I claim no intimate knowledge of this story beyond the soul-baring that Hunter performed with reporter Adam Entous of the New Yorker — an airing of family laundry without precedent, that I can recall, in the rollout of a presidential campaign. To that text I add the widely shared experience of an addict in the family, plus several decades spent listening to Americans talk about the people who seek to lead them.
It’s likely you already know the beginning of the story, at least through Joe’s eyes. The high point of his young life, his election to the U.S. Senate, collided fatally with the low point: a car wreck in which his young wife and daughter were killed. Two young sons, Beau and Hunter, survived the wreck — to live with the wreckage. Because let’s be real, folks, as Joe Biden likes to say: The crash took their mother, but in a real sense, that election took their father. I don’t care how many Amtrak trains the ambitious young senator caught to kiss his sons’ foreheads as they drifted off to sleep, or how many rides the boys took on the Capitol Hill subway as Dad worked. Politics is a punishing life for the children involved — presidential politics especially. And Joe Biden has always been running for president.
Beau Biden coped by making himself into a chip off the old block. That left Hunter to find his own lane. As Entous details it, the youngest Biden tried the arts, law, finance, political influence peddling. The consistent themes are booze and cocaine. The profile groans under a litany of failed rehabs.
There’s an old saying about addiction. The man takes a drink (or a sniff), then the drink takes a drink, until the drink takes the man. It will take the bystanders, too, if they let it. Addiction is ravenous. But there was always someone in Joe Biden’s life to help him out with Hunter. It’s heartwarming when family and friends swoop in to care for the boys while Daddy serves the people of Delaware. But little boys have little needs, while big boys have bigger needs.
Soon enough, directionless Hunter has a six-figure job at a bank run by Biden supporters. When Hunter grows bored, there’s another lucrative job under the tutelage of a former Biden staffer. When Hunter wants a house he can’t afford, he receives a loan for 110 percent of the purchase price. And when he goes bust, another friendly banker mops up the damage.
Then his brother Beau contracts fatal brain cancer, and the last wobbly wheels come off Hunter Biden’s fragile self. At this point, the New Yorker piece becomes a gonzo nightmare — much of it narrated by Hunter himself — of hallucinations, a car abandoned in the desert, maxed-out credit cards, a crack pipe, a strip club and a brandished gun.
If, as the magazine headline put it, Hunter Biden now jeopardizes his father’s campaign, the article makes clear Joe Biden feels a share of the blame. Yet, by the time the senator was vice president, the folks still willing to help Hunter were of a sketchier variety. There was a Chinese businessman who, Hunter said, left him a large diamond as a nice-to-meet-you gift. And a Ukrainian oligarch who hired Hunter at a princely sum to do nothing much. (Neither the firm nor Hunter Biden identified any specific contribution he made). Joe Biden’s response, according to his son, was: “I hope you know what you are doing.”
Hope! What family of an addict hasn’t fallen back to that last trench? Denial, they say, is not just a river in Egypt.
In sum, the story of the Bidens, father and son, is more pathetic than nefarious. Yet it might do damage anyway. Less privileged Americans can’t be faulted if they wonder why their addicted loved ones are on the streets or in the morgue while the vice president’s son is blessed with diamonds and sinecures. Multitudes locked up for years under Joe Biden’s crime bill might ask why the author’s son traveled the world scot-free. And sober working people making $50,000 a year may be skeptical of a system in which a vice president’s addicted son reportedly collected that sum every month.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.