Hunter Biden and the Things Left Unsaid

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Many Americans, it is safe to assume, would prefer if less were said about Hunter Biden. The troubled son of the President has been a ubiquitous subject of conversation since 2019, when his misadventures inspired Donald Trump’s extortion attempt against Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine. Since then, we’ve rummaged through Hunter’s laptop, read reams of his expletive-heavy texts, examined the ravaged stumps of his teeth, and glimpsed him in the shower with a pipe and a lady friend. His dubious paychecks and I.R.S. woes and benders and paternity drama and naked selfies make up a tragicomic monument to human frailty, one that seems out of place even in the hall of ne’er-do-well White House relatives—your Billy Carters, your Roger Clintons. The closest Hunter has to a forerunner may be turn-of-the-millennium Robert Downey, Jr.: a painfully public avatar of squandered privilege, a darkly hilarious rogue casting off sparks of pathos and augurs of doom, America’s favorite dirtbag.

House Republicans believe that there is more dirt to be dumped out of the bag, and that their constituents should know about it. In November, James Comer, a congressman from Kentucky and the chair of the House Oversight Committee, issued a subpoena to depose Hunter as part of the committee’s ongoing impeachment investigation into President Biden. Hunter agreed to testify, in a session scheduled for December 13th, but only in a public hearing. His defense attorney, Abbe Lowell, wrote to Comer, “We have seen you use closed-door sessions to manipulate, even distort the facts and misinform the public. We therefore propose opening the door.” Days later, Comer and Jim Jordan, the Republican from Ohio and the chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, rejected the demand. The dispute seemed like a surprising reversal—unfettered access to the inner world of Hunter Biden is something that his adversaries have conditioned us to expect.

Their case for Hunter as an agent of intergenerational corruption was made possible by Trump’s narcissistic obsession with his fellow-beneficiary of nepotism and shady dealmaking. The Trumpiest public-facing decision that Hunter ever made was also his most consequential: he accepted, in 2014, the jackpot offer to become a board member at Burisma, the Ukrainian natural-gas company, which paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars per year at the time that his father, then Vice-President, was leading the Obama Administration’s Ukraine policy. Taking Burisma’s cash is the exact kind of thing that Trump would do, and that is why it made him so mad. If he were not addicted to Hunter, then the Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney David Weiss would surely not have spent years chasing tax and gun charges against a first offender. Maryellen Noreika, a Trump-appointed federal judge, would surely not have cow-tipped a plea deal on those charges, on July 26th. The child of a sitting President would not have been indicted, as Hunter was, on September 14th, for illegally possessing an unloaded gun for eleven days back when “Shallow” was first hitting the charts, nor for tax evasion and filing a false return, as Hunter was on December 7th.

Joe Biden has said next to nothing publicly about any of this, which is both correct and strange. As the law professor Kate Shaw wrote in The Atlantic, in June, the President “has bent over backwards to abide by essential bipartisan norms of law-enforcement independence and insulation from political interference” in his son’s case. Biden’s “silence and discretion are admirable,” Shaw continued, even if they also risk being “misunderstood as inaction or passivity.” (His discretion also takes on a certain irony when juxtaposed with Hunter’s recent insistence on a public hearing.) Silence, notwithstanding its political worth or necessity, may be the only appropriate response when your main political opponent has implied that your son should receive the death penalty for his transgressions, as Trump did, on July 11th. Or when, say, a congresswoman allied with your main political opponent has risked running afoul of D.C. revenge-porn laws during a House Oversight Committee hearing by showing stills from your son’s sex tapes, as Marjorie Taylor Greene did, on July 19th.

But President Biden’s reserve about matters pertaining to Hunter appears to extend beyond his fealty to impartial justice and procedural norms. Writing in this magazine in 2019, Adam Entous asked if voters would see “the controversy over Hunter’s business dealings” as “a product of Biden’s resistance to having difficult conversations, particularly those involving his family.” In a report published in August, the Washington Post’s Tyler Pager invoked the elder Biden’s reluctance to “strategize or even discuss his son as the political issue he has become,” noting that “most aides strenuously avoid discussing Hunter’s troubles with the president, believing their contributions and ideas would not be welcome.”

It’s no mystery why President Biden, who has been so open to discussing the grief and sorrow he has faced in his life, might wish to put up a no-go zone around Hunter, who at almost three years of age survived the December, 1972, car crash that killed Biden’s thirty-year-old wife, Neilia, and their daughter, one-year-old Naomi, and that critically injured their son Beau, who was almost four. But Hunter’s 2021 memoir, “Beautiful Things,” also suggests that Biden strenuously avoids discussing Hunter’s troubles with Hunter. According to the book, after the Wall Street Journal reported on Hunter’s appointment to the Burisma board, his father called to say, “I hope you know what you’re doing.” Although this terse and gnomic message was hardly the stuff of congratulations, Biden père—as Vice-President, and as America’s anti-corruption point man in Kyiv—might have altered the course of recent U.S. history simply by telling his son no. At a moment when the famously unfiltered Biden persona could have been most fruitfully deployed, the door, evidently, remained closed.

