Peter Castor: Hunter Biden joins other sons of presidents who have tarnished the White House’s reputation
Hunter Biden was indicted on September 14 on weapons charges — and faces potential criminal prosecution while his father campaigns for re-election.
As Hunter’s legal stakes rise, with all the political complications that follow, people rediscover the likes of Ulysses S. Grant Jr., Alice Roosevelt, and Neil Bush, as if the best way to understand Hunter is to be found in the rogues gallery of a difficult presidency. Relatives.
In my research, I observed that presidents consistently looked to their adult children as potential political allies, only to find that younger children became more effective political assets.
Presidents have often sought to give their adult children a role in supporting their administrations. In 1837, Martin Van Buren appointed his son Abraham to be his private secretary. James Roosevelt campaigned in support of his father, Franklin, and supported him in every sense of the word. In his public appearances, Franklin would lean on James and hold his hand in what appeared to be an expression of affection but was actually a tactic to hide his polio-related disability.
Biographers have celebrated presidents like Teddy Roosevelt and John Kennedy who played with their young children. Ronald Reagan’s children debated whether he was a good father, claiming that his own behavior should influence whether people should view him as a great president.
The White House weddings of Linda Bird Johnson and Tricia Nixon provided opportunities to enhance the image of powerful political figures such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
The weddings provided a preview of how the White House kids can provide presidents with image management opportunities. But the process began in earnest thirty years ago, when Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama sought to preserve the privacy of their young daughters even as they made clear efforts to prove their role in raising those daughters.
In a promotional film for his 1996 re-election campaign, Bill Clinton beamed with pride as he discussed Chelsea Clinton’s increasing comfort at political events. George W. Bush celebrated the public careers of his two daughters. Barack Obama joked with TV host Jimmy Kimmel about managing his two daughters’ social media accounts, as if he were just another confused father.
These family-oriented images made the transformation into Donald Trump even more troubling. His approach dates back to the 19th century, when presidents appointed their adult children to office while young children rarely appeared in public. Instead of exploiting the potential of young Barron Trump to present Trump as a caring father, Trump preferred to focus on his adult children.
Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump regularly served as surrogates for their father. Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, held official positions in the administration. However, whatever benefit Trump thought he had achieved, he found that it was a quick damper on public criticism.
Hunter Biden has already become a lightning rod for his father, with the House GOP announcing on September 12 that they would pursue impeachment proceedings based largely on the president’s alleged interactions with his son’s business ventures. Hunter’s place in the story of presidents’ children is clear, a story that politicians now know by heart: as a crucial element in his father’s public image — for better or worse.