Up until the Democratic National Convention this week, that query has been a way to highlight the absence of Joe Biden’s son from the proceedings. The broader context for that question and that absence, of course, is that Rudy Giuliani’s initial extrajudicial snooping in Ukraine — and the ensuing scandal that enveloped the president — began with allegations of influence-peddling by Hunter Biden for his well-compensated role on the board of the natural gas company Burisma.
There are many reasons for keeping the 50-year-old former lobbyist – and various other things – at an arm’s distance from the campaign. There is the family scandal of a Biblical variety; his role as a busy new dad, both in and out of wedlock; his propensity to over-commit and get in over his head on new ventures; and his status as a genuine example of rote nepotism – even if he hasn’t, in reality, lived up to the right’s caricature of him. Most importantly, there is the necessity of protecting his well-being as a person in recovery, which could be jeopardized by the rigors of a presidential campaign in which he would serve as a glaring target.
But one of the most prominent themes of this convention has been its presentation of Joe Biden as a family man, defined by his commitment to helping his kin rise above their history of profound loss: the death of his “soul” Beau — his son and former Delaware district attorney who succumbed to brain cancer in 2015 — and the car crash that killed his wife Neilia and their 1-year-old daughter Naomi in 1972. The message of overcoming adversity together was defined by Jill Biden in her Tuesday keynote: “How do you make a broken family whole? The same way you make a nation whole. With love and understanding and with small acts of kindness. With bravery. With unwavering faith.”
As an electoral tactic, it has been quite effective, contrasting Biden with an incumbent who went golfing on the day his brother died last week. But excluding Hunter Biden from the convention entirely would have stripped these moments of much of their value. The vice-president’s youngest son is the only living member of his immediate family to be there with him through both sets of tragedy. What does it mean to have a “flexible and resilient” family, as Jill Biden put it on Tuesday, if it cannot include its black sheep in its most prominent hour?
The campaign answered this question with a short, poignant, and tightly edited segment in which Hunter and his sister, Ashley — who largely avoids the spotlight — introduced their father. Finishing each other’s sentences, the pair described the resilience of their dad, a man “who’ll be there when you need him” and who has the “strongest shoulder you can ever lean on.” Hunter added: “He’ll make your grandkids feel what they’ve got to say matters,” a message reinforced by an earlier segment detailing the close relationship between the vice-president and his four granddaughters. The prerecorded spot was brief, controlled, and as with many comments from the family over the past four nights, the absence of Beau was hard felt. The late son had introduced his father at the 2008 and 2012 conventions, and his surviving siblings kicked to a recording of Beau from a prior convention to give him the “last word.”
Unlike many choices of the Biden campaign, there was a level of risk in scheduling Hunter Biden at the DNC, even if it was limited by prerecording his segment, or by the fact that there would be no chance of an awkward crowd response. Just this week, the Trump campaign revived its messaging against the vice-president’s son, describing his business connections in China as part of a claim that the Democratic candidate won’t “stand up” to Beijing. And less than an hour after Hunter helped introduce his father, Donald Trump Jr. criticized him on Fox News for letting nepotism shape his course in life, a charge that carried little introspection.
But the DNC may have also stumbled upon a risk-control strategy: By putting Hunter Biden onstage, speaking fondly of his brother’s memory and his father’s future, the convention presented him as an actual person, rather than a right-wing caricature. It is unlikely that Hunter will be an ongoing presence in his father’s campaign — at least on the Democratic side. But his introduction on Thursday at least meant that the Bidens lived up to their self-portrayal as a family capable of acts of kindness and faith toward their own.