Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the new podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“Crackhead Hunter.” That was the slur Donald Trump Jr. hurled at now-President Joe Biden’s younger son after the first presidential debate, during which Trump Sr. falsely stated that Hunter Biden had been dishonorably discharged for cocaine use. (Hunter had been discharged after testing positive for cocaine, but it was not a dishonorable discharge.)
After a debate that had been nearly unwatchable due to Trump’s repeated interruptions and insults, the shots taken at Hunter still stood out. For all the conspiracies the Trump team had spread about him, attacking his addiction had crossed a line.
Joe Biden responded to the insults during the debate by coming to Hunter’s defense. “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem,” he explained, pivoting to the heart of the matter rather than detailing why Trump was wrong. “He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”
It demonstrated the stark difference between the two candidates – one fueled by grievance, the other by empathy – and also showed how sharply Americans’ attitudes toward addiction have shifted in recent years.
On the debate stage, Joe Biden reflected that change, talking about his son’s struggles openly, with deep love and pride, before extending that same empathy to the millions of American families dealing with addiction. In that moment, policy and personality intertwined in meaningful ways. Rather than the tough-love, war-on-drugs approach of the 1980s, Joe Biden treated his son – and promised to treat the country – with an endless reservoir of love, compassion, and understanding.
It is politically savvy without feeling politically savvy, one of Joe Biden’s real gifts. Because there is a real upside for both Hunter and Joe Biden in centering Hunter’s challenges of addiction. Now that Americans have come to treat addiction with more empathy, both Bidens understand that a story of addiction would not compound the conspiracies swirling around Hunter, but offer a potential escape from them.
Why the change? In recent years, as laws around marijuana have relaxed and worries about opioids have mounted, public attitudes about drugs and addiction have shifted. The stringent across-the-board just say no approach to drug use during the Reagan administration has softened since states began legalizing recreational marijuana in 2012. At the same time, the emerging opioid crisis, which hit White communities especially hard, led to a growing empathy toward people struggling with addiction.
Hunter’s memoir projects a deep understanding of that empathy – and the urgent need for it. The story he tells is one of addiction against the backdrop of intense loss and love: a close-knit and interdependent family shattered again and again by inexplicable tragedy. The loss of his mother and sister in a horrific car accident when he was just two is part of his story, but not central to it the way it is to his father’s.
When retelling his sole memory of the accident, he admits, “I can’t be sure how much of it is a composite of family stories and news accounts I’ve heard or read through the years.” But every moment of his brother Beau’s struggle with brain cancer and his death in 2015 is seared in his memory, from the color of an anesthesiologist’s eyes to a smudge on his brother’s brain scan to the moment when, several minutes after doctors announced the time of death, Beau’s heart beat one last time, as though he had come back for a moment to say goodbye.
Hunter seems most alive on the page when talking about two things: Beau and his addiction. Though he had dealt with addiction for years, it was after Beau’s death that Hunter’s world steadily shrinks as he loses himself more and more to his addictions to alcohol and crack: he loses his marriage, grows distant from his daughters, and is soon living in hotels, his life blurring into a steady stream of dealers and bad decisions. He hates it – barred from the family home after another relapse, he recounts, “Instead of going home every night to be embraced by three children I adored, I returned to a strange, silent space” – and yet he details his experience of a bell ringer, “crack’s holy grail,” with such awe and desire that it is easy to understand how he lost it all. On the hunt for both that sensation and the sort of easy, unconditional love he had with Beau, he ends up in a short, awful relationship with his brother’s widow, a moment that feels both incomprehensible and inevitable.
In the midst of all this is a chapter on Burisma, a Ukrainian company where Hunter was a board member. It became the center of a confusing conspiracy theory that became part of the 2020 campaign and Donald Trump’s first impeachment. Emerging in the middle of a story of grief and addiction, the chapter reads as both self-serving and mostly beside the point. Which is, in a way, smart story-telling: the Burisma story was an election year red herring, and has little to do with what Hunter is most trying to convey about his addiction, his shame and his humanity.
That he is able to tap into a vein of sympathy and empathy around a serious addiction is due in no small part to shifts that were happening during the Obama administration, while his father was vice president and while his addiction was worsening. Former President Barack Obama had been open about his own experimentation with both marijuana and cocaine, something the previous two presidents had acknowledged in much cagier terms. (When running for president in 1999, George W. Bush said he had not used illegal drugs in the past 25 years, and Bill Clinton famously claimed to have smoked marijuana without ever inhaling.) When he entered office, he hoped to reframe the “war on drugs” that had fueled America’s mass incarceration crisis.
The administration made headway, if unevenly, on that approach. Following the legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington and Colorado, then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memorandum announcing the US government would not spend its time enforcing federal marijuana laws in places where the drug had been legalized. The next year, Obama appointed Michael Botticelli to head up the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Botticelli had dealt with drug and alcohol addiction in his 20s and 30s, before achieving sobriety and beginning a career in public health. He was the first public health expert to lead the agency – a move that gave real teeth the administration’s commitment to treat drug addiction as a public health, rather than a criminal, issue.
That move came just as the opioid crisis began to make headlines in the US, with deaths spiking as more and more Americans moved from prescription painkillers to heroin and fentanyl. By the end of the Obama administration, opioid overdoses were the leading cause of death in Americans under 50.
Hunter Biden dwells on none of this; inside his addiction, the world of politics largely disappears, and he starts ignoring his father’s phone calls, cutting himself off from the flows of love coming from his family. And there is so much love: Even in self-pitying passages, furious that rehab means isolation or livid that his parents have staged an intervention, he can’t help but marvel at all the love constantly directed his way, seldom with any judgment attached.
After he flees from an intervention at the Biden home, his father chases him down the driveway: “He grabbed me, swung me around, and hugged me. He held me tight and cried for the longest time.”
Joe Biden’s desperation and helplessness are heartbreaking and revelatory: even with every available resource, including all his love and devotion, he could not save his son, who promised to go to rehab that night but instead skipped town. Too many American families can relate; addiction is a disease, not curable by incarceration or love.
Although Hunter comes to a somewhat different conclusion. Near the end of his memoir, he meets Melissa, now his wife. It’s a moment he describes in the clear, emotive detail otherwise reserved for his time with Beau and or his relationship with drugs: “It was a bell ringer,” he writes, blurring the lines between love and addiction. He immediately professes his love; a week later, they get married.
Moments before the ceremony he’s on the phone with his lawyer, because Trump has gone on Fox News to demand another investigation of Burisma. But rather than dwell on it, he tunes it out, blocking out everything but his new all-consuming focus: his wife and, less than a year later, their son Beau.
All of that makes for an odd political memoir, in part because Hunter Biden isn’t a political person. He was drafted into the 2020 election by Trumpian conspiracies and a right-wing media apparatus that now focuses on Democrats’ families in order to feed the non-stop scandal machine. It also makes for an odd addiction memoir, with its pat, love-conquers-all conclusion that should feel inspirational but instead feels fragile, like you’ve hit a pause in the story rather than its end. But you also hope, for his sake, for Joe Biden’s sake, for the sake of every family dealing with addiction, that out of so much loss and destruction, something durable has emerged.