“Beautiful Things” is one of several memoirs that members of the extended Biden family have published in the past six years. The others are Joe Biden’s “Promise Me, Dad” (2017); “Growing Up Biden” (2022), by Valerie Biden Owens, the President’s sister and lifetime consigliere; and “If We Break” (2022), by Kathleen Buhle, Hunter’s first wife and the mother of three of his children. A no-comment policy on Hunter’s business entanglements—and, to a degree, about Hunter in general—extends to the elder Bidens’ books. “Promise Me, Dad” devotes long passages to the Obama Administration’s work in Ukraine without acknowledging Hunter’s role at Burisma, and “Growing Up Biden” alludes to it only in one brief aside. Even Franklin Foer’s recently published “The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future,” which was written with the Administration’s coöperation, mentions Hunter just once. It mentions Hunter’s older brother Beau, who died, of brain cancer, in 2015, five times.

In “Beautiful Things,” when Hunter recalls caring for Beau in the last months of his life, he writes that they “could communicate through a kind of nonverbal frequency we’d developed during previous setbacks and tragedies. Saying much more risked breaking the spell and going to a place none of us wanted to go.” It’s a poignant moment, and a telling one. In reading the four memoirs in succession, silence becomes the undercurrent that tugs at a voluble, demonstrative family brand. Silence is bound up in what the books portray as an extraordinary closeness between the Biden siblings, one that borders on the telepathic. (“We intuitively understand each other,” Valerie writes. “We can finish each other’s sentences.”) Again and again, withholding is depicted as a proof of love and connection, a show of quiet strength. Many memoirs are frustrating for what they omit or elide. The Biden books, with striking consistency, evince a pride in how much can be left unsaid.

In all four of these accounts, Hunter’s existence is defined by that of Beau, and Valerie’s is defined by that of Joe. In “Beautiful Things,” Hunter remembers waking up in the hospital, after the car crash, to see Beau staring back at him, repeating “I love you”; Beau was his “polestar since those virtually first conscious moments of my life,” Hunter writes. Their father, then the new senator-elect from Delaware, famously took his oath of office in the boys’ hospital room. Following the accident, Valerie, who had managed Joe’s campaign, resigned from her teaching job and moved in with the shattered family, becoming, for a time, their housekeeper and the boys’ primary caregiver. Even later, when Valerie and her new husband returned from their honeymoon, Joe, Beau, and Hunter were waiting at the airport, and the five of them all moved in together.

Aunt Val, Hunter recalls in “Beautiful Things,” was “as warm and tender and emotive as a mother figure could possibly be.” He also commemorates his “father’s heroic marshaling of family to surround and enfold us in uninterrupted love.” But the result of these efforts, he concludes, was bittersweet: “Beau and I never really grieved the loss of our mother and baby sister.” “Beautiful Things” is often brittle and defensive, but these passages are moving in how they carefully acknowledge, without resentment or blame, the ways in which this outpouring of love for two little boys may have inadvertently muffled or crowded out some of the necessary work of mourning. “We were almost ashamed to admit to any sadness we might have felt,” he writes, adding, “It almost felt like a betrayal to say that we missed our mom.”

In “Growing Up Biden,” Valerie takes ferocious pride in being her brother’s fire wall—the attack dog, the auxiliary sibling. “Family is the beginning, the middle, and the end,” she writes, paraphrasing their mother. “Promise Me, Dad” attempts, with touching insistence, to give Hunter the same patina of fiercely loyal competence. Beau, as a rising political star, “had Hunt in his corner as a speechwriter and trusted advisor,” Biden writes. “I was pretty sure that Beau could run for president some day and, with his brother’s help, he could win.” And: “Hunt was Beau’s secret weapon.” And: “Hunter was the crucial beam in Beau’s support structure.”

It is impossible to begrudge the President’s could-have-beens about Beau, his overachieving natural heir, who suffered an excruciating decline and death at the age of forty-six—and, by extension, about Hunter, whose prospects cleaved so closely to Beau’s. Biden is “haunted by death,” Fintan O’Toole wrote in The New York Review of Books, in 2020; he is “the most gothic figure in American politics.” Within this gothic framework, alas, Hunter is the doppelgänger, the bad Irish twin. The loss of his brother precipitated a terrible collapse; he became a beam without a house. He pursued an affair with Beau’s widow, which fits in a gothic tradition that runs from “Hamlet” to “Stoker,” and he was still chasing ghosts when he met his current wife. As recounted in “Beautiful Things,” he tells her that she has his dead brother’s eyes. They married seven days later, and they named their baby Beau.

