nothing that can prepare you to be first lady.”