Politics

Joe Biden’s Endearing Defense of His Son Hunter

A supposed “gotcha” is really a sad, humanizing portrait of a family working through a difficult time.

Hunter and Joe Biden smile toward the camera, standing in a room with light purple lighting and a tree in bloom in the background
Hunter Biden and Joe Biden in D.C. on April 12, 2016. Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images for World Food Program USA

Last week, the New York Post began publishing reports on a series of photos, emails, and documents allegedly taken from a laptop hard drive that belonged to Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. As it became increasingly clear that the Post was using hacked, unverified information that may have been manipulated by a foreign entity for the purposes of influencing the upcoming presidential election, social media companies started to ban or otherwise attempt to reduce the spread of the Post’s initial story. But the tabloid continued printing information from the hard drive, a copy of which it says it received from disgraced Donald Trump associate and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Given that Giuliani and Steve Bannon were the Post’s two sources of information about the hard drive, the provenance of the Rupert Murdoch­–owned paper’s information is more than a little suspect. Giuliani, for one, has said that there’s a 50-50 chance he worked with a Russian spy to dig up embarrassing material about the Biden family. And the computer repair shop owner who allegedly obtained the hard drive and turned it over to Giuliani’s lawyer doesn’t exactly seem like a trustworthy fellow either. So it is with a massive grain of salt that we consider the contents of the hard drive itself. One of the stories contains an alleged text exchange between Hunter and Joe Biden from two months before Joe announced his presidential campaign. It began with a text Joe sent around 7 a.m. to Hunter, who was residing in a rehab facility. “Good morning my beautiful son,” the text reads. “I miss you and love you. Dad.”

Whether or not the hacked material is accurate and complete, the father-son text exchange does the exact opposite of what Giuliani and Trump have been trying to do. For years, Trump and his allies have attempted to paint Hunter as the beneficiary of (Trump-style) nepotism and a shameful sleazeball who reflects poorly on his father. Yet, in the text conversation, Biden comes off as loving and concerned. Hunter certainly admits to struggling with addiction and the pressures of living under intense public scrutiny, but there is nothing politically damaging about the exchange—only a sad, humanizing portrait of a family working through a difficult time.

Republicans have been mocking Hunter for his substance use disorder for a long while. Rep. Matt Gaetz brought it up in the context of Trump’s impeachment, as supposed proof of Hunter’s inability to get a job on his own merits without some shady finagling from his father. During the first 2020 presidential debate, as Joe Biden was talking about his other son Beau (who died of brain cancer), Trump said Hunter was “dishonorably discharged”—he wasn’t—from the military for cocaine use. The next day, Donald Trump Jr. called him “crackhead Hunter” on Glenn Beck’s talk show.

Joe Biden got a lot of deserved credit for his indignant defense of Hunter during the debate. “My son, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem,” he said. “He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him.” That last part, the declaration of parental pride in response to an attempted public shaming, felt like it might have been directed at Hunter himself, more than any voter or viewer. It was a moment of affection in the face of cruelty that drew a bright line between Trump’s character and Joe Biden’s. If this text exchange is real, that debate moment gains even more meaning. (And if the exchange is made up, it says plenty about the people crafting it as an attack.)

Joe Biden’s alleged texts to his son aren’t particularly remarkable in the genre of parent-child communication. The subject matter is specific to a political family—Hunter is angry because he believes his father’s campaign team is portraying him as “the uncontrollable troubled tax cheat philanderer sex and drug addict that you tried so hard to fix but couldn’t”—but the messages of care and encouragement feel universal to a loving relationship. When Hunter tells Joe that his former sister-in-law and romantic partner called him “an embarrassment” to the Biden family, Joe assures him that she is wrong. Joe praises his granddaughters, Hunter’s children, and asks Hunter to call him “when you can and feel like it.” Even the format of Joe’s texts, each of which is full of line breaks and signed “Love” or “Dad,” will feel familiar to anyone who’s texted with a relative over the age of 60. That familiarity and the raw intimacy of the conversation provide a seemingly rare window into the human life of a political candidate. Those who see themselves or their loved ones in the exchange may feel defensive of Biden, a loving father trying to see his son through the compounding trials of addiction and political attacks.

As a foil to the way Trump conducts his personal relationships, the Biden texts are bracingly tender. The current president appears to favor his children in proportion to their loyalty and political utility. He has made multiple public comments on the sexual desirability of one daughter’s body, and he’s allegedly ridiculed the other’s. Trump rushes to disassociate himself from those who reveal any semblance of vulnerability. Even when his wife and son had COVID-19—when it would have been politically advantageous for him to mention his love for them—his public statements were limited to his own condition. He expressed no concern on their behalf.

Caring for a loved one is possibly the most relatable and endearing human experience. It should be a gimme for a political candidate to make visible whatever affection he has for his family. And yet! The president who has inspired the most passionate right-wing movement in a generation, whose approval ratings are astonishingly consistent, whose political party dared not devise an agenda beyond “whatever the president wants is fine with us,” is incapable of exuding any plausible—let alone genuine!—warmth toward his kin. Unconditional love does not appear in the emotional vocabulary of a man whose mercurial favor fluctuates with every shift in his self-interest.

Joe Biden’s palpable love for his son is a reminder of what it could feel like to have a love-capable person leading the country again—a person with the capacity for gentleness as well as rage, someone who does not derive his life’s sole satisfaction from self-aggrandizement and contempt. In a time of concurrent national crises, with hundreds of thousands of Americans grieving friends and family members lost to an ongoing pandemic, it could be nice to have someone at the top who knows the value of voicing and acting on compassion. Joe has suffered a great deal of grief—decades before Beau’s death, he lost his first wife and infant daughter in a 1972 car crash—and his well-known ability to comfort those in mourning has been called his “superpower.” The alleged texts Joe sent, in addition to his public defense of Hunter, flesh out another, related facet of his family life: his role as a father who showers his son with effusive expressions of love.

Policy matters more than personality. But the personal is political, and the way a leader treats the people closest to him reveals something of his integrity. Whether people believe those living with substance use disorders deserve scorn and social stigma, as Trump and his associates have modeled through their treatment of Hunter Biden, or empathy and support has life-or-death policy implications. Loving a person who’s been addicted to drugs is something nearly half of Americans, including equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, have in common. Joe Biden is not ashamed to be one of them.