So far Joe Biden has fulfilled the promise of his campaign. His administration has been mostly dull, and nothing has radically changed. Towards the end of the summer, after the US evacuation from Kabul, his approval rating dipped below 50 per cent and over the autumn it sank into the low 40s. In the media he’s widely seen as a lame duck, as columnists speculate about whether he will run for a second term in 2024, at the age of 81, or be replaced by a pundit’s dream ticket of Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg. The spectre of Trump remains, at least in the obsessive minds of those who believe the vandalism done to the Capitol on 6 January was a catastrophe on a par with 9/11. Asked about reports that Trump knowingly exposed him to Covid-19 during a debate, Biden said: ‘I don’t think about the former president. Thank you.’
A healthy attitude, no doubt, though not widespread among the press. It’s fitting that the most disgusting revelations in Ben Schreckinger’s The Bidens: Inside the First Family’s Fifty-Year Rise to Power (Little, Brown, £25) are to do with Trump and his coterie of goons rather than the Bidens themselves. The contrast is between shameless fraud and sadism on the one hand, and shamefaced venality and bumbling on the other. When the contents of a laptop allegedly belonging to Hunter Biden found their way into the hands of the New York Post, Schreckinger reports that Steve Bannon wanted the tabloid to publish ‘racy’ images of Hunter with Hallie, his brother’s widow, in order to ‘break’ his father psychologically. Bill Stevenson, Jill Biden’s first husband, tells Schreckinger that unnamed supporters of Trump offered to pay him to write in a memoir that Joe and Jill began having an affair while Joe’s first wife, Neilia, was still alive, ‘and that the affair drove Neilia to her death’.
Stevenson declined the offer, but he isn’t exactly sunny on the subject of the Biden family. He was a supporter of Joe’s 1972 Senate campaign and claims that he and Jill had met Joe and Neilia while volunteering for them. He believes that Joe was behind the wheel of Jill’s Corvette in September 1974 when it dented another man’s Buick Electra. These tales don’t square with the Bidens’ official account of their courtship, which they say began in the spring of 1975 with dinner and a movie. The contradictions are hardly scandalous, but they aren’t the end of Stevenson’s rivalry with the Biden family, and especially with Joe’s younger brother Jim.
Jim Biden has had a career that reads like the Stations of the Cross for an American baby boomer: rock ’n’ roll, real estate, financial services and insurance for unions, a hedge fund, global ‘deal making’, and at last the healthcare sector. In the 1970s he and a partner opened a rock club in Wilmington called the Other Side, putting them in direct competition with their friend Stevenson, owner of the Stone Balloon. They vied for the going talent and Stevenson took to booking Blood, Sweat & Tears and the Pointer Sisters, signing acts to geographically restrictive contracts to keep his edge. The owners of both clubs were soon in over their heads. Jim took out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans from banks and businessmen, which ended with his Mercedes being repossessed and his club going bankrupt. He headed out to San Francisco, where he began working for the billionaire developer Walt Shorenstein.
‘Jim’s job,’ a former business partner tells Schreckinger, ‘is to ensure the lifestyle is good for the family.’ In Schreckinger’s account, it’s a job that has involved a series of business ventures and real-estate deals with donors to his brother’s campaigns and lobbyists seeking his ear. There are friendly loans and scrapes with the IRS. He went from accepting cheques for his brother from union leaders in the 1970s to pitching union officials on pension services and insurance schemes thirty years later. (A hazy episode from the 1972 campaign involves Frank Sheeran, the hitman portrayed by Robert De Niro in The Irishman, allegedly organising a truck drivers’ strike on behalf of the Bidens, preventing the delivery of a newspaper carrying ads for Joe’s opponent.) Schreckinger conveys an impression of Jim as a man who never developed much expertise in anything except attaching himself to people with money while never letting them forget who his brother was. One union official tells Schreckinger of a pitch on a pension plan from Jim:
‘After explaining to me 23 times who his brother was and what a great relationship he has with him,’ the official recalled, Jim got around to explaining his pension services. The official ceded the floor to his lieutenant, in order to let him vet the proposal. ‘He started asking questions and took [Jim] apart,’ the official recalled. ‘Apparently it was a bullshit thing.’
