WASHINGTON — Last year, Jenna Bush Hager, the daughter of the 43rd president, George W. Bush, published a book called “Everything Beautiful in Its Time.” The book contains sentences such as this: “My mom inherited her cat addiction from her mom.”
This week, Hunter Biden, the son of the 46th and current president, Joseph R. Biden, published a book called “Beautiful Things.” The book contains sentences such as this: “Cooking crack took practice, but it wasn’t rocket science.”
In case it’s not yet clear, “Beautiful Things” is nothing like any other memoir of a presidential scion. There is little cuteness, feline or otherwise, though there is a scene of young Hunter stumbling on Ted Kennedy and Strom Thurmond in the Senate sauna, both presumably in advanced states of undress. Does that count?
Nor, for that matter, is this book quite kindred spirits with “Growing Up Clinton,” the 1995 family history by troubled presidential sibling Roger Clinton. Hunter Biden says so himself, also drawing contrast with other wayward presidential scions, including the Trump children. “I’ve worked for someone other than my father, rose and fell on my own. This book will establish that,” he writes, in what sounds like the opening to a legal brief (he went to Yale Law School, as we learn on page 3; on page 192, we learn his LSAT score: 172 out of 180).
The writing gets better as things get worse. You watch Hunter squander every advantage a human being could possibly have, guzzling booze, smoking crack, getting involved in what his father might call “malarkey.” Only, when that father is one of the most powerful men in Washington, those advantages tend to be an impressively renewable resource. So he squanders them again and again, as if to prove to teetotaling, churchgoing Joe that he is his own man, since only the ownest of men would trade the trappings of power for a motel room along a Connecticut freeway where it’s just “me and a crack pipe.”
Things could have ended there, along I-95. Or in the Sonoran Desert, as he nods off behind the wheel of his car on the way to a rehab clinic. They could have ended the way they end for many other Americans as hopelessly addicted to drugs as Hunter Biden was. They end instead in Wilmington, Del., with a now clean Hunter watching his father declared the next president of the United States.
The result is an odd and oddly moving book where beautiful things — above all, Hunter’s love for his late brother, Beau — compete with pretty grotesque ones. Most of the grotesquerie comes once drinking and drugs take ever-firmer hold of Hunter, just as he is striking out on his own, post-law school.
They let go, but never too long. So there is an affair with Hallie Biden, Beau’s widow. So there are “Samoan gangsters-turned-rappers” in Los Angeles, including one named Baby Down, as well as a woman in Arkansas — mentioned only in passing — with whom Hunter fathered a child. That he disputed the paternity (until it was confirmed by a genetic test) but seems also clueless about what happened gives a good idea where his mind was for most of the last decade or so.
Addiction, though, is not absolution. He begins his book by listing his accomplishments, assuring readers that he’s “done serious work for serious people,” touting degrees from Georgetown and Yale Law as evidence of his own seriousness. But once it comes to questions of nepotism and corruption, he is just a hapless addict being pursued by the Four Horsemen of the Crackocalypse (yes, that’s in the book). That makes the book touching in many places, but unconvincing in others.
The most moving writing in the book has nothing to do with politics, or even drugs, but focuses instead on Hunter’s relationship with Beau, who succumbed to brain cancer in 2015, just as his political fortunes appeared to be ascendant.
Back in 1972, Hunter and Beau survived a car accident that killed their mother and sister, a catastrophe he describes with the following chilling detail: “Her head simply swings.” Fleeting memories of that crash alternate in the opening pages of “Beautiful Things” with tragically clear scenes of Beau in the final stages of his battle against glioblastoma. This is far more compelling stuff, frankly, than the debate over whether Yale Law would have opened its gates to Hunter if his last name had been something other than what it was.
If you get a chance, listen to the audio version, which Hunter narrates himself. His voice is mid-Atlantic flat, except for a slight lisp that gives it a persistent vulnerability, the remnant of something boyish. That vulnerability becomes unbearable by the fifth or sixth hour of narration, as the by-now-divorced lawyer and father of three girls describes failed attempts at rehab in Newburyport, Mass., or Sedona, Ariz.
