The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Shakespearean Father-Son Tragedy of the Biden Family

Joe Biden with his son Hunter as they walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, January 20, 2009. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

It was announced Saturday that Joe Biden’s dog Champ has died at age 13. By all accounts, the family German Shepherd was – as we would say – a good boy. Dogs are with us too briefly, and saying goodbye to them is inevitable but never easy. That leaves the family with another German Shepherd: Major, who was kicked out of the White House for a month after reportedly biting a Secret Service agent and a National Park Service employee.

On the eve of Father’s Day, the contrast between the two dogs – one uncomplicatedly beloved, the other a constant source of trouble – put me in mind of the Shakespearean tragedy at the heart of the Biden family: Joe’s sons Beau and Hunter. We’ve seen many sides of Joe Biden over the past half a century, and there is no more sympathetic side than that of a wounded, grieving father. In 1972, Biden lost his wife and daughter in an auto accident just after he had been elected to the Senate. He was left to raise two sons alone. Beau was 3, Hunter was 2. Biden would remarry and have another daughter a few years later, but Beau and Hunter were the survivors of his original family of five, with an irreplaceable place in Joe’s heart.

Joe was a man of boundless ambition and self-regard, elected to the Senate in his twenties, full of quick-tongued Irish blarney, able to talk at any length without tiring, convinced that he could become president in his forties as the young voice of the Baby Boom generation (despite being four years their senior). He flew too high, and his wings melted. His campaign and national reputation were immolated by his serial fabulism and belligerence with the press, making him a laughingstock on late-night TV in the innocent days before Bill Clinton and Donald Trump redefined dishonesty. Biden returned to the Senate, where he had been since the Nixon Administration and was practically part of the furniture. Twenty years later, pushing seventy, he ran again and got steamrolled. He was visibly thrilled to be chosen for the vice presidency. He hadn’t made it, but gosh, he was close.

And he had an heir. Beau was the textbook “good son,” doing all the right things. He won statewide office. He served in Iraq. He had a wife and two kids. He was obviously being groomed to take his dad’s Senate seat before long, maybe after being governor of Delaware. Maybe he would make it that one last rung on the ladder that dad never quite reached.

Hunter, though, was another story: a drug addict, a repeat peddler of influence on his dad’s good name, a guy who used the N word. It is natural for a father, busy with his career, to be indulgent of sons who have lost the rest of the family as toddlers. It is not hard to picture Joe, seeing that the family was in good hands with Beau, being all the more indulgent of Hunter. Or maybe that’s all armchair hogwash; we have all known wise and upright parents who did everything right, and one or more of their kids just got away from them. Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do.

Then, the tragedy: the firstborn son died. Beau got a brain tumor, and as with the brain tumor that took my mother nineteen years ago, there was no good news along the way. He died in the spring of 2015. Burying a child is brutal; doing it twice is worse. My dad buried two sons – much like Biden, one of them in 1972, one in 2010. The second one broke him. My dad was in a home by the time he was the age Joe is now.

Joe, heartbroken and seeing the family legacy slip away, ran a half-hearted trial-balloon presidential candidacy, but withdrew after leaks (probably from Team Hillary) about his opposition to the Osama bin Laden raid. Hunter showed his respect by shacking up with Beau’s widow.

In some ways, the dynamic is reminiscent of the Kennedys. Joe junior was supposed to be the war hero and the presidential candidate, but the war claimed him. Jack and Bobby were more flawed figures, but they had star power, and each stepped up in turn, only to be gunned down. The family’s hopes landed on the one Kennedy nobody had expected to amount to anything: Ted, the fat kid in a family that valued looks and “vigah,” the one who was almost kicked out of Harvard for cheating, the one who destroyed his own White House hopes when he killed a girl and covered it up. Even that did not mend his boozy, womanizing ways for decades. Yet, Ted it was. For four decades after Bobby’s death, he was the Democratic party’s uncrowned king, even through the tenure of two Democratic presidents who came and went with little stamp on the party’s long-term direction. An entire generation (mine) grew up knowing the Kennedys through the family’s least reputable member.

With no “good son” to inherit the Biden legacy, the black sheep of the family assumed unexpected prominence that nobody had planned or wanted. Joe, unable to just step back and bask in the glow of Beau’s rise the way George H.W. Bush did after 1992, decided to run again himself in 2020, visibly well past his prime. Hunter embarrassed him at every possible turn, but Joe would never turn on the only remaining son, the last remnant of the family he brought with him in 1972, no matter what ethical compromises it demanded, no matter how many people warned him about what Hunter was doing.

We can blame Joe Biden for all the risks he is willing to run and things he is willing to overlook in order to let his son (and his brother, Jim) cash in with shady foreigners, and for an approach to nepotism that makes a mockery of Democratic crocodile tears about the Trumps. But that is all political fair game, as it always is. We can’t blame Joe Biden for an unshakeable devotion to his last remaining son, or for the independent misbehavior of a “kid” who is now 51 years old. The tragedy of Joe Biden, in the years when he ought to be enjoying his retirement, is that being a dad means the family doesn’t always work out the way you planned it, sometimes you can’t retire when you wanted to, and the things you would do for your kids sometimes go beyond the things you might ever have done just for yourself.

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