Hunter Biden's Memoir Goes Long On Addiction, Short On Corporate Work : The NPR Politics Podcast A new memoir details a harrowing struggle with addiction but mostly elides the past corporate and lobbying work that has raised political propriety questions. A federal investigation into Hunter Biden's taxes could still prove a headache for the president, though the younger Biden has denied wrongdoing and says he is cooperating fully with investigators.

LISTEN: Hunter Biden's interview with Morning Edition

This episode: congressional correspondent Susan Davis, White House correspondent Scott Detrow, and senior political editor and correspondent Ron Elving.

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Hunter Biden's Memoir Goes Long On Addiction, Short On Corporate Work

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Hunter Biden's Memoir Goes Long On Addiction, Short On Corporate Work

Hunter Biden's Memoir Goes Long On Addiction, Short On Corporate Work

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  • Transcript

DIANA: This is Diana (ph) at the St. James Theatre, where I'm about to watch NY PopsUp, the first show on a Broadway stage in over a year. This podcast was recorded at...

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

2:07 p.m. on Monday, April 5.

DIANA: OK. The show must go on.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Big week.

DAVIS: That's great news.

DETROW: Yeah.

DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

DETROW: I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: And I'm Ron Elving, editor/correspondent.

DAVIS: And President Biden's son Hunter is out with a new memoir. It's called "Beautiful Things" and largely recounts his life in the most recent years and his battles with addiction. Scott, you know, I think the Biden family is so central to Joe Biden's story. But Hunter in particular, in recent years, had become, you know, potentially a bit of a political liability for the president.

DETROW: Absolutely. I mean, the Joe Biden story begins and ends and entirely revolves around his family, right? So his son Hunter was always a big part of the conversation when it comes to Joe Biden, from that car crash when he was a child through the fact that his brother Beau died when Joe Biden was vice president. But two big things over the course of the last couple of years - first of all, the fact that former President Trump was impeached for the first time because of something involving Hunter Biden. Hunter Biden had a job on a board of a natural gas company in Ukraine. That's something we're going to talk about. The timing was suspicious because he was appointed to that board when his dad happened to be running U.S. foreign policy for Ukraine.

President Trump thought that this was illegal. He pressured Ukraine's president on a infamous now phone call to basically restart an investigation into any wrongdoing. There was no wrongdoing. A Senate Republican report very intent on finding wrongdoing could not find any. But the fact was, first of all, that job that Hunter Biden had raised a lot of political questions for Joe Biden, led to tons of attacks from Donald Trump on Joe Biden. And then in the final weeks of the race, there were reports of emails from a computer that may have been Hunter Biden's and became kind of grist for Trump attacks on Biden, you know, alleging all kind of vague wrongdoing from Hunter Biden. But, you know, where's Hunter? Hunter Biden became the shorthand from Donald Trump to allege - again, never proven, never quite specified - corruption on Joe Biden's part.

DAVIS: I want to talk more about Burisma and sort of the political ramifications. But, Ron, you read the book. You reviewed it for NPR. And one of the things you note in your review is just how severe Hunter Biden's addiction was and how it's almost kind of a miracle that he's even still alive to write this book.

ELVING: One would have to look for some sort of a synonym for miracle if you don't like to use that terminology. There's one point in the book where he describes how he woke up while he had been bingeing and woke up in mid-air behind the wheel of a car he had been driving. And he realizes that he has left the road and that he is airborne. And he lands and rolls to a stop in the median strip of a freeway. Stories like that are frightening, not only for the risk that, obviously, Hunter Biden was taking for himself but the irresponsibility of the way he was living and the danger that he was to total strangers and the cost that he was imposing on his family in terms of everything - emotional cost, financial cost, health cost and, ultimately, the cost that he could have, in some sense or another, brought on to his father's presidential campaign. So there's a lot in the book about the depths of this addiction, first to alcohol then to cocaine. And this dominates the book despite all the other reasons to be interested in Hunter Biden, and so it was part of his interview with Scott Simon that aired on NPR this morning. Here's a little of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SCOTT SIMON: You've got some startling, insightful sections on what it's like inside the mind of an alcoholic. Can you tell us some of those things that you'd tell yourself when you were drinking?

