Joe Biden, Hunter Biden and the politics of unconditional love
The finish-line strategy of the Trump campaign has landed, convolutedly, on the narrative that Hunter Biden is an inconvenient son. That he is trailed by a fug of damaging allusions: Burisma. Ukraine. "His son didn't have a job for a long time," President Donald Trump taunted Joe Biden in Thursday evening's debate. "Cocaine use," he'd jeered in the first.
Donald Trump Jr, tapping in for his dad in the proxy battle of large adult sons, has said that Hunter is a "crackhead" and has complained to Sean Hannity that if he, Don Jr., had done what he's accusing Hunter Biden of doing - a web of shadowy misdeeds allegedly uncovered by a Delaware computer technician, Rudy Giuliani and the New York Post - "I would be phoning in from Rikers Island."
Clearly, there is a lot to unpack here.
But as a starting place, we might note that Joe Biden's response to all of this has been to love his son.
Freely, unconditionally. "I'm proud of him. I'm proud of my son," Biden retorted in the first debate, after the president brought up Hunter's drug use - which both Bidens have admitted and spoken about. "No one said anything he did was wrong in Ukraine," he said in the second.
In the miasma of one New York Post article about Hunter, alleged text messages presented as part of the incendiary package instead came across as the tender missives of a worried dad. "Good morning my beautiful son," Joe allegedly wrote Hunter while the latter was checked into a rehab facility. "I miss you and love you." According to the alleged texts - whose provenance and authenticity have not been verified by the Bidens or by other news organizations - Hunter worried he would be a drag on his father's campaign. "Only focus is recovery," Biden reassured him.
To watch these two sets of fathers and sons - Donald and Donald Jr. in one corner, Joe and Hunter in another - is really to watch two kinds of fathering play out as a parable: of love, of family, of country.
It's not hard to imagine what the president thought he was doing when he first dredged up Hunter's drug use and stilted military career: that Joe Biden would be embarrassed of his son. And maybe that voters would think less of them as a family. Trump's older brother, Fred, died of alcoholism in 1981. Friends of the family told The Washington Post last year that it was like "a dark family secret," causing "shame" for the Trump family, for whom - as Fred Trump's daughter, Mary, later put it - "weakness was the greatest sin."
In the Trump family at large, a father's love was contingent on filial devotion, Mary L. Trump also said. How much a son embraced the family business, how much he lived up to the family name. In recent years, Don Jr. has attempted to become his father's greatest hype man and defender, on the campaign trail and in life.
How strange for the president, then, to lay out all of Hunter Biden's embarrassing failings, and to have Joe Biden's response be: "I'm proud of him."
Slate reporter Aymann Ismail wrote a thoughtful essay about the Joe/Hunter relationship, and how uncomfortable it can be for some men to witness that kind of intense, intimate fatherly love. "Ideals of stoicism, hardness, and quiet, solitary strength are projected and performed by men," he wrote. "A portrait of open and unembarrassed affection between a father and his adult son challenges that."
Last week, John Cardillo, a conservative Newsmax host, tweeted a black-and-white photograph of Joe and Hunter hugging, the elder Biden kissing the younger on the cheek. "Does this look like an appropriate father/son interaction to you?" Cardillo demanded.
The implication was something incestuous or untoward, so the overwhelming response could not have been what Cardillo was hoping for. "I wish my dad was still here to hug me like that. So, yes," wrote comedian Ben Stiller, in what was a fairly representative response. "My dad died when I was 14. I would give a lot for one moment like this," wrote the author Mark Harris. (Plenty of other folks responded with not words but pictures - of Trump hugging and kissing his own adult children, of him patting the vicinity of Ivanka's butt. Make of that what you will.)
Joe Biden's life as a father has been shaped by loss. His daughter Naomi died as an infant in the car crash that also killed his first wife. His son Beau died of brain cancer at age 46. Beau, the golden boy who would have been, by many standards, easy to love - who "had all the best of me, but with the bugs and flaws engineered out," as Biden wrote in his memoir.
After Beau's death, Joe decided not to run for president. Hunter holed up in his apartment and drank vodka. Then, one day, Hunter told the New Yorker, his dad showed up at the door and said: "I need you. What do we have to do?"
Is the goal of fatherhood to shape your offspring in your own image - the path you feel is worthiest and best - and to require respect and devotion? Or is the goal to love your son even in his lowest moments, to redefine your expectations, to take on the heavy load of unconditional parenting, even when it's a lopsided deal?
It's no stroke of brilliance to point out that these two philosophies mirror the relationship the two politicians have with the country. Trump, a man who loves America only if it is nice to him and loves him to his exacting specifications: "It's a two-way street; they have to treat us well, also," he said in March, hanging the promise of federal coronavirus relief on whether blue-state governors were appropriately deferential.
Biden, a man who loves America even though it's sometimes self-destructive. Even though it's beaten down, embittered, spiritually adrift, wild with anxiety.
After the first debate, several voters cited Biden's openhearted defence of Hunter as a standout moment in the debate. It spoke to them as parents, who knew the pride and heartache of watching their children suffer and struggle through a challenge. I wonder if it also spoke to them as children, careening toward the end of 2020, longing for a reassuring presence to say they were going to make it - they had struggled, but they were all, every one of them, worthy of love.
Hunter Biden might not be the son America dreams of having. Joe Biden might be the dad.
The Washington Post