Or Merely Crazy?
If you want insight into how challenging life has become for reporters in the Trump era, take a glance at the author’s note for The Bidens, the controversial new book about the president and his family by Politico reporter Ben Schreckinger.
No journalism is apolitical, but Schreckinger’s approach to investigating the first family is as close as you’ll find in the “moral clarity” era to old-school aspirations to objectivity. This book initially won love from the conservative press because Schreckinger brought the mainstream imprimatur of Politico to confirmation of some of the key emails in the infamous Hunter Biden laptop story. But that enthusiasm may have tailed off when reporters for those outlets read the book, which is also brutal in its treatment of figures like Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, and Donald Trump; Schreckinger is an equal-opportunity offender.
In the author’s note, however, it’s clear Schreckinger is concerned about how the mere act of publishing damaging information about Joe Biden and his family members will be received. “We live in an age of distrust and of coordinated campaigns to manipulate public opinion,” he writes, adding: “Readers have every right to wonder whether an extended inquiry into the Biden family, emphasizing its finances, is just some instrument of a broader effort to create a political narrative.”
He goes on to reassure readers that that’s not what he’s up to, that he just believes “the best way to understand people in power, and subjects of international controversy, is to attempt a thorough, timely examination.” He then adds, in a note that reads like he’s saying, “You may be more receptive to these disquieting facts in a few years”:
Too often people interpret the news of the day through the lens of their own political sympathies, and a more nuanced understanding of our leaders emerges only much later, when political pressures have eased.
For these reasons, he has hope the reader can accept his “holistic” telling of the Bidens’ story, which turns out to be a far darker and freakier tale than conventional wisdom has yet conceded.
Schreckinger is young, and The Bidens was clearly written in a bit of a hurry, but he’s a skilled storyteller. The initial framing is clever, with a first first chapter titled, “Chekhov’s Laptop,” a reference to Russian playwright’s famous dictum that “if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”
Having primed the reader to look for that metaphorical gun on the wall, he opens with a scene that’s bananas even by the outré standards of first son Hunter Biden’s “tumultuous” life. Hunter in October of 2018 had gotten in an argument with his then-girlfriend, Hallie, who according to the funhouse physics of the first family was of course the widow of his late brother Beau. In the course of that dispute, Hallie had taken his .38 revolver and thrown it out of Hunter’s pickup truck (a pickup truck?) into a trash can outside “Janssen’s, a high-end grocery store near Wilmington the family had long frequented.”
When Hunter found out the gun was gone, he chivalrously sent Hallie back into the trash to get it. This turns out to be the first of many moments in The Bidens where despite a seemingly tireless instinct for indulgent selfishness, and a maximally unattractive profile as the coddled scion of political privilege, one somehow feels bad for Hunter Biden. He’s not just a wreck, but a wreck with spectacularly bad luck. In this case, not only has his dead brother’s widow taken advantage of his trusting nature and thrown away his pistol (the one a person with his recreational leanings probably shouldn’t have anyway, but does, and moreover has left unattended), she picked the one bin that’s both across the street from a high school and in a spot where an old man hunting for recyclables somehow finds it.
Now the thing is missing and poor Hunter, who if nothing else has a keen sense of his own potential for disaster, must be imagining the worst, which in his family is likely a headline: Boy, 13, Uses Gun Registered to Dickhead Senator’s Son to Kill Parents, Neighbor, Dog, Self. The Delaware State Police are called, the FBI for some instantly suspicious reason also shows up, the Secret Service also reportedly appears at the store where Hunter bought the gun (I say reportedly because the Secret Service denies this, the first of many details in The Bidens that ends up receding in a fog of conflicting accounts), and the ATF even makes an appearance.
The gun was eventually found after a few days, when the old man turned it in. By that point Hunter had already skipped town and begun setting in motion a preposterous chain of events that have ramifications in national politics to the present day. Again as would be expected in the hallucinogenic tabloid logic that seems to govern all events in the Biden family, Hunter follows up the gun mess by going up to Newburyport, Massachusetts to clean himself up in the care of Keith Ablow, a Fox News personality who is “recognizable by his clean-shaven head” and had once accused Joe Biden of being drunk during a vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan.
This turns out to be a home rehab job with all the respectability of the Dr. Sonderborg’s Bay City dopehouse in Farewell My Lovely. Hunter goes skiing at Wachusett Mountain, practices yoga, gets IV vitamin infusions, and, no joke at all, goes to see a play called Crippled Inside about a middle-aged man who reflects on teenage years when his father, a powerful Justice Department official, “bailed him out of scrapes while playing politics in Washington.” Moved, Hunter ends up deciding to try to pull his life back together, resolving to spend more time at his daughter’s lacrosse games, get Lasik surgery, and get his finances under control (Schreckinger doesn’t specify the order of these resolutions). However, there’s a problem:
He had something on the order of twenty bank accounts, but his life was in such disarray that he did not have the log-in credentials to access many of them…
Hunter Biden’s life is one long accident, and he’s constantly leaving the scene of it. In one episode recounted later on, he follows up a crack rampage in L.A. by falling asleep at the wheel while driving east on I-10, leading him to jump a median strip at 80 m.p.h. and come to a halt facing oncoming traffic from the other direction. A tow truck leads him to a rental car, which he drives straight to Prescott, Arizona, leaving behind in the other vehicle a “crack pipe, a Delaware attorney general’s badge, and a Secret Service calling card.”
Similarly, Hunter ended up leaving Ablow’s care in such a rush that he left a laptop behind. It wasn’t that laptop, but this other laptop also ends up having a history, when the DEA raids Ablow a year later (people in Hunter Biden’s orbit end up arrested by federal agents with such uncanny predictability that his arrival in anyone’s life must be treated as divine warning). The feds seize that computer, only to turn it back over to Hunter “after a few weeks of haggling.” Schreckinger is careful to note the irony that a Donald Trump-controlled federal agency at one point both collected and surrendered one of Hunter’s laptops, unbeknownst to Steve Bannon, Rudy Giuliani and the other Trump agents who at the time were engaged in a ruthless private treasure-hunt for a different Hunter computer.
That latter story came about because, after leaving Newburyport, Hunter went on an “extended crack binge in Connecticut, holed up in seedy motels along I-95, in the company of prostitutes and drug dealers.” After this relapse, Hunter “briefly materialized” in Delaware, where in another Biden fog job he reportedly leaves three laptops with a man named John Paul Mac Isaac, and abandons those, too. It’s a few weeks after that, in May, 2019, that Joe Biden holds a kickoff rally for his presidential campaign in Philadelphia. Schreckinger writes: “Among the gathered Bidens, where Hunter should have been, sat a single, empty chair.”
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