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Thicker than Blood: Biden’s Love for His Son Is Beautiful — and It Hits Home for Me

Biden has said he’s proud of his son, too. Repeatedly. After the guilty verdict was read last week, the president issued a statement

Thicker than Blood: Biden’s Love for His Son Is Beautiful — and It Hits Home for Me

Joe Biden

David Sheff

When my son Nic was born, I was like other parents who hope that their children will be healthy and happy. But when Nic became addicted to heroin and methamphetamine as a teenager, my dreams shifted. I wanted him to get clean and stay clean. As his drug problem escalated — he used potentially lethal drugs in dangerous combinations for a decade — my hope for him became very simple: just to survive.

He did, and my gratitude for his life is at the heart of our relationship now. He is here. The past, the fallout, are all secondary.

I’ve been thinking about another father of a son with a severe substance-use disorder; a son who survived and is now in recovery. Americans have strong opinions about President Biden and his son Hunter, and that’s understandable: The president is asking us to consider him for re-election, and Hunter was recently found guilty of three felony counts of lying on a federal firearms application in 2018. It is a father-son relationship unlike any that American voters have grappled with.

But much of the discourse around Joe and Hunter Biden seems so wrongheaded to me. That’s because it reflects a profound misunderstanding of the relationship many parents have with children with substance-use disorders.

Hunter has been referred to as a “headache” for his father. Some commentary suggests he is paying a “political price” for Hunter’s problems; the father is “too deferential” to the son.

In the political arena, all this is fair game. But when Americans consider President Biden’s thoughts and feelings toward his son, they should not assume he is dwelling on whether their interests are in conflict or what a political headache Hunter is. Hunter hasn’t made it easy for his father — but people with substance-use disorders don’t generally make it easy for their loved ones. That doesn’t mean parents of children in addiction see them only in those terms.

I don’t know if Biden ever thinks about his son strictly through a political lens, but I doubt he does. Parents who have thought they might lose their son or daughter never forget that pain. There are signs that Biden has felt that anguish, at least according to Hunter’s 2021 memoir, “Beautiful Things,” in which he describes his escalating drug and alcohol abuse. Hunter writes about a visit from the president (accompanied by a security detail) at a time he was “drinking to avoid the physical pain caused by not drinking.”

“I felt lucky if I passed out,” he wrote. The last thing he wanted was to see his father, but there he was at the front door.

“He looked aghast at what he saw,” Hunter wrote. “He asked if I was OK and I told him, sure, I was fine.

“‘I know you’re not fine, Hunter,’ he said, studying me, scanning the apartment. ‘You need help.’

“I looked into my dad’s eyes and saw an expression of despair, an expression of fear.”

I relate to the president as a father of someone suffering from addiction. I’ve felt that despair. I felt it when I searched for my son on the streets, when he broke into our home and friends’ homes and stole checks and credit cards, and when, after I finally got him into treatment, he fled and relapsed. Multiple times. I felt fear when Nic ended up in an emergency room and I was called by a doctor who told me his arm might have to be amputated because it had become infected through IV drug use. Another time a doctor called to say: “Sheff, we have your son. You’d better get down here. We don’t know if he’s going to make it.”

In Al-Anon meetings, parents and other loved ones of those suffering addictions are offered the three Cs: “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.” Two of the Cs are incontrovertible. I couldn’t control or cure my son’s addiction. (God knows I tried.) But no matter what meeting leaders said, part of me believed that Nic’s addiction was my fault. If only his mother and I had stayed together. If only I’d been stricter, or less strict. There were a million “if onlys.”

Only other parents of those with substance-abuse disorders know this anguish. Only if you’ve been there can you know the unique horrors of addiction and the fear, shame and self-blame that accompany it.

A father’s love doesn’t exonerate Hunter, and the president has said he won’t pardon him. Some parents wipe their hands of their children who become addicted. They lock the doors figuratively and, sometimes, literally. There were times I wanted to when I was tired of Nic’s relapses, embarrassed and appalled by his shameful behavior, but I never could. Apparently, the president can’t either. Or he chooses not to.

For President Biden, as for me and others in our straits, the fact that Hunter is alive and dealing with this problem (apparently one day at a time, apparently without relapsing) may be all that matters. I imagine the president will let the courts do what they’ll do, but his love is unwavering. He’ll let the voters do what they’ll do, but his pride is unmitigated.

Only other parents of sufferers of addiction can understand the pride we feel for a child in recovery. Nic is 13 years sober. He has built a full and meaningful life that was, when he was using, unimaginable.

Biden has said he’s proud of his son, too. Repeatedly. After the guilty verdict was read last week, the president issued a statement.

“I am the president, but I am also a dad,” he said. “Jill and I will always be there for Hunter and the rest of our family with our love and support. Nothing will ever change that.”

NYT Editorial Board
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