Hunter Biden’s Beautiful Things is a brave memoir of his ‘crack-fuelled odyssey’ – but why write it?

Tim Stanley
·5-min read
Hunter Biden with his father Joe, then Vice-President, in 2010 - AP Photo/Nick Wass
Hunter Biden with his father Joe, then Vice-President, in 2010 - AP Photo/Nick Wass

In an ideal world, this book would never have been written. The author more-or-less says so himself. By his account, Hunter Biden – father, lawyer, recovering addict – was dragged into the spotlight during the 2020 election purely because he was Joe Biden’s son, and he’s half right. Joe was always going to be vetted; Hunter’s businesses dealings in Ukraine were always going to be examined.

But Trump supporters also dredged up Hunter’s problems with drink and drugs, which was a low blow. Anyone who has had an addiction, or knows someone with one, will appreciate that the addict is not themselves: they cannot be judged for their actions. Hunter writes honestly and with courage about the collapse of his marriage, hurting his father, squandering cash and going on a “crack-fuelled, cross-country odyssey”. There is no Hunter S Thompson joy here. It’s just sad.

The cause is obvious: Hunter is a man living with trauma in the shadow of his older brother. The two boys were in the back of the car, just toddlers, when Joe’s first wife, Neilia, collided with another vehicle, killing her and their sister, Naomi. When Hunter woke up in hospital, his brother was in the next bed mouthing the words: “I love you, I love you. I love you.”

“My father believed Beau could one day be President,” writes Hunter, “and that he’d get there with my help.” That’s not a vocation; it’s a burden. Hunter evidently not only loved his brother but was in awe of him and a psychiatrist would no doubt conclude that, unable to meet such an insanely high standard, he cast himself as the lesser brother, the brother with flaws – a functioning alcoholic.

In 2015, Beau died horribly of brain cancer, again an obvious trigger for Hunter’s even worse turn towards drugs (it’s particularly Freudian that he started dating Beau’s widow) and the author details Beau’s treatment, his funeral, even his eulogies in an exercise of wall-to-wall name-dropping. “President Obama and his family” were at the service, “Bill and Hillary Clinton... and John McCain.” We don’t need to know this, any more than it’s necessary for Hunter to inform us that a clinic he dried out in was founded by Eric Clapton.

Joe Biden with his sons Hunter and Beau, 1988 - AP
Joe Biden with his sons Hunter and Beau, 1988 - AP

“I earned degrees from Yale Law and Georgetown,” he writes. “I have been a senior executive of one of the country’s largest financial institutions… I travelled to refugee camps… I helped secure funding for mobile dental clinics.” The message is rammed home again and again: the author is a good person, never as good as Beau, of course, but better than Trump painted him. Yet questions remain.

How did a man who acknowledges that he was an utter train wreck retain such positions of status and influence? In one section, he describes taking a hiatus from the booze to fly to the Middle East to persuade King Abdullah II of Jordan to take in more refugees. Why? How on Earth did he command such responsibilities? “The only reason the King had agreed to meet,” he admits, “was out of respect for my dad. I guess you could chalk it up to nepotism, in the best possible way.” Why was the Ukrainian-linked company, Burisma, paying him a five figure salary each month – “funny money”, to quote Hunter himself. “My last name was a coveted credential,” he admits.

As Joe Biden’s son, privilege and access meant he was able to fail upwards, that regardless of his profound inadequacies, he could always call someone important and they’d be obliged to pick up. Meanwhile, Joe comes across as compassionate, undeniably, but also hyper-disciplined and obsessed with politics. Intriguingly, he doesn’t drink any more.

Beau and Hunter Biden, with Joe Biden and his wife Jill, early 1980s - AFP/Getty
Beau and Hunter Biden, with Joe Biden and his wife Jill, early 1980s - AFP/Getty

Some of the details of Joe’s career are glossed over. He didn’t pull out of the 1988 presidential primaries, as Hunter suggests, purely because he was accused of plagiarising Neil Kinnock: he was also accused of exaggerating his grades and his experience as an activist. We get the usual “my dad never questions other people’s characters” guff but, on the contrary, it was under Biden’s watch as chair of the senate judiciary committee that the nomination of Supreme Court justices became such an unpleasant, personalised process – what Clarence Thomas famously called “a high-tech lynching”. In 2012, he told a racially mixed crowd that Mitt Romney, the most inoffensive man on the planet, wanted to put them “back in chains”. Joe can punch below the belt when he needs to.

I return to the mystery of the reasoning behind this book. It might have made sense as an attempt to quash the allegations against the Bidens during the election, but daddy won the White House – so what’s the point of it now? If the goal is to give us a timeless memoir of addiction, it is well-written – occasionally harrowing – but other books are better, and Hunter’s ability to cushion every mistake with money makes him a less than universal figure. You can always tell that a writer lacks faith in his material when the text sounds like the blurb: “It’s a Biden love story… which means it’s complicated: tragic, humane, emotional, enduring, widely consequential, and ultimately redemptive.”

Perhaps the intention of all of this is to shame the Trumps, in which case it’s a non-starter. Guilt is a quality poor Hunter has in spades. The Trumps couldn’t even spell it.

Beautiful Things by Hunter Biden is published by Simon & Schuster at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, visit Telegraph Books