February 8, 2023

The moment the Republicans have been waiting for has finally arrived: today, House Oversight Committee hearings will start their investigation into the shady business dealings of Hunter Biden. Though Republican leaders insist that their efforts will ultimately be focused on uncovering a connection to Joe Biden, claiming that the President is “chairman of the board” of an illicit Biden family enterprise, in practice, the hearings are meant to expose and publicise the sins of the son as a means of damaging the father, and hurting his re-election chances in 2024.

As former Trump chief strategist Steven Bannon said, “I don’t care about Hunter’s feelings. This is war.” Hunter is treating it as such and has been preparing a legal counteroffensive in the form of his own threats of prosecution and defamation lawsuits against prominent conservatives. With these opening moves, the battle lines of the 118th Congress have been set, and Americans can expect to hear more and more about Hunter and his laptop (and all its tawdry contents) in the months ahead. Whatever else Joe Biden hopes to accomplish in the second half of his term, his administration will now be weighed down by the need to fight a daily rearguard battle against a Republican House determined to illustrate just how far his second son has fallen from grace.

Occasions like this may help to remind Americans of how their forebears came to found a government rooted, at least in theory, in a rejection of monarchical and aristocratic principles. Members of the founding generation apparently even rejoiced that the father of the nation, George Washington, could not father any children of his own. Many, including Washington himself, saw his infertility as a providential blessing on America’s republican experiment, lest the general’s heirs form the basis of a new kingly dynasty or, more likely, trade in the prestige of the Washington name for personal profit. Which is precisely the charge that today’s Republicans have levelled against the Bidens and the Clintons, and what Democrats have, in turn, accused the Trump children and in-laws of doing.

What Tolstoy wrote about unhappy families rings truer still for political families. Though patricians and political dynasties are — despite its professed ideals — as old as America itself, no one among them has yet written a manual for how to manage the merciless pressures of public life, which inevitably strain the bonds that are supposed to hold families together as well as keep them grounded. Furthermore, the often grossly uneven distribution of talent within such dynasties (which may produce an abundance of leadership traits in one child and a total absence of them in another) leads to expectations that are impossible to fulfil and throws the inadequacies of the “failson” into even starker relief. Indeed, the term “failson” may be a recent coinage, but the archetype it describes — “an incompetent, unsuccessful middle-class or upper-class man who is protected from… duress by his family’s wealth or influence” — is an all too familiar sight in the annals of American politics. Hunter Biden may be its ultimate Platonic form but presidential history furnishes plenty of examples of this dynamic.

Theodore Roosevelt had to deal with the alcoholic excesses of brother Elliott (father of Eleanor), whom he called “a maniac, morally [and] mentally” before his untimely death; the Kennedys had one fabled generation with Jack, Bobby, and Ted, only for Camelot to be inherited by a largely mediocre and often no less controversy-prone successor generation. Among George H.W. Bush’s sons, it was widely assumed that Jeb would take the mantle of leadership while eldest George W. was “the family clown” who threatened to disgrace the Bush name with beer-fuelled antics (to his credit, George W. overcame his alcoholism, became the 43rd president, and managed to disgrace the Bush name while sober). Donald Nixon, Billy Carter, and the Rodham brothers, all with their own questionable business ventures, can similarly stake a claim to being their family’s designated failsons.

But perhaps the most poignant historical parallel to the current president’s dilemma vis-à-vis his deeply troubled son can be found in Joe Biden’s predecessor as both vice president and president, John Adams. Like Biden, Adams had one son who excelled in all the virtues of statesmanship, John Quincy, and another who utterly failed in the race of life, Charles. While the former went on to succeed his father as president and became a political titan in his own right, the latter, a rakish drunkard and philanderer, was disowned by President Adams (a dramatic rendition was performed to heartbreaking effect by Paul Giamatti in the 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams). Charles Adams died a broken man not long after.

