Hunter Biden was careering above Highway 10 in the Sonoran desert. Eastbound behind the wheel of a rented Lincoln Town Car, exhausted and speeding 80 mph, he’d closed his eyes just long enough to zag off the road and into the air, twirling to land in the opposite lanes. Desert weeds tangled around the under-side of the car. He sat there, stunned, as two police cruisers approached. They didn’t even slow down as they passed him by. A tow truck lugged Biden back to a Palm Springs Hertz, where he picked up a Jeep Cherokee and set out again for Sedona.
It was the fall of 2016, and he’d been expected to check in to a yogic rehabilitation retreat there 12 days earlier. Instead, he’d gone on a bender, meandering across the United States in search of crack, which he could find anywhere. Biden took pride in that. Now he was racing down the highway through the night, tweaked out of his mind, chain-smoking stimulants to stay awake: crack, then cigarettes, crack, then cigarettes. He saw a barn owl — a real one or a mirage, he wasn’t sure. It dipped into view above his windshield and flew off ahead. The bird seemed to be guiding Biden as he snaked through the red rocks, protecting him from disaster, leading him to salvation. He reached his destination at 3 a.m. with drugs in his system. When he’d dropped off his replacement rental car, he’d forgotten to take with him to rehab his paraphernalia — plus his phone and wallet — prompting calls to the police, the Secret Service, and the future president of the United States.
These sordid details come not from a tabloid fever dream or the addled mind of Rudy Giuliani but from Hunter Biden himself in the pages of his new memoir, Beautiful Things. An account of a life defined by pain and privilege, at turns poignant and grim, it’s both a wildly candid story and a highly unusual political document.
A member of the First Family publishing a book is not without recent precedent: Ivanka Trump released Women Who Work, a frilly ode to Girl Boss capitalism, in 2017, and her brother Donald Trump Jr. later published Triggered, a rant about woke dogma, and Liberal Privilege, a screed against Joe Biden. But that was just shallow marketing literature designed to promote the Trump brand. In 2021, on the other hand, a genuine gut-spiller from the First Fuckup, detailing in his own words all the major personal issues the right-wing media has tried and failed to weaponize for years — that had the potential to derail a presidency. Yet Hunter Biden’s ballad of the black sheep landed quietly in Washington.
“I’m shocked,” a senior White House official said. “I get stuff on the dogs all the time. I’ve been so surprised I didn’t get anything on Hunter.” Whether they had braced for a media frenzy or not, members of the Joe Biden administration report that, internally, the arrival of Hunter’s book (which was ghostwritten by the journalist Drew Jubera) on April 6 was a big nonevent. Highly visible yet hardly noticed, everywhere and nowhere at once: It’s the nature of the story of addiction in America and the nature of the story of the story of Hunter Biden. “It’s just not something people talk about,” a second senior White House official said. “It’s the mood that’s set. I don’t think it’s out of fear or because it’s ‘off-limits.’ It’s just not very kind.”
No big strategy meetings, no staff memos, no frantic conference calls, they say. “That’s what they do: close ranks,” a person familiar with the dynamics of the Biden White House said. The few whom the president trusts are familiar faces from his decades inside the Beltway. “It’s very possible that Ron Klain, for example, never read the manuscript. Mike Donilon would have. Kate Bedingfield — I wouldn’t be surprised if she had to pressure someone above her to give it to her,” the person said, referring to the president’s chief of staff, senior adviser, and communications director. “Information hoarding is a big tool of power. It is not easy to work for Joe Biden, and it’s how they maintain their power, how they define what power is and who wields it. In Obamaworld, it was, Who got to go to the meeting? In Bidenworld, it’s, Who gets to know the thing?”
Consider a bubble. What do you see? For me, it’s the prismatic sphere that transports Glinda the Good Witch through Munchkinland to meet Dorothy and Toto, or schools of soapy blobs popping on the grass outside my childhood home. Bubble suggests frivolity and lightness, a thin and impermanent barrier against the world. Our media bubbles have become something harder. As a subject, Hunter Biden emphasizes how political polarization and the democratization of media have created for consumers a “Choose Your Own Adventure” news environment. The right-wing and mainstream media covered Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the impeachments of Donald Trump, in extremely opposite ways (even in differing versions of reality) but at about the same size. There is no such harmony as it relates to Hunter. Even as he puts himself on commercial display with a book that tells much — though not all — of his story, the mainstream media remains cautious and uncertain about how or even whether to approach him. The tabloids and right-wing outlets, meanwhile, are on their own sort of bender.
The Daily Mail used the book’s release as an excuse to publish more private material allegedly obtained from Hunter’s personal devices. The EXCLUSIVE promised to reveal what Hunter didn’t in his memoir. This included images of what appears to be Hunter engaged in an enthusiastic (and rather crowded) sexual act, as well as exchanges with his father and therapist amid the throes of his addictions — breaches so invasive they are hard to look at. Should I even be describing them here? Fox News aired the photos in prime time.
In the 2020 election, Trump overplayed his hand with Hunter, hitting himself in the face instead of his opponent, resulting in his first impeachment and trapping the idea of Hunter-the-bogeyman in the realm of the conservative media. Any story about the son of the Democratic nominee was not only at risk of appearing like a gross attack on a recently recovering addict but also like a form of abetting a right-wing conspiracy. Joe Biden discussed Hunter sparingly, and the more that Trump leaned into his miscalculation about how the public would judge Hunter’s substance abuse, the easier it was to dismiss any other questions. In one debate, Trump muddled his argument that the Bidens were corrupt by referencing Hunter’s drug use, providing his opponent with a chance to defend his son’s recovery as something to be proud of, which overshadowed the complicated mess of China and Ukraine and all that swamp business. Trump just made it too easy.
The dynamic persists now. As Trump used to ask, constantly: Where’s Hunter? As he endeavors to reclaim his own story, it’s like he still can’t pop through the barrier separating the media worlds. The mainstream is afraid to touch it, the people who care the most about it are his enemies, and the White House has no reason to help promote it. White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates told me: “Like the president and First Lady said in February, we’re deeply supportive of Hunter telling the heartfelt story of his painful experiences with addiction, which takes enormous strength and courage and comes at a time when so many Americans are confronting the hardships of addiction themselves and should know they aren’t at all alone.”
The White House received guidance from the book’s publisher, Gallery Books, detailing Hunter’s tightly controlled TV appearances. The limited promotion included two CBS morning shows and a lighthearted romp with Jimmy Kimmel. Hunter has declined all cable news and print interviews. His book has struggled to maintain its position on Amazon’s top ten. But it has served his purpose — and his father’s. In the memoir, he describes a decision to talk to the press without alerting his father’s campaign: “I knew what the story would really do: inoculate everybody else from my personal failings. I wanted to make it so there couldn’t be anything held over my dad’s head.”