Hunter Biden was indicted Sept. 14 on gun-related charges — facing a possible criminal trial while his father is campaigning for reelection.
As Hunter’s legal peril rises, with all its ensuing political complications, people have rediscovered the likes of Ulysses Grant Jr., Alice Roosevelt and Neil Bush, as if the best way to make sense of Hunter is found in a rogues’ gallery of difficult presidential relatives.
In my research, I have observed that presidents have consistently looked to their adult sons as potential political allies, only to find that young children have become more effective political assets.
Presidents have often sought a role for their adult sons in supporting their administrations. In 1837, Martin Van Buren appointed his son, Abraham, to serve as his private secretary. James Roosevelt campaigned for his father, Franklin, and quite literally supported him. In public appearances, Franklin would lean on James, holding his hand in what appeared to be an expression of affection but was actually a tactic to hide his polio-related disability.
Biographers celebrated presidents like Teddy Roosevelt and John Kennedy who played with their young children. Ronald Reagan’s children argued about whether he was a good father, claiming that his private behavior should affect whether people should see him as a great president.
The White House weddings of Lynda Bird Johnson and Tricia Nixon provided opportunities to soften the image of the brass-knuckles political personalities of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
The weddings offered a preview of how White House children provided presidents with image management opportunities. But the process began in earnest 30 years ago, as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama sought to preserve the privacy of their young daughters even as they made conspicuous efforts to demonstrate their role in raising those daughters.
In a promotional film for his 1996 re-election campaign, Bill Clinton beamed with pride as he discussed Chelsea Clinton’s growing comfort at political events. George W. Bush celebrated both of his daughters’ public careers. Barack Obama joked with TV host Jimmy Kimmel about managing his daughters’ social media accounts, as if he were just another befuddled father.
Those family-oriented images made the shift to Donald Trump all the more jarring. His approach harkened back to the 19th century, when presidents appointed their adult sons to office while young children rarely appeared in public. Rather than exploit young Barron Trump’s potential to present Trump as a caring father, Trump preferred to emphasize his grown children.
Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump regularly served as surrogates for their father. Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, held official appointments in the administration. Yet whatever benefit he believed he drew, Trump found they were immediate lightning rods for public criticism.
Hunter Biden had already become the ultimate lightning rod for his father, with the announcement on Sept. 12 by the House GOP that they will undertake impeachment proceedings based largely on the president’s alleged interactions with his son’s business ventures. Hunter’s place in the story of presidential children is thus clear, a story that politicians now know by heart: As a crucial element in his father’s public image — for better or for worse.