We need to talk about Hunter.
And not just those egregious gigs in Ukraine and China that Joe Biden’s son accepted while his father was vice president. Now his father is president, he is the target of a criminal investigation by the Justice Department, and Hunter Biden is still not keeping his head down. Since the inauguration, we’ve learned that Biden’s younger son is publishing Beautiful Things, a memoir about his addiction (with blurbs by Stephen King and Dave Eggers), for which he was reportedly paid as much as $2 million; we have been told that he has plans to have his paintings shown at a prominent New York gallery, and he just moved into a $5.4 million house in Venice, California.
Would any of those things be likely if Hunter had a different last name?
And, to make matters worse, his father recently appointed Nicholas McQuaid to head the criminal division of the Justice Department. Before this appointment, McQuaid was a partner at Latham & Watkins and worked on several cases with another law partner in the firm, Chris Clark, the attorney Hunter hired in December to represent him in the Justice Department investigation. What was President Biden thinking?
In other words, after all the shock and rage over the Trump family’s brazen and boundless corruption, we are now facing the specter of Hunter’s messy life darkening President Biden’s first 100 days.
Biden’s younger son is publishing Beautiful Things, a memoir about his addiction (with blurbs by Stephen King and Dave Eggers), for which he was reportedly paid as much as $2 million.
We used to think Biden’s signature flaw was vanity or insecurity—the apparent hair transplants and the face-lifts, the plagiarism. But instead we may find that what thwarts him in the Oval Office is the very thing we so admired during the campaign: his unswerving devotion to his family.
It’s almost an axiom of presidential politics: Whatever it was that voters liked most about a candidate turns out to be the winner’s biggest weakness in office. On the trail, Trump’s fans found him refreshingly blunt and untamed, and those traits almost tore the country apart. Americans fell in love with Obama’s restraint, until he bailed out the banks in 2009 and didn’t get enough concessions in return. George W.’s implacable self-confidence seemed reassuring until it led him to invade Iraq. Clinton’s insatiable need to charm was disarming, until he met Monica Lewinsky. And so forth: Carter’s righteousness, Nixon’s relentlessness (right about Alger Hiss, wrong about the Democratic National Committee). It’s a parlor game that goes back to 1789.
We are now facing the specter of Hunter’s messy life darkening President Biden’s first 100 days.
It won’t help to point out that the Trump children were infinitely more venal and corrupt—that family is sui generis and impregnably shameless. But if Biden’s election represents a return to semi-normalcy, pre-Trump standards of probity come back, too. Biden will be held accountable because, unlike Trump, he actually accepts the notion of accountability.
Except when it comes to his children, for whom he reserves a fierce, unyielding loyalty—so much so that aides who delicately tried to raise concerns about Hunter’s overseas activities while Biden was vice president were shut down and shut out.
People who know Biden’s history of loss admire his dedication to his family, especially after the most recent blow of the death of his older son, Beau. Liberals tend to give Hunter a break because he was badly injured in the same 1972 accident that killed his mother and sister and because he has struggled with substance-abuse problems. When Biden said on CBS that reading his son’s memoir made him feel “like my boy’s back,” he echoed the wish of so many parents who have been down that road, again and again.
Obviously, Republicans have a knack for exploiting an opponent’s frailty and, now seething in defeat, would have found something, anything, with which to attack Biden—though the Burisma deal (Hunter took generous payments and a seat on the board of a Ukrainian oil-and-gas company) and Hunter’s connections in China, and most recently the McQuaid appointment, spare them a lot of work.
But the Hunter problem also plays into the hands of progressive Democrats, who view Biden as a senior member of a hypocritical Washington establishment that has forever favored its own and bent the rules when it suited.
Biden needs every break he can get, and every time he gives Hunter a break, Hunter wriggles his way back into the news.
Other presidents have been bedeviled by troublesome relatives—Billy Carter’s deals with Libya in the late 1970s sparked a Senate hearing into “Billygate.” When George H. W. Bush was vice president, in the 1980s, his son Neil was embroiled in the savings-and-loan scandal—and ended up settling with plaintiffs in civil court. Both Rodham brothers embarrassed Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady; Hugh accepted payment from a client who sought a pardon from Bill Clinton.
But Biden entered the White House with his son’s missteps already ablaze in right-wing media and on the Justice Department’s to-do list. And the enmity between right and left is still growing.
There’s no good answer for Biden, except to let the attorney general handle it and hope the most worrisome charges fall away. Whatever happens, Biden won’t reject his son. He doesn’t even seem able to rein him in.
So, it’s inevitable. Despite all the troubles with vaccine distribution, the incursion of coronavirus variants, unemployment rates, the QAnon-ification of the right, and so many crises overseas, we now know enough about Biden to know he won’t push Hunter out of the picture. And Hunter won’t go away.