The weirdest of many weird passages in Beautiful Things, the confessional memoir of Joe Biden’s tormented son Hunter, begins in October 2016, when he books into a wellness ranch in Sonoma for addiction to alcohol and crack cocaine.
Arriving at Dulles Airport in Washington at 7am the sometime lawyer and lobbyist misses flight after flight smoking rocks in his car, then drives 651 miles overnight to Nashville where he buys crack on the streets.
After three zonked days he makes it to LA but misses a connecting flight from LA because he leaves the terminal to smoke crack, and ends up on a six-day bender in Marina del Rey with a bunch of dealers, addicts and hookers. At one point he’s talked out of a fight by a giant called Little Down who is “related to the Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E” of Samoan gangster rappers.
Hunter – who by now has barely slept for two weeks – then rents a car for the 500 mile journey to Sonoma, wrecks it and almost kills himself running it off the freeway, hires a Jeep, and drives the wrong way for two hours. “At some point the crack lost its oomph, but I kept lighting up anyway, out of force of habit,” he writes, matter-of-factly. For some miles he follows a giant owl in his headlights.
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After checking in to not one but two spas and tapering off the crack, Hunter calls Hallie, the widow of his adored brother Beau – who died of a brain tumour I7 months earlier – to fetch him.
By the time they got back to Delaware “we were a couple”. Kathleen, his long-suffering wife and mother of his three daughters, discovers their text exchanges. “Everything blew up after that,” Hunter sighs.
You can see why Donald Trump, with his instinct for an opponent’s tender parts, targeted Hunter when fighting Joe Biden for the presidency. If the Bidens echo the Kennedys in some ways – Catholic, close, marked by tragedy and driven by a sense of political entitlement – then Hunter is Ted: the one whose lapses reveal the base desires beneath the mask of American nobility.
But Hunter spiked Trump’s guns with a tell-all New Yorker article about his addictions, shortly after his dad announced his candidacy. The MAGA crowd were left with vague allegations about Hunter’s lucrative seat on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma, and a phantom laptop supposed to contain horrors.
This book puts it all out there again, in greater detail, to pre-empt those gunning for Joe in office. It is very frank and littered with “f***s” but also po-faced and prone to tip into bathos (“politics is not the family business – service is”). It is a barely believable story of redemption, in which a fragile man whose life is punctuated by loss is saved by the right woman (spoiler alert: it’s not Hallie). It also tells you an awful lot about crack.
On Dec 18 1982 Hunter, aged two, and Beau, three, were severely injured in the car accident that killed their mother Neilia and baby sister Naomi. Aunts, uncles, and grandparents pitched in alongside their grieving, loving father. Five years later teacher Jill Jacobs became their “mom” (Neilia remained “mommy”) and gave them a stepsister, Ashley.
The Bidens seem tactile – there is lots of hugging and kissing – but their verbal exchanges rarely go beyond declarations of love or exhortations to be the best you can be. The bereavement is never discussed. The family gathers again to switch off Beau’s life support system together on May 29 2015. Hunter does not show his father his eulogy for Beau before the funeral: later, he will not tell his father, the presidential candidate, about his tell-all New Yorker interview.
Biden’s sons, Beau and Hunter, hold the Bible during a swearing in ceremony, 1985
MY BROTHER’S KEEPER
Hunter takes his first drink at eight, and has his first hangover at 14. Beau waits until he’s 21 and legal, and quits booze at 30. Hunter marries Kathleen, who he meets through Jesuit volunteering groups while studying in Chicago, after she falls pregnant. Beau marries childhood friend Hallie at 33.
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Both brothers study law. Beau becomes attorney general of Delaware, and twice defers – fatally, it turns out – his chance to run for the Senate seat left vacant when his father becomes Vice President. Hunter works for a bank and the US Department of Commerce before becoming a lobbyist and an advisor to investment funds (he also works for the World Food Programme and Amtrak).
Beau trains judges in Kosovo during the war in 1999 and serves as a major in the 261st Signal Brigade in Iraq. Hunter is discharged from the US Navy Reserve in 2014 after failing a drug test, having already been busted for cocaine possession as a senior year in high school.
Yet the boys remain close, from whispered goodnights after the death of their mother, to Beau taking Hunter to rehab, to Hunter helping Beau use the toilet in his final months. The book’s title refers to the “beautiful things” they hoped to see and do together.
THE BUSINESS OF POLITICS
Joe Biden hovers over the book as a strict but affectionate working man who strips asbestos from the pipes of the family home himself, and whose office just happens to be the Senate. Milestones occasionally loom: from his withdrawal from the 1988 presidential campaign for “loosely appropriating” a speech by Neil Kinnock to becoming Obama’s wingman.
The family unconditionally support each other’s chosen paths, but again, they don’t talk. Joe apparently doesn’t ask Hunter about his lobbying clients; Hunter doesn’t tell. When dad becomes VP, Hunter has to quit lobbying so becomes an advisor to investors.
His appointment to the Burisma board in 2014 catapults him into “grey” areas of international business – where people are hired for influence or as reputational fig-leaves – and subsequently into the frontline of the Trump/Putin disinformation wars.
The whole business is covered in defensive, stultifying detail in chapter eight of the book. What’s important is that when Hunter, a functional alcoholic since 2003, descends into hardcore drug addiction after Beau’s death, and begins to lose work, the Burisma money enables him to buy crack.
Hunter quit role as a lobbyist when father Joe became Obama’s VP
THE POLITICS OF CRACK
Crack strips Hunter of shame. It’s normal, he explains, to offer a stranger $100 to buy crack for you, on the promise he’ll get more cash to feed his own habit when he returns (nine times out of ten he won’t, even if he’s left you one of his shoes for security).
It’s normal to have guns pointed at you. It’s normal to have a sick, elderly, female crack addict move into your apartment because she’s a secure route to a fix, and “borrows” rather than steals your credit cards. It’s normal to smoke bits of parmesan or cheddar popcorn in the hope they are spilled crumbs of crack.
While excoriating his past, Hunter seems oddly proud of his ability to find crack in any city he might find himself, and of his capacity for intoxication while at the Chateau Marmont, compared to previous residents Jim Belushi and Doors vocalist Jim Morrison. “Morrison was a f***ing piker compared to my shenanigans.”
Indeed, after years of abuse – even some of his rehab sessions involved psychoactives and “ketamine infusions” – it’s astonishing that Hunter has retained his capacity to function, and his looks.
Hunter with wife Melissa Cohen
Hunter paints his now ex-wife as angry – go figure – and the relationship with his sister-in-law as an aberration. While acknowledging again the debt of love to his dad, Jill, Beau and the extended Biden clan, his current, clean state is entirely down to his second wife Melissa Cohen, a South African activist.
Their improbable courtship is the second weirdest part of the book. Given her number by a stranger, a totally wasted Hunter texts her after midnight. She bats him off but meets him for a 5.15 dinner the next day (he wears a “Canadian tuxedo”: a denim jacket and jeans).
He’s 49. She’s 32. The first thing he says is that her blue eyes are exactly like Beau’s; the second, that he loves her. An hour later, she says she loves him. He admits he’s a crack addict. She says: “Well, not anymore.” They go to a party. He sneaks off, smokes crack, conks out.
But Melissa takes charge of his phone, computer and wallet, polices his every bathroom visit, and faces down the hoodlums and whores who come after him. He gets clean. Weeks later they have a quickie wedding.
Typically, Hunter doesn’t tell his dad until the morning of the ceremony. But he and Melissa do furnish Joe with a seven-month old baby grandson to hoik aloft, Lion King style, after his victory speech as president-elect. His name? Beau.