There are a lot of apparently bullshit things in The Bidens, but it’s hard to see them as actually criminal or even especially outrageous once you accept that a politician’s family will trade on his name to whatever extent they can get away with legally. Schreckinger’s conclusions are usually mild: ‘The Bidens regularly intermingled personal, political and financial relationships in ways that invited questions about whether the public interest was getting short-changed.’ What Schreckinger uncovers seems little more than a string of foul-smelling puddles next to the utter cesspit of the predatory Trump clan.
The most depressing episodes concern Jim’s murky involvement in the healthcare sector during the lucrative aftermath of Obamacare. He got involved in Americore Health, which sought to make rural hospitals ‘more profitable by capitalising on the underlying value of the real estate on which they sat. Because Medicare allows rural providers to bill more for lab tests, Americore also sought to increase the number of lab tests it performed at its hospitals.’ Grim. Schreckinger tells the story of one hospital in western Pennsylvania that went bankrupt after Americore bought it, leaving the area without any hospital at all. Jim broke with the company just before his brother launched his presidential campaign.
There are comic notes in Schreckinger’s book, or notes that I found comical anyway. Frank Biden, the youngest brother, figures as a somewhat mysterious scamp, haunted by a car accident in which a pedestrian was killed. (Frank had rented the car but was sitting in the passenger seat at the time.) He was found liable in a wrongful death suit and made subject to liens on his assets whenever he had any. His business activities have included for-profit charter schools in Florida, resorts in Central America and a solar power outfit in Jamaica. ‘I’ve never made a dime from any association with my brother Joey, and it’s just wrong to imply otherwise,’ he tells Schreckinger. Presumably this includes the job he got in 1973, aged twenty, as an elevator operator in the Senate.
A member of the younger generation of Bidens who comes in for Schreckinger’s scrutiny is Joe’s niece Missy Owens, daughter of his sister, Val. During the Obama administration she became an executive at Coca-Cola, which put her on the wrong side of Michelle Obama’s health initiatives and the ‘war on soda’ waged by Michael Bloomberg with the first lady’s support. According to Schreckinger, Owens arranged for Jill Biden to pay a visit to a Coke job-training programme in Brazil, joined Joe and John Kerry for the unveiling of the Coke-sponsored 2014 World Cup trophy, and tagged along with Jill as part of a government delegation to Cuba, which happens to be one of only two countries in the world where Coke can’t be bought or sold (the other is North Korea). Bloomberg’s attempt to ban big sugary drinks failed, and Michelle Obama’s rhetoric on soda softened into bromides about drinking more water.
When it comes to unhealthy lifestyles among the president’s family, Hunter Biden is where the action is. Schreckinger’s scoops about Hunter, news he broke in his day job as a reporter for Politico, elicit the usual mix of pity and a wish to look away. Most sensational is the story of Hallie Biden throwing a handgun of Hunter’s into a trash can outside a grocery store; it was later recovered by a homeless man. That Hunter might have lied about not using drugs on his application for a gun licence (a felony, ‘though the law is almost never enforced’) comes to seem beside the point when you read: ‘After he was called to the scene by police, Hunter said he used the gun for target practice and that he believed Hallie disposed of it because she feared he would kill himself.’ The tragic strain in the Biden story comes back into focus, and the shady overseas payments, the nefarious laptop, the sex tapes and crack pipes all pale alongside the memory of Hunter’s dead mother and siblings.
Whether Joe Biden’s presidency will come to be seen as a period of national healing is an open question. The exit from Afghanistan may have been humiliating, but something of the sort was inevitable in a war that had long become futile. Although Biden’s Build Back Better social and infrastructure bill has been trimmed from $3.5 trillion to $2.2 trillion, it represents a larger expansion of government than any of Biden’s recent predecessors have accomplished. No doubt it is disappointing to a left that demanded radical action on climate change and the cancellation of student debt. The gubernatorial and local elections in November went badly for the Democrats, especially the race for governor of Virginia, in which the longtime Clinton hack Terry McAuliffe was defeated by the GOP neophyte Glenn Youngkin in a campaign dominated by culture wars. But a figure like Youngkin isn’t exactly anathema to the Bidens: until 2020 he was co-CEO of the private equity firm Carlyle, which has shown great interest in Build Back Better. Biden and his family spent Thanksgiving at the Nantucket home of Carlyle’s co-founder, the billionaire David Rubenstein. When the US government spends trillions of dollars, somebody somewhere is in for a bonanza.