HUNTER BIDEN: Well, one of the things about being stuck in your addiction - there wasn't much that, I think, any alcoholic, when they're drinking, is rationally thinking, and that's the reason why it's such a hard thing to pull yourself out of. I talk about this in the book, when my dad and my mom asked me to come down. And I was staying in a motel room somewhere in Connecticut. And I walk into the house, and there they are with my daughters, Naomi, Finnegan and Maisy, and my niece and nephew, Natalie and Hunter, and two counselors. You know, my immediate reaction was to run. My dad grabbed me and held on to me and put me in a bear hug and just said, I don't know what to do. And even with all of that love, the feeling that overcame that love was my need for another hit, which is a hard thing to live with.

DAVIS: So obviously, from the political standpoint, Hunter and his business dealings come into play before and during the 2020 campaign season. And he does talk about this in the book, but he continues to make the case that he did not do anything wrong. And he talked about his role with Burisma in that same interview with Scott Simon. And he asked him specifically about agreeing to go sit on the board of Burisma and whether it was the right thing to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BIDEN: Now, I think that in every instance, it is important for me to make that clear and to be honest about that. But, you know, I worked hard to graduate Yale Law School. I had a business. And at the end of the day, the question was whether it was wise. Well, what I know now is that it was certainly not wise in this political environment to create that perception, and that's why I would not do it again.

DETROW: It's not quite an apology.

DAVIS: No, I know. That's what I mean. It's not really an apology. I think it's more like knowing what I know now, I wouldn't have done it again, but it wasn't wrong. Is it safe to say now that the Burisma controversy didn't hurt Joe Biden? I mean, obviously, he won this election.

DETROW: You know, I think that you can make a pretty strong case that in a weird way, the timing of it helped Joe Biden. I'm not fully prepared to make that case, but I think you can really listen to it and think it through, right? - because the news of that phone call with Zelenskiy first starts mid to late September 2019, right? And Joe Biden's immediate argument - and I remember flying across the country in order to catch Joe Biden doing his first campaign event since these allegations came out. It was in Las Vegas. It was, like, this last-minute trip to Las Vegas, which feels 16 lifetimes ago for a lot of reasons. And Joe Biden's immediate argument is, look what Donald Trump is doing because he's scared of me. I'm the only Democrat he's scared of. That's why he is on the phone, threatening world leaders to dig up dirt on me.

And it was a powerful argument, especially since it became pretty clear quickly that these allegations of any sort of criminal wrongdoing from Hunter Biden and Burisma were just not there. There were just the ethical, really serious questions of, what was this guy doing? What was his qualifications for a European natural gas company, right? I think you can make the argument that maybe it did kind of give some validity to Joe Biden's main central argument in the primary that he was the electable guy; he was the guy who could beat Donald Trump.

DAVIS: So obviously, Joe Biden wins the election. Hunter Biden has gotten sober currently, he says. He's no longer, I believe, in the influence industry. Ron, is it clear? Does he say what he's doing now or what his professional role is now that his dad's in office?

ELVING: Well, the story is that he met a woman a couple of years ago. She's a South African filmmaker named Melissa Cohen. And she basically took over his life, took him in hand, got him cleaned up, got him, essentially, back on the straight and narrow. And he is now responsible for himself, and he is painting in California. Now he lives there with his new wife and his new life. He paints.

DAVIS: He paints. All right. Let's take a quick break, and we'll talk more about the book when we get back.

And we're back. And in Hunter Biden's memoir, it does give us at least his view of his family and specifically his father. And, Ron, what kind of portrait of a man does Hunter outline about his father, Joe Biden?

