Hunter Biden, the younger son of U.S. President Joe Biden, is expected to plead guilty to two misdemeanor tax charges as part of a recently announced deal with the Justice Department that will help him avoid the federal charges for possessing a gun while using illegal drugs.
The president responded to the news of Hunter’s charges, saying on June 20, 2023, that he is “very proud of my son”.
I am a scholar of the American presidency and have looked at how the children and other family members of presidents have been thrust into the nation’s spotlight, often unwittingly. Their shortcomings, vices and sometimes even physical appearance have been fodder for gossip columns, political opponents and comedians.
Hunter Biden is not the first child of a president to be charged with a crime. Jenna and Barbara Bush pleaded “no contest” in 2001 to misdemeanor charges of underage drinking and using a false ID. Amy Carter was arrested for protesting in 1985, and before his father was president, Donald Trump Jr. was arrested for public drunkenness in 2001.
But nearly all presidents have had incidents involving their kids and other family members that attracted public scrutiny. Some of the events fall into questionable prank category, like when Tad Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln, sprayed dignitaries with fire hoses.
Other incidents are less innocuous and amusing.
James Madison raised his troubled stepson, John Payne Todd, as his own. Todd regularly engaged in gambling, drinking and womanizing. Madison went deeply into debt trying to pay off Todd’s vices, including once bailing him out of debtor’s prison. In the mid-1800s, Todd’s debts eventually forced his widowed mother to sell the family estate, Montpelier.
Todd even had a lawyer visit his mother on her deathbed to rewrite her will, making himself her sole heir.
Alice Roosevelt, the oldest child of Theodore Roosevelt, also presented some complications for her father during his presidency in the early 1900s.
Alice had a strained relationship with her father and his second wife, Edith. When her parents suggested sending her to a boarding school, Alice responded: “If you send me, I will humiliate you. I will do something that will shame you. I tell you I will.”
In a time when women were expected to be demur, Alice smoked, drank, partied and even sometimes wore a pet snake as an accessory.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “I can do one of two things: I can be president of the United States or I can control Alice Roosevelt. I cannot possibly do both.”
Alice was later banned from the Taft White House after burying a voodoo doll in the likeness of the new first lady, Helen Herron Taft, on the property.
Neil Bush, son of George H.W. Bush and brother to George W. Bush, also has a colorful history.
Neil was the director of a large savings and loans company that collapsed in 1988, after it made improper and illegal loans. This cost taxpayers more than US$1 billion at the time and resulted in an embarrassing payout to federal banking regulators.
People also criticized Neil because of his ties to Chinese investors and his limited knowledge about industries that employed him, leading to accusations of influence peddling.
Neil Bush, like Hunter Biden, was also the subject of paternity accusations during his divorce.
That’s my brother
Presidential brothers have been another particular sore point for some presidents.
Lyndon Johnson’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson, was often quite talkative after he had a few drinks. The president eventually had to use the Secret Service to follow his brother to ensure he didn’t disclose any embarrassing information to the press .
Billy Carter, former President Jimmy Carter’s brother, reveled in his notoriety. As the president’s brother, he toured the country to make money and hawk his own Billy Beer.
He urinated on a runway before the press corps while waiting for people.
When Carter was running for reelection in 1980, Billy took money from the Libyan government and became a foreign agent for the country – while also making inflammatory and antisemitic statements to justify his behavior.
Billy’s association with Libya ultimately led to a Senate investigation and complicated his brother’s failed reelection campaign.
Roger Clinton, the younger half-brother of former President Bill Clinton, also engaged in questionable activities. In the 1980s, before the Clinton presidency, Roger sold cocaine to an undercover officer.
Later, during the Clinton administration, Roger’s Secret Service codename was “Headache.”
Bill Clinton pardoned Roger for his drug offenses right before leaving office in January 2001.
Keeping it in the family
Presidents are like everyone else. They, too, have family members who do or say things that eventually become stories for the dinner table – or tales people want to push under the rug.
A federal judge still needs to approve Hunter Biden’s deal with the Justice Department that would allow him to avoid prison time for paying $1 million in taxes late and possessing a gun.
And he is still not free of other controversies. The Republican-controlled House continues to investigate his bank records, as well as lingering questions about money he received from foreign organizations.
Hunter himself has said that he is accountable for his actions, and I do not think it is fair to conflate the administration with the activities of an adult son.
He is not the first presidential relative who has caused turmoil, and he won’t be the last.