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Meet the Ballston resident and White House reporter who made first ladies her beat

Darlene Superville, co-author of “Jill: A Biography of the First Lady,” poses with a copy of the book on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, in D.C. (courtesy photo)

When Ballston resident and Associated Press reporter Darlene Superville volunteered to cover then-First Lady Michelle Obama, she knew it would generate a lot of stories.

“I took it upon myself to be the primary person on my team to cover her,” she said. “She was the rage of the country. Everything she did was interesting. If she sneezed, people wanted to know.”

Little did she know that first ladies would become her beat and eventually land her a deal to co-author a book about Jill Biden.

A Ballston resident since 1994, Superville kicked off her reporting on Michelle Obama when her husband Barack Obama was inaugurated, and has since covered Melania Trump and Jill Biden. She had previously covered Laura Bush when her colleagues needed extra help.

She talked with ARLnow about the enduring interest Americans have in the wives of presidents and “Jill: A Biography of the First Lady,” a book she co-wrote with AP Executive Editor Julie Pace, with additional research done by Evelyn Duffy. The book came out last April.

“For a long time, I think the American public has been fascinated with First Ladies,” Superville said. “Even though they’re not elected, they do represent the country… There’s always a fascination with what they wear, what they do, the causes they support, the trips they take, that kind of thing. I don’t want to compare it to British royalty, but it’s on the same level.”

When Michelle Obama was First Lady, Superville said, everything she wore that was off-the-rack would sell out within hours of a public appearance.

“People want to see them with their kids if they have young children,” she said. “They’re interested in how they’re raising them, ‘Are they a good mother?’ All those sorts of questions.”

People also want to know about the wives of presidents with whom they disagree, she says.

“For example, in the case of George W. Bush and Laura, people who might not have cared for him might have wondered, ‘What does she see in that guy?'” she said. “Same with Melania and Trump.”

But Jill Biden, who sat down with Pace and Superville for three one-hour interviews, holds the interest of some Americans for different reasons.

She is the oldest woman to become First Lady, assuming the role at 69. She is the first First Lady to hold a paying job outside the White House and is relatable, Superville says. She adds that women who read the book would be interested in understanding how Jill — “one of the more active ladies in recent history” — does it all.

“She is a mother, wife, a grandmother. She’s a working woman,” Superville says. “She went through a brief skin cancer scare. Many people have gone through that as well. She lost a son to cancer in 2015. There are many people who have lost loved ones to cancer, children or other relatives.”

She will also be remembered for teaching English and writing two days a week at Northern Virginia Community College.

“There is no job description for First Lady,” Superville says, paraphrasing a quote by Lady Bird Johnson, which is the book’s epigraph. “They can do anything they want and shape it any way they want. She’s very big on empowering women and girls, and she’s taken this step to say, ‘You can be First Lady and keep your career and kind of have it all.”

Many First Ladies had given up their work or were already not working when they moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Jill Biden continues teaching, though aides told her it would impossible to do.

The accompanying title, “Dr.,” reprised a discourse from the mid-aughts about whether she should use the title despite not being a medical doctor. Whoopi Goldberg accidentally pitched Biden — who has a doctorate in education — for surgeon general in March 2020. By that December, the Wall Street Journal published a controversial op-ed calling for her to drop the honorific.

“It was curious that as soon as we got a woman and held a doctorate and is sometimes called ‘doctor’ by students, professors, journalists who cover her,” Superville said. “She went to school, she put in the time, she earned the title and if that’s what she wants, who am I to argue. The other point I’ll say about that, just from covering her, trying to talk to her, ‘Dr. B’ is a lot easier than Madame First Lady. Especially if you’re trying to get someone’s attention.”

Superville hopes her book becomes part of the historical record and source material for school assignments.

“Ten years from now, when your child is in school, and they’re asked to write a report about Jill Biden, they’ll go to the library and check out our book,” she said. “It’s reported. It’s factual. The only other book we know of that’s about the First Lady is the memoir she wrote in 2019, and that’s in her voice. It’s going to tell everything from a more rosy point of view.”

Superville hinted that she would like to update the book soon. One notable would-be addition: Jill Biden recently affirmed in an exclusive interview with Superville in Kenya that President Biden will seek reelection.

“There’s a lot since the book ended: her trip to Ukraine, her trip to Africa,” Superville said. “She had the bout with skin cancer. All those things would go into one’s biography.”

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