April 13, 2021

Hunter Biden’s memoir of addiction is written by multiple people, and it reads like it. There is good Hunter, who is heartbroken and filled with shame, and wants to kill himself with crack cocaine. There is bad Hunter, who is angry with his father Joe, and will help good Hunter do it. (Bad Hunter is the best writer of the three, because he is the most honest.) Then there is — presumably — his father’s press team, which sticks a redemptive ending onto Beautiful Things, because that is what you do when you are heading into a presidential re-election campaign with a family member who constantly relapses on crack cocaine. Everything broken can be mended with kindness and prayer: that is Joe Biden’s personal message and his political bumper sticker, and they cannot be untangled. This book is pre-emptive surgery: the removal of Hunter’s sting. Either Joe is running in 2024 — or Hunter is.

In December 1972, Hunter’s mother Neilia was driving her three children — Beau (“Beautiful”), 3; Hunter (self-explanatory), 2; and Naomi, the baby, to buy a Christmas Tree in Delaware. Her husband Joe, newly elected to the Senate at just 29, was interviewing staff in Washington. Perhaps Neilia, with three children under 3, was exhausted. She ignored a stop sign and crashed into a tractor. Neilia and Naomi died. Beau and Hunter awoke in a hospital room. Their father was sworn into the Senate there. They subsequently lived inside the narrative of Joe’s rise to power. Willingly or not, they were seconded to public service. “Delaware’s residents placed their sorrows and their hopes in a dashing young widower suddenly left with two toddlers,” Hunter writes. “Our survival became a source of state-wide pride”. Delaware “adopted” the children. Gratitude was the only polite response.

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But it wasn’t a truthful one. Two things interest me about Hunter’s childhood. The first is that he was, in his words, “practically raised” by his aunt and uncle. He was also “raised on politics like farm kids raised on sweet corn”. So, they were raised by an extended family, or the people of Delaware, or politics. I suspect Joe was so overwhelmed by Neilia’s loss he abandoned his children for office. He took them to the Senate — where they played in the sauna — and to endless public meetings. But is that, really, presence?

He couldn’t save Neilia or Naomi, so he would save America. It isn’t exactly selfishness, but it isn’t exactly sacrifice either. It laid on his children a terrible guilt, for having childish needs. “Beau and I never really grieved the loss of our mother and baby sister,” Hunter writes. “We were almost ashamed to admit to any sadness we might have felt because of how enveloped we were in that familial embrace.” There is withholding in that kind of love. It concealed Joe’s grief, but it concealed him, too.

Hunter has the misfortune to be surrounded by saints. His father is the anti-Trump. His mother is sanctified by death. His brother Beau was saintly too: he was attorney general of Delaware, scourge of sex offenders, preparing to run for governor in 2016. (If Joe didn’t win the presidency, Beau was next in line, his father’s choice). But Beau died of brain cancer in 2015 and is likewise beyond reproach.

If you are among saints, and you are not like them, what are you? A sinner, and Hunter couldn’t exist without his better half. When Beau dies, he asks himself: “If we weren’t the three of us anymore, what were we?” His father, meanwhile, “sat on his porch for hours and took one call after another from current and former leaders from every hemisphere and every country.” This repression is the family way. Hunter and Beau never asked each other what they remembered about the accident. And here again, “Dad and I never really sat together to have a heart-to-heart, to talk about what we were going through. Words,” he writes, “almost felt risky”.

Instead, emboldened by the public response to his eulogy, he asked his wife Kathleen if he should run for office on the wave of grief and sympathy. (It’s the other family way). She replied: “Are you serious?” After that, “We didn’t say another word to each other for the rest of the ride. Or, really, ever again”. Bereft of both Beau and Kathleen, his addiction took flight.

The first part of the book deals with his childhood — the enforced gratitude for their privileges and the conditional love of the people of Delaware — and loss of Beau. This part feels stymied. Hunter describes the relationship between the three men like this: “It’s a Biden love story, of course, which means it’s complicated: tragic, humane, emotional, enduring, widely consequential, and ultimately redemptive.” They all talk like this: in broad concepts of love, loss and courage. Do they talk like this in private? They might do. How do they order soup?

There is also a defence of his business dealings in China and Ukraine, which were used to attack his father by his opponents. It’s an across-the-board denial of wrong-doing, too comprehensive and outraged in tone to feel true. But if it isn’t entirely true, he cannot say otherwise. He is, again, constricted by his father’s need for power. (There are no politics in this book at all. It is the most telling blank.)

Only in the second part — when Hunter details his relapses and half-life inside hotels rooms with criminals — is the prose alive. For using is his most vivid life, the only place where he is allowed to be angry at the things that are denied him. His writing on this is raging and horrifying. His description of his relationship with Rhea, a street homeless crack addict who moves in with him, is the best thing in the book: a bizarre and functional marriage, with crack as their beloved child.

Hunter is not long sober, if he is at all. He gave a long interview to the New Yorker in 2019 but reveals here that he was high during every interview. (He has been using, with gaps of varying length, since his father became Vice President; since he ascended to the mountain-top.) I would not comment on a fellow addict’s sobriety, but he is a Biden and therefore public property: I am invited to comment.

Hunter does not sound well. He still hates the drug dealers he was dependent on, though they were as addicted as he, and with none of his privileges. If he had what recovering addicts call emotional sobriety — or if he were truly a progressive — he would try to understand their behaviour. He married a second time, to Melissa, who had “the exact same eyes as my brother”, after knowing her for a week. He did not thank his first wife Kathleen, who suffered at his hands, in his acknowledgements. His thanks to Melissa, “the love of my life”, feel like whiplash.

And he never tells us what I most want to know as he tells of hotel tabs and hangers-on and profligacy: where did he get the money? There is a seemingly inexhaustible supply for his using. Its source is not divulged.

He is honest, though, about his love affair with his brother’s wife Hallie after Beau’s death. It was a pitiful attempt to reanimate the man they both loved. He wanted, he writes, to be close to Beau’s children: “I was seduced by the idea of providing the same kind of extended family that surrounded Beau and me after we lost our mommy and sister.” It’s a re-imagining of the extended family he was gifted to after the death of his mother, but here it feels explicitly insane.

Joe is the most interesting character in this book, of course, and he is not in this book. He is God on his mountaintop. You cannot be angry with God, though watching God try to operate amid the wreckage of his own distant benevolence is bleakly funny. How would it be if your father the Vice President arrived at your crack house with his security detail to ask: “Are you OK?” It’s a weird question to ask a child you know is using drugs. It invites a positive response, a rescuing. Hunter has none for him. Joe cries once, when Hunter runs away from an intervention: “I don’t know what else to do, I’m so scared, tell me what to do”.

Hunter emerges from this rowdy memoir not as a kind man — look to Beau and Joe for that — but as an angry man destroyed, though guiltily, by the imperatives of those he loves. Joe Biden fused his personal narrative into political success long ago because people are sentimental. It worked for the father. It does not work for the son. Here is the evidence, and in his own hand.