ELVING: It is hard to imagine a more admiring portrait. It begins with his father's devotion to the two little boys after they had lost their mother and sister in 1972, the way he continued to return to their home in Delaware nightly when he was a United States senator so that he could say good night to them, read to them every night - much of that. But then also and perhaps most tellingly now, the many times that his father tried to rescue him from his addictions - the time he came to his apartment when he was drinking and insisted that he go into rehab, the time that they staged a intervention, as they're known, with other family members and his father chased him out into the driveway as he fled and threw his arms around him and said, tell me what to do. I don't know what to do. It's - the portrait of Joe Biden could not be more sympathetic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BIDEN: I've never been afraid of hurting my dad in the sense that any mistakes that I've made would rupture his love for me, but I still am constantly aware of how much pain I caused.

DAVIS: One thing I thought about as I read part of the book is just - maybe it speaks to how common addiction is as a problem in American family life because Joe Biden is certainly not the first president to deal very publicly with an immediate family member with a drug dependency issue. And it speaks to this idea that, like, if it's even happening at the White House, like, we know that addiction is just rampant in this country. And is there something just humanizing about this from a factor of, like, this is just a way of American life for millions and millions of people?

DETROW: You know, Sue, I was saying before that there - you could make a strong argument that the Ukraine stuff backfired and helped Biden. I think you can definitely make that argument on a much more solid ground that the attacks on Biden last fall really did help Joe Biden. Like, you know, those emails - again, the source of them unclear. But you have - you see texts from - allegedly from Joe Biden, just saying, I love you. I'm trying to help you. I'm here for you. A lot of parents can relate to that. That debate - that first debate, I was standing in the room just watching President Trump attack Joe Biden over and over, calling his son a loser, a drug addict. And you saw Joe Biden just saying, that's not true. I love my son, being really supportive of his son. And I think a lot of Americans know somebody in their life who struggled with drugs, who has fallen on their face over and over again and have tried to figure out how to help them through it. And you saw reporting. A lot of people said, you know, I've been in that position. I understand what he's saying, and I don't think that was an attack at all.

DAVIS: It's also just a reminder of the tragedy that Biden was potentially facing with Hunter. You know, he had already lost his first wife and baby daughter in a car accident many years ago. He recently lost his son Beau to brain cancer. And here's his other son, Hunter, from his first marriage, potentially almost facing death with this horrible addiction. I don't know. It's a reminder of the tragedy that defines Joe Biden in a way that I found really hard to read at times. Politically, Ron, this might not be the last we hear about Hunter Biden. Important to remember, he is under federal investigation. They're looking at his taxes as it relates to his business dealings and specifically with foreign governments.

ELVING: That's right. And look; there's just more road ahead. Hunter Biden's in his early 50s, and Joe Biden's got most of four years to run on his first term for president. Many things could happen. Much could be perhaps learned and perhaps revealed. There could be other controversies. I think everyone is pulling for Hunter Biden to keep his life on track. And I think that this book is going to certainly be part of the long-term story, but it isn't the last chapter.

DAVIS: No. And I would add, too, I think politically, Biden gets a little bit of a reprieve with Democrats taking control of Congress in the same election because Republicans, especially in the Senate - Senator Ron Johnson, who was then a party committee chairman, was pretty committed to continuing investigations into things like Burisma and the Biden family dealings. And they don't have that authority anymore now that they're in the minority. So Biden is not going to have to confront congressional investigations into his family life, which will probably make his political life a little bit simpler, at least for now. All right. Well, let's leave it there for today. We'll be back in your feeds tomorrow.

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

DETROW: I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor/correspondent.

DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DETROW: I just saw on the Internet that the aide who played the Easter Bunny today is the nuclear football aide, so that's a real versatility.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

ELVING: Why is that frightening to me?

DAVIS: Honestly, I think being in a mascot costume for that long is probably harder than carrying the suitcase.

DETROW: What if war happened now, and he was pulling out the codes in the Easter Bunny costume?

(LAUGHTER)

ELVING: Oh, my gosh.

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