Teacher Jill Biden embraces limelight in surprise Ukraine trip

·3-min read

She prefers the classroom to the limelight, but with a surprise trip into Ukraine, First Lady Jill Biden embraced her role as the face of her husband's administration on the biggest story of the day.

Jill Biden, known in government circles by her title's acronym FLOTUS, has made history since Joe Biden took office in January 2021 simply by keeping her outside job as a teacher -- a previously unheard of determination for a first lady to maintain a normal life beyond the White House fence.

Swooping across the border Sunday from Slovakia to the town of Uzhhorod, Biden, 70, entered a different kind of history as arguably the highest-profile US visitor to Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24.

It's a journey that many foreign leaders and important US officials like Secretary of State Antony Blinken have made, but still considered too risky for Joe Biden himself. The last US first lady in a warzone was George H.W. Bush's wife, Laura, who went to Afghanistan in 2008.

And while politicians arrive in Ukraine mostly to talk about weapons, money and logistics, Jill Biden applied her personal stamp -- a Mother's Day visit where she embraced President Volodymyr Zelensky's wife Olena Zelenska, who has been in hiding for her security since the war began.

"I thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war has to stop," Jill Biden said, "and that the people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine."

Zelenska, a first lady who before the war worked on educational and gender equality issues, had previously written to Jill Biden to discuss her fears over the emotional toll for Ukrainians, a spokesman for Biden told The New York Times.

- 'I don't really care' -

Although she frequently tours on behalf of the administration domestically and now, with Ukraine, has stepped into the foreign policy realm, Jill Biden is a reluctant celebrity.

Her decision to keep teaching English at Northern Virginia Community College underpins a broad shift from the Trump years.

Jill Biden's predecessor Melania Trump came to the United States as a Slovenian fashion model, before meeting playboy real estate entrepreneur Donald Trump and, decades later, entering the White House as a style-conscious but largely distant, even frosty persona.

Melania Trump was arguably never higher profile than on a 2018 trip to the Mexican border, where Trump had ordered agents to separate arriving children from parents in a bid to dissuade illegal immigration.

But the news coverage that day would be not about the children or even indications that Melania Trump might disagree with her husband's widely criticized policy.

It became about the jacket she decided to wear, emblazoned in large letters reading "I don't really care, do u?" -- a bizarre message she said several months later was directed at press critics, not the separated children.

Jill Biden is hardly above wearing designer clothing but her day to day image is restrained and professional, in keeping with her twin roles as a professor and also anchor for the sprawling Biden family clan -- a point regularly noted by the president who likes to introduce himself as "Jill Biden's husband."

Judging by the biography "Jill," released this week, the first lady's low key approach reflects a deeper dislike for political circles ranging back decades, starting with her reluctance even to marry Joe Biden, who as a young senator proposed to her five times before getting the answer he wanted.

"Overwhelming," she says in an excerpt of the book by Associated Press journalists Julie Pace and Darlene Superville, as she recalls the day she first witnessed her new husband's life on the Senate reelection campaign trail.

"I felt like I was being pulled and tugged every which way, literally," she says. "I can remember going home, going up into the bedroom and just shutting the door."

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