In the case of the Bidens, the part of the natural leader belonged to Joe’s firstborn, the late Beau Biden, who was said to have had all the father’s virtues and none of the flaws, very much the John Quincy to Hunter’s Charles Adams. The contrast between the two could not be clearer: when Hunter flailed in business, sunk into addiction, and began to meet with foreign oligarchs (around the time Joe Biden became vice president), Beau built a profile in Delaware as Attorney General, served in the Iraq war, and was considering a 2016 run for governor just as he was felled by cancer in 2015. He died aged 46.

This was the crowning tragedy in the life of a political family defined by the concurrence of tragedy and triumph. Four decades previously, in 1972, Beau and Hunter survived a car crash that killed Joe’s first wife Neilia and their infant daughter; the accident took place just weeks before the beginning of Joe Biden’s first term as senator. When Beau died, the path opened for Joe to run for president for a third time and win, although the ex-vice president always felt that he was a placeholder for his dead son: the day before his own inauguration, Joe reportedly said: “We should be introducing him as president”.

Beau had also been a caring and attentive brother to Hunter who made sure he stayed on the wagon and attended Alcoholics Anonymous. Beau’s death only accelerated Hunter’s decline. His involvement with Ukrainian and Chinese energy firms and various tax troubles, for which he is under investigation by a US attorney, as well as the more lurid accounts of his drug and alcohol addictions have been reported on extensively and need not be repeated here. Twitter’s rash decision to censor the New York Post report about “Hunter’s laptop” (which, like “Hillary’s emails”, is now a rallying cry for Republicans) in the middle of the 2020 election campaign turned what could have just been a personally embarrassing story into a far more politically compromising affair. The tragic lot of Hunter Biden, especially in the shadow of his brother’s death, was given expression by Hunter himself when he said to a friend after having just purchased a new .38 handgun, “I know you all think the wrong brother died.” Unlike the Adams’s family, it was the future president who perished and the failson who lived.

Republicans have yet to prove that Joe Biden had any complicity in the suspicious business activities of his son. It is more likely the case that, rather than being the “chairman of the board” and mastermind of a criminal outfit, as the Republican narrative holds, the President’s pitfall, if it can be called that, is in being too doting a father to his delinquent son. There is not enough of the stern Puritanism of John Adams or the cold Victorianism of Theodore Roosevelt in Joe Biden for him to be able to say to his flesh and blood what Adams said to his: “I renounce you.” The excerpt of a call released last year in which Joe Biden offered some tender words of support to his son (which was mocked on conservative media) was simply what any loving American parent (who didn’t subscribe to John Adams’s colonial-era social values) would say to a child, no matter how far lost or broken.

Do the unwholesome actions and overpriced artworks of Hunter Biden warrant the attention and scrutiny of the press and — where evidence for potential criminal wrongdoing exists — of the relevant authorities? Absolutely. Should the House of Representatives (as all the evidence indicates is the plan) now spend the bulk of its political energies over the next two years on revisiting every sordid twist and turn of the Hunter Biden story before the American public? Absolutely not.

If Republicans were smart, they would know to focus their fire on the President’s policy record, not the human frailties that afflict his already scarred family. A discerning opposition would know how to separate the personal from the properly political, the petty issues from the truly meaningful ones, and this goes for Democrats obsessed with Trump’s tax returns just as much as for any Republican. While the instinct to remain vigilant against corruption is a sound one, taken too far, it can devolve into desperate conspiratorial scandalmongering.

Keeping the focus of politics on actual issues around the functioning of government, instead of on such personality-driven tabloid stories at least helps to make sure that the American people are well-served at an everyday institutional level by their elite, whatever their personal failings or vulnerabilities. For in spite of what Americans have been telling themselves since 1776, “the iron law of oligarchy” ensures that all societies must have an elite composed of elite families, whether it be the Adamses, the Clintons, the Trumps, or the Bidens. And if the country is to have a ruling class, at least make them rule well. Failsons and all.