Jill Biden, Vogue and the torture of bad timing


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Oof. The timing was unfortunate. Only days after watching her husband, the 81-year-old Joe Biden, all but dribble through the first presidential debate at CNN’s Atlanta studio, Dr Jill Biden popped up in the August issue of US Vogue. The cover finds her strong, beatific, bathed in Anna Wintour’s benedictory glow. The cover line is a doozy:  “We will decide our future.” Wait. Who will?

It has become a near rite of passage for First Ladies to sit for Vogue cover portraits. With the notable exception of Melania Trump, who was controversially never extended the privilege, most First Ladies get the call. This was Biden’s third appearance. It is, unusually, her second cover during her husband’s first term in office, a sign of Wintour’s enthusiasm for team Biden, for whom she staged a fundraiser in London last month. 

The image, shot by Norman Jean Roy, projects a typically Vogue persona: Biden’s hair is tousled to teacher-mom perfection; from her ears hang two orbs in turquoise blue. She wears a Ralph Lauren coat dress in suffrage white that conveys both power but also supplication. She looks presidential. Poised. Even so, following her husband’s catastrophic performance, one can’t help but liken her to some kind of medical assistant — “the woman in a white coat”  — or worse, the benign manager of a luxury healthcare residence.

The reaction has been staggeringly negative. I have not read through every comment posted under the cover’s launch on Instagram, but a study of the first few hundred reveals that the timing is an epic fail. Republicans are vitriolic. Democrats bewildered. There are repeated, insistent and unhinged cries of “elder abuse”. 

Meanwhile, the tiny scratching of access that has been offered by the Bidens finds Jill fizzing with democratic purpose, giving her all to her career as an educator, battling for women’s reproductive health and the campaign. “Democracy is on the line,” she repeats to women’s chapters, fundraisers and waiting fangirls: she’s busy, busy, busy trying to make the message heard. But, given the context, it feels weird and disingenuous. One snorts with laughter when one reads “Joe’s really the talker, I’m more quiet.” The interview is cut short so that she can spend time with Potus at their house in Wilmington. It’s where the couple “get to have a whole morning together, just coffee, you know, talking . . . ” says Flotus in a manner that recalls a visit to an ailing grandparent in a home. 

Editors all feel the burn of long-lead deadlines. This one feels especially sore. Everyone has a nightmare story of something happening in the dark days between a page being sent to press and its arrival on the newsstands. People bleat on about their perfect marriages only to then get divorced. Bands break up, and actors get arrested. Travel destinations are hit by natural disasters. Footballers are hailed as the “greatest player of all time” only to spend a season on the bench. There are few things grimmer than having to caveat a story with the line that this was a “last interview” because the subject has died unexpectedly. A week is a long time in politics; in the world of monthly publications, it can be an eternity. 

Vogue has form with woeful, or ill-judged, timing. Who can forget “A Rose in the Desert”, the magazine’s 2010 profile of the “wildly democratic” Asma al-Assad, wife of the dictator Bashar whose regime would begin a brutal crackdown on Syria’s non-violent protest movement shortly after publication? That article has been expunged from the web, scant print copies are still in circulation. But in the age of social media, it’s harder to eradicate an awkward cover line. Following the debate debacle, Vogue scurried back to Flotus for an update. We “will not let those 90 minutes define the four years he’s been president”, she said. “We will continue to fight.” President Biden “will always do what’s best for the country”, she added, in what has become the story’s most tantalising quote. 

I feel some sympathy for Wintour, though the shudder of Schadenfreude is rather too delicious to ignore. In this era of hyper-controlled assignments (and one can only imagine the endless negotiations that preceded this penetration of the White House circle), it’s quite delightful to see something so stage-managed go so wrong. 

I’m less enthused by the Lady Mac-Biden narrative. To suggest that Jill Biden is some power-grasping Machiavelli whispering in the ear of Potus is too boringly misogynistic a script. That said, I would love it if she would use her influence to stall the stubborn folly of her husband. And partners do hold some power. When I asked my husband if he would drop a campaign for a second term as president on my insistence, he said he would change his sweater if I told him to.

“We will decide our future.” Few words are more apposite. It’s time for Jill to have a rummage in the wardrobe and find Joe some post-presidential sweaters, too.

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