Updated April 1, 2021 at 6:36 PM ET
When former President Donald Trump was still in office and holding rallies, he often shouted a question that provoked howls of raucous laughter from the crowd: "Where's Hunter?"
Trump was referring derisively to Hunter Biden, the son of the man who is now President Biden. “Beautiful Things: A Memoir” is Hunter's answer to Trump's question. He wants to tell us where he is, where he has been, and what it has taken to get him from there to here.
It is at times a harrowing journey. Readers who make it all the way through may feel they have completed something of a 12-step rehab program themselves. The details at times make one feel exposed to something like degradation porn.
As has long been reported, the younger Biden is an alcoholic and a crack addict. Euphemisms about "alcohol and drug problems" do not apply here, as the memoirist himself makes clear from the opening pages.
"I've been so desperate for a drink that I couldn't make the one-block walk between a liquor store and my apartment without uncapping the bottle to take a swig," Biden writes. He also provides a how-to for cooking powder cocaine into crack in the kitchen.
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After buying his first rock of crack cocaine in a public square in downtown Washington at the age of 18 and spending much of his education years drinking ("I could always drink five times as much as anyone") Biden began his tour of rehab facilities while still in his early 30s. He has seen the inside of celebrity treatment centers in Mexico as well as in various parts of the U.S. The rehabs led to brief bouts of sobriety followed by relapses, each of which seemed to take him deeper into dependency.
He acknowledges months spent drunk in a D.C. apartment and more months binging cocaine in hotel bungalows in Hollywood — while his father was either vice president or a candidate for president. Considering the time he spent high behind the wheel, it is amazing the author can still be alive to recount the story.
He also addresses other elements of his life that have raised eyebrows or presented potential legal and political problems. He acknowledges DNA evidence that he fathered a child with a woman he does not remember having met. He acknowledges the fallout from his affair with the widow of his late brother, Beau, which took place after his brother's death and after the widow retrieved him from a rehab center.
And he devotes a chapter to his relationship with Burisma, a natural gas company in Ukraine that was among his most lucrative gigs. For service on that company's board of directors, the younger Biden was paid five figures each month. As he had no special expertise in gas or the political economics of Ukraine, that remuneration was always suspect.
Hunter Biden says he vetted Burisma with a reputable U.S. law firm and worked to help them comply with anti-corruption laws and related demands for transparency from the U.S. and the European Union. As for Burisma's interest in Hunter's family connection, he writes:
"There's no question my last name was a coveted credential. That has always been the case. Do you think if any of the Trump children ever tried to get a job outside their father's business that his name wouldn't figure into the calculation? My response has always been to work harder so that my accomplishments stand on their own."
Of course, Trump and his personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani spent much of 2019 and 2020 promoting the younger Biden's relationship with Burisma as a corrupt bargain that involved the elder Biden — and that needed investigating. Those accusations, and Trump's aggressive effort to induce Ukraine to investigate them, led to his first impeachment.
But Trump and Giuliani did not stop there. Efforts to portray Hunter as a liability, even a disqualification for his father's candidacy, continued right up to the election in November 2020.
The last gasp of Giuliani's campaign against the Bidens featured a laptop supposedly obtained from sources that would document the younger Biden's drug use and other offenses. Numerous news organizations cast doubt on the credibility of the laptop story.
As for the drug use, however, there could scarcely be a more damning account than Hunter Biden's own in his memoir. Repeated attempts at intervention by his father and family fail to stop him. He is estranged from his wife, who divorces him and has custody of their daughters. With each relapse he descends another rung until he haunts a nocturnal underworld of addicts, dealers, ex-cons and con artists in Los Angeles.
And then, in the final pages, it is the spring of 2019 and Hunter meets a South African filmmaker and activist named Melissa, who swiftly brings his life under control in ways Hunter himself never had. He stops drinking and smoking crack. The two, who married not long after meeting, now have a son, a toddler the nation saw onstage at the Biden victory celebration the Saturday after the election in November.
That little boy is named Beau, for Hunter's older brother who died of a brain tumor in 2015. But by this point in the book, one knows the son could have no other name. Beau Biden is as much a character in this memoir as anyone, appearing in memories beginning with the night in 1972 when the boys are injured in a car crash that kills their mother and baby sister. They wake up next to each other in a hospital. Their shared memories of this loss bind them far more than even close brothers are usually bound. It is after Beau's death that Hunter loses the will to fight the demons he has battled for so long.
When he meets Melissa, the first thing he tells us about her is that she has blue eyes like Beau's. The last section of “Beautiful Things” is a letter to Beau, and the title refers to a mantra the two had in the days they spent together near the end of Beau's life.
This memoir is surely a confession, but it seems to seek something other than conventional forgiveness – something other than sympathy.
It is not an easy thing to be a senator's son. It may be cushy at times and many doors may open. But Hunter Biden's father was not just another senator. And while no one can doubt the love between the two, as amply demonstrated countless times, there is also a chasm between the hungers of the son and the trajectory of the teetotaler father. (Aware of stories about problem drinkers in the family tree, the elder Biden steered clear.)
It was not always easy being Beau Biden's little brother, either. Popular and smart, Beau was president of his high school class each year while Hunter was changing schools a lot, looking for the right fit. He got into Georgetown University, but did a lot of drinking while a student. He got into Yale on a second try after adding a poem to his application. He tells us later he got a 172 on his LSAT (99th percentile) and clearly has a sense of his ability — both professional and artistic — that has never been fulfilled.
In the end, if it is not about forgiveness or sympathy, this memoir may be about making a stand. Making it clear the younger son, the black sheep of the Biden clan, wants to take whatever place on that victory stage he can occupy, as a son and a brother and the father of Beau Biden II, the new generation of hope.
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A previous version of this story said U.S. intelligence had discredited the laptop story. U.S. intelligence officials have not made a statement to that effect.