Problematic relatives: A true American political tradition
WASHINGTON (AP) — Since America’s early days, leading politicians have had to contend with awkward problems posed by their family members. Joe Biden is the latest to navigate this tricky terrain.
President Donald Trump has sought, without evidence, to implicate Biden and his son Hunter in the kind of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine. Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company at the same time his father, then vice president, was leading the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Ukraine. Though the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden.
The president’s baseless claims have nonetheless thrust Hunter Biden into the center of presidential politics, complete with reminders of a checkered history that includes the younger Biden’s multiple stints in drug rehab and other personal problems. He’s part of a sometimes unfortunate American tradition in which the foibles of otherwise obscure people become liabilities for national leaders.
“Everyone’s affected when somebody becomes president,” said Carl Anthony, author of “America’s First Families.” “Often these people end up feeling that their entire identity is filtered through who they’re related to.”
John Adams, America’s second president, had a son who died of alcoholism while the father was still in office. Adams’ oldest son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth president, but John Quincy Adams’ son John was “thrown out of Harvard for drinking and partying,” according to Anthony.
Presidential historian Doug Wead says both the pressures and temptations of a presidential child or sibling can be unique and distinct from relatives of other famous celebrities or prominent businessmen.
“It’s just enormous pressure to perform. The expectations are so high,” said Wead, author of “All the Presidents’ Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of the First Families.”
“It’s a hopeless task. Unless you become president yourself, you’re overshadowed,” he said.
Billy Carter still stands as one of the most prominent examples of troublesome presidential relatives. Jimmy Carter’s brother had a string of public embarrassments and flagrant attempts to cash in on his position. His multiple incidents of public drunkenness became so infamous that he launched his own brand of Billy Beer. The hijinks took on a more serious tone in 1980, when he registered as a paid agent of the Libyan government and accepted a $220,000 payment from Tripoli. The move triggered an investigation by the Senate Judiciary Committee that included a young Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del.
Almost every president has seemingly had some sort of troublesome family member to contend with. Some of the historical misbehavior would be seen as serious in modern times. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s son Jimmy moved from controversy to controversy, including openly selling positions in his father’s administration, Wead said.
In other cases, the scandals now seem in hindsight to be more of a window into the quant social standards of the time. Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice was a controversy magnet for her father’s entire tenure in office. Her supposed crimes: smoking in public, swearing and showing up at parties with her pet snake. Wead’s favorite Alice Roosevelt anecdote: At one point the president said his daughter could not smoke inside the White House, so Alice called a news conference on the White House roof and smoked there.
Richard Nixon reportedly had his brother Donald’s phone tapped because he feared Donald’s business activities might embarrass the administration. Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis spoke out publicly against her father’s politics, published a tell-all book and later posed for Playboy.
Hillary Clinton’s brothers were both accused of shady business dealings while their brother-in-law, Bill Clinton, was in office. Meanwhile Roger Clinton, Bill’s half brother, had a string of drug-related incidents that famously earned him the Secret Service codename “headache.”
President Trump’s son Don Jr. has earned his share of headlines for meeting with Russian operatives offering dirt on Hillary Clinton as well as pushing Trump business overseas with deals that may have benefited from his father’s position.
George H.W. Bush stands as an interesting exception. His most problematic and seemingly least ambitious son turned out to be the most politically successful: George W. Bush, the 43rd president.
Wead said the Bush family had ambitious plans for several of their sons, but not all of them. “Jeb was the one who was supposed to be the star,” he said. “Junior was the family clown.”
Neil Bush’s political career was derailed by his involvement in the collapse of Silverado Savings and Loan. Jeb Bush did become governor of Florida, but his presidential ambitions ran headlong into the ascendant Trump in 2016.
Wead has deep personal experience with the Bush clan. His entry into politics was working directly with George W. Bush on his father’s 1988 presidential campaign. When the elder Bush won, Wead launched a personal research project into the lives of presidential children as a favor to George W. and the other Bush siblings.
“I was astounded at how binary it was. Either you’re going to be a great success or you’re going to be an alcoholic mess,” he said.