In a eulogy for Beau, delivered at a Catholic church in Wilmington, Delaware, President Barack Obama invoked “the Biden family rule: if you have to ask for help, it’s too late. It meant you were never alone; you don’t even have to ask, because someone is always there for you when you need them.” In “Promise Me, Dad,” Hunter is praised by his father as a faithful adherent to the family rule: “Hunt understood the Biden code from the time he was a kid.” Anyone might long for such a foundation of metamorphic, mind-reading solidarity—to feel this “nonverbal frequency” humming in your veins. And yet one might also wonder what is wrong with asking, with putting words to needs, and what might be lost in not doing so.

In the memoirs, the Biden code can mutate into a kind of cryptography. Over and over, one waits in vain for somebody to come out and say something. In “Promise Me, Dad,” when Beau’s prognosis is obviously beyond all hope, it falls to his brother-in-law, Howard, to insist that Beau’s doctors convince his family that it’s over. In Buhle’s “If We Break,” Hunter, aboard his endless carrousel of binges and rehab stints, misses Thanksgivings and his kids’ birthdays and first days of school, and it all goes mostly unremarked upon by the extended Biden clan. The silence may generate from some mix of discretion, embarrassment, and what Al-Anon members sometimes call detaching with love. But it is also part of a language that Buhle, an outsider, does not speak, and that no one can teach her.

“If We Break” is the most engrossing of the Biden memoirs, partly for the Hunter gossip, and partly because Buhle, who married into the Bidens and divorced out, can observe the family dynamics with a degree of analytical distance and, at times, a useful bafflement. She sketches a scene in which the extended clan was “taking family photos and Hunter’s aunt was running the show.” Different permutations of Bidens and Biden-in-laws move in and out of the frame, until Valerie announces, “Now let’s do Biden blood only.” Buhle soon discovers that you can marry a Biden, give birth to three Biden children, and you are still, to borrow the parlance of Mainers, “from away”; your family is merely on loan to you. She writes that, in the midst of their divorce, Hunter would ask her, as a taunt, “Are you enjoying your last name?” At that point, it had been Biden for half her life. The name was Hunter’s blessing and, now, his curse; perhaps it’s no wonder that Buhle got rid of it.

The Hunter Biden of “If We Break” is a flamboyantly awful husband—adulterous, bad with money, verbally abusive, prone to disappearing acts. The vaunted Biden code does little to alleviate the pain of Buhle’s marriage, although she expresses fondness and admiration for the President and First Lady in her memoir. Even amid Hunter’s rolling disasters, the Bidens have cultivated an enviable, if grief-shrouded, image of a big, loving, rambunctious, Irish-ish Catholic family—Hickory Hill Lite. Buhle is alone in this crowd of togetherness, smothered by it at arm’s length. It’s through her eyes that the tedious clan chauvinism streaking through the other books comes into grim focus—the inane preoccupation with codes and bloodlines, the affected white-ethnic fetishism, the familial omertà. I do not wish to play into any right-wing fantasies about the “Biden crime family,” but there are times in Buhle’s book when I could hear Kay Corleone one house over, screaming, “This Sicilian thing!”

Hunter is no caporegime, whatever his father’s political combatants would like to believe. He is, instead, a domestic offender of a more mundane stripe, his misdeeds largely outside the reach of the law, involving serious harm not to the American taxpayer but to the family that is, per the Biden fantasy, the beginning, the middle, and the end. Of all the anecdotes in these four memoirs, the one that I think about the most is from “If We Break.” It is the spring of 2002, and Buhle, then the mother of a baby, a toddler, and an eight-year-old, is enjoying a rare night out with a friend in New York City, a two-hour train trip from her home in Wilmington. Her friend urges her to stay overnight; Buhle calls Hunter, who says it’s fine. But then she asks him to take Naomi, their oldest child, to Sunday school the next morning. “No,” Buhle recalls him saying. “I’m not going to do that, Kathleen.” So Buhle boards a train home in the middle of the night, arriving at 5 A.M. to the sight of Hunter and a group of friends smoking and drinking in front of the family’s fireplace. The kids, it seems, are at their grandparents’ house.

The reader is left with many questions, and one assumes that Buhle was, too. What explains this kind of behavior—this ostentatious defiance of basic responsibility, this refusal to be fully part of the family you’ve created? Can this mind-set be blamed on addiction? Trauma? The learned helplessness of men in heterosexual partnerships? The ego-warping effects of a famous last name? Are dirtbags born or made? And what, in the end, is a father good for? His partner might wonder about all these things. But she has no Biden blood, so she wouldn’t know you’re not supposed to ask. You’re not supposed to say a word. ♦


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