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Sober reflection: will a memoir rescue the reputation of President Biden's black sheep son?

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 06/03/2021 Jake Kerridge
Joe Biden, Hunter Biden are posing for a picture: Joe Biden with his son Hunter in 2010 - Nick Wass/AP © Nick Wass/AP Joe Biden with his son Hunter in 2010 - Nick Wass/AP

Next month Hunter Biden, scapegrace son of the US president, will publish Beautiful Things, a memoir that has been billed as an account of his “descent into substance abuse and his tortuous path to sobriety”.

It won’t be short on drama. When his wife Kathleen filed for divorce in 2017 she cited his “spending extravagantly on his own interests (including drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, strip clubs, and gifts for women with whom he has sexual relations), while leaving the family with no funds to pay legitimate bills”. (He denies the prostitutes.)

Hunter Biden missed a crucial rally during his father’s presidential campaign last year after allegations of past narcotics offences surfaced. After his brother Beau’s death in 2015, he embarked on a relationship with his widow; and last year a judge criticised him for trying to delay child support hearings after DNA tests proved he fathered an illegitimate child with an Arkansas stripper called Dusty.

Then there are the business dealings in Ukraine and China that were repeatedly criticised by former president Donald Trump.

The book, co-written with Drew Jubera, the five-time Pulitzer-nominated journalist, is being published by Simon & Schuster, the firm that has recently put out a string of political bestsellers including Mary Trump’s book on her uncle. Hunter Biden’s reported $2 million (£1.4m) advance suggests the publisher expects another hit.

But he may reap more benefits from the book than a fat pay cheque. Perverse as it sounds, pushing the scandalous stories back into the limelight could help the 51-year-old’s career. As Shana Gadarian, the US political scientist, puts it: “He’s a person who’s been in the public eye for a long time. He was at the centre of President Trump’s first impeachment, and his public image has been framed to some extent by the political opposition, so his aim may be to establish a public record in his own words.”

And he may have pressing reasons for wanting to do so. “It would not be surprising if he wanted to run for some sort of office at some point and is putting this out in anticipation of that,” adds Gadarian, an associate professor at The Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, New York.

She points to the precedents of Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau, who both released memoirs before they achieved high office. “It seems to be something that pretty savvy politicians are doing now; to introduce themselves to voters, humanise themselves”. In Obama’s case he was able to control the narrative around his youthful use of cocaine and other drugs by openly admitting to it in his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father.

Barack Obama, Rebekkah Brunson posing for the camera: Barack Obama admitted