He tries every treatment, every approach, only to be undone by what he describes as his “superpower,” which is very unfortunately confined to “finding crack anytime, anywhere.” He writes that he could “get off a plane in Timbuktu and score a bag of crack.” You’ll recall that the Bush daughters once drank beer and, even more scandalously, the Obama daughters got tired of the turkey pardon thing.
Allies of former President Donald Trump, for whom Hunter Biden became a treacherous political obsession, won’t find much new here except plain old human misery, not to mention good measures of both stupidity and arrogance, both freely acknowledged by the author himself. That’s because the book is far closer to addiction memoirs like Jerry Stahl’s “Permanent Midnight” (a title that Biden, who once wanted to study creative writing, name-checks) than to anything that might make the likes of Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham salivate with renewed investigatory zeal.
Biden does write about his taking a seat on the board of troubled Ukrainian gas company Burisma, which Trump seized on as part of a dubious pressure campaign that would, in turn, lead to his impeachment. “I did nothing unethical,” Hunter says, who for all his own recklessness isn’t dumb enough to give the aggrieved Trump, now stewing in Mar-a-Lago without much to do or tweet, any reason to attack him once again.
OK, but the notion that he joined Burisma’s board to stop Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, who has long had designs on Ukraine, is right up there with Al Gore’s assertion that he invented the internet. Then again, if self-delusion and self-regard were crimes, there would be nobody left to run Washington.
Somewhat more disappointingly — given the brushstrokes of honesty carefully applied to every page — there is nothing about the strange case of Hunter’s gun, which Hallie Biden reportedly threw into a trash can, leading to Secret Service intervention. The story, first reported by Politico, suggests an edgier, less made-for-TV darkness than the darkness already described here.
Nor does he say anything remotely revealing about a laptop that purportedly belonged to him and may still be part of an ongoing federal investigation, dismissing the “transparent criminality” of his accusers (Rudy Giuliani et al.) but not quite exculpating himself in the process. Just because he is the victim of conspiracy theories doesn’t mean he isn’t also the subject of legitimate questions. And as he well knows, “I was too high to remember” is not exactly a sound excuse.
Even so, Biden relishes in having been the target of Trump’s attacks, which hit the mark but miss the point: Yes, he was of course a hopelessly spoiled senator’s son but not one who, in his own telling, could have committed the baroque crimes with which Trump charged him. “I took solace in being attacked by such despicable opposition,” Hunter writes, describing Trump as “a vile man with a vile mission.”
Not that Hunter himself was exactly a pillar of society. As his father is considering one last run for the White House, he is crawling determinedly through the Los Angeles underworld, dragging behind him a procession of “thieves, junkies, petty dealers, over-the-hill strippers, con artists and assorted hangers on.” He scrounges on the floor of his hotel room, trying to figure out whether the white powder he finds there is crack residue or crumbs of the popcorn that had become a primary form of sustenance.
“Safe to say I’ve smoked more cheddar popcorn than anybody on the face of the earth,” he writes. That’s a record Chelsea Clinton or Joe Kennedy III probably won’t dispute. Some people will take his words as a boast, and maybe there is some of that here, as in every memoir of addiction. Others will wonder where he found the money to stay in a succession of hotels where a single night’s bill could ravage the precarious finances of many an American.
Hunter’s salvation is as unlikely as his downfall, coming in the form of a Jewish woman from South Africa, a documentarian now living in Los Angeles, with whom he goes on a blind date during a momentary break in the drug haze. “I was all in,” he says — and that first date isn’t even over yet. She was all in too. Deleting contacts from his phone, seizing his keys and hardly ever letting him out of her sight, she begins to wean him off the glass pipe.
Hunter writes especially movingly about California, which in no respect whatsoever resembles the Wilmington, Del., of his youth. “It’s not all just Beverly Hills on the beach,” Biden writes in a letter to his late brother from the Chateau Marmont, one of several high-end hotels that would ask him kindly or maybe not so kindly not to ever come back. “It’s horse country and mountains. There’s a real feeling of ancient wilderness that still exists here.”
There are, of course, plenty of Republicans who’d like him not in the Hollywood Hills but on Capitol Hill, answering questions about Ukraine, China and other alleged misdeeds, some potentially quite real, others quite obviously imagined. For now, though, he is out there in California, sober and painting, somehow still alive.
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