One night in 2016, during “a crack-fueled, cross-country odyssey” that he recalls in his new memoir, Beautiful Things, Hunter Biden saw an owl. He had already totaled one rental car that trip. Suddenly, “an enormous barn owl … swooped over my windshield, as if dropped straight from the inky night sky.” It flew in his headlights like a guide along the winding mountain road, “like a stunt plane at an air show.” The meaning of this apparition, which he thinks saved his life? “I didn’t know if it was real or a hallucination, but it sure as hell woke me up.”
The owl story is representative of most of Beautiful Things, in that it’s a longer telling of a memory Hunter has already spoken about in public, and imbues the events of his life with a vague sense of magical destiny and a dose of inexplicable charm. Along with anecdotes about Baby Down the Samoan bouncer and the many young women he says robbed him during the downward spiral of his substance abuse, Hunter has been talking about the owl since at least 2017, when he gave a tell-all interview to Adam Entous at The New Yorker. It was that interview that helped Donald Trump accuse Hunter’s father of “corruption by proxy” over Hunter’s business dealings in Ukraine.
Such repetitions give the owl the air of being selected from a preapproved list of Biden-camp anecdotes. These also include Hunter’s brief romance with his brother’s widow, Hallie; the redemptive love he found with his second wife, Melissa; and the oft-repeated story of his earliest memory, his brother Beau saying, “I love you, I love you, I love you” to him from a neighboring hospital bed after the car crash that killed their mother and sister in 1972. Beautiful Things is titled for a kind of mantra Hunter shared with Beau, who died from brain cancer in 2015. The pair were extremely close, and his death was the point Hunter’s life began to disintegrate.
Fortunately, those scenes of disintegration are what lift Beautiful Things from an even-toned press release line-edited by somebody from the Democratic Party into a pretty interesting minor thriller about homelessness and drug addiction. Biden describes the gun pointed at him in Los Angeles’s Tent City and the weeks he spent at the Chateau Marmont cooking crack cocaine—“I became absurdly good at it—guess that 172 on my LSAT counted for something”—with the charming candor of a very privileged guy who is used to escaping consequences with his sense of humor intact.
But the best of Beautiful Things lies in the pages Biden spends with Rhea (a pseudonym), an older woman from Washington, D.C., who moved in with him for a number of months and whom he calls “the funniest person I know.” Both addicts, Hunter and Rhea developed into “a deranged, crack-addled version of The Odd Couple,” he writes, “her Felix Unger neatnik habits crashing against my slobbier Oscar Madison tendencies.” She borrowed his favorite belt and cut it in half to fit her tiny body; he spilled vodka on the rug. He went to pick up her prescriptions from CVS, and took her to the emergency room sometimes. They cared for each other.
Somewhere in his description of Rhea’s peripheral neuropathy, caused by an allergic reaction to cocaine mixed with lidocaine, Hunter (or whatever combination of ghostwriters and editors composed this book) manages to establish himself as a real human being. The advantages of his background, education as a lawyer, and clear contempt for responsibility should count against him, but the thing about addiction is that it levels people with no regard to social status, and that makes a difference to his story. Unlike the celestial owl, Hunter’s crack years do have a moral to them: the innate equivalence of all people’s worth.
It’s hard to say who let Hunter Biden’s life story become public. By his own account, Hunter first made the decision to talk about drugs and disaster to The New Yorker in 2017 all by himself, in the midst of his crack use, because he wanted to protect his father’s potential presidential candidacy from a “trickle of disclosures.” Whoever’s decision it was, the move was the right one, because it did protect the elder Biden from that very trickle. By blowing up all at once, Hunter’s disclosures handed Trump, Giuliani, et al. ammunition of the kind that has to be used immediately or not at all.
“Where’s Hunter?” and the associated laptop conspiracy failed to make a dent in Joe Biden’s presidential hopes, and probably ended up helping rather than hurting him. Trump’s team had done wonders for itself by persistently smearing Hillary Clinton, but with Hunter they miscalculated: America is simply not prepared to interpret a handsome man with a tragic and nonviolent backstory, especially one as relatable as drug addiction, as a villain.
Still, beguiling though his vulnerability in Beautiful Things may be, this is not a normal addiction memoir. Hunter Biden’s life story is only newsworthy because of Joe Biden, and that’s also arguably true the other way around. Hunter’s abject tales of addiction are among the storied tragedies that have beset his father, but he and Beau have also been a part of Biden’s political image from its very beginning. Unwilling to leave them after the crash, Biden was sworn in as a senator in their hospital room. One of the consequences was that Beau and Hunter Biden became public property, and a part of their father’s political identity.
Joe Biden is in part the president of this country because the tragedies he’s prevailed against make him convincingly relatable to many Americans. Is that an offensively cynical way to discuss personal tragedy? Back in 1973, Joe Biden gave a somewhat ill-advised interview with the Washingtonian’s Kitty Kelley, who compared “Joe Biden and his beautiful young family” to the Kennedys. “The Irish Catholic similarities were obvious,” she wrote. “Both campaigned with glamor. Both were sexy. Both were elected to Congress before the age of 30. And both were struck by tragedy.”
Beautiful Things reminds you how powerful a force tragedy is in American electoral politics, how difficult it is to analyze, and how successfully Joe Biden has wielded its invocation in his rhetoric. There is something Kennedy-esque about Hunter Biden, and it’s worth trying to understand it, if only because Trump’s misunderstanding backfired so spectacularly. His attempt to turn “Where’s Hunter?” into “Lock Her Up” 2.0 only drew attention to Joe Biden’s greatest asset: a sorrowful private life that all but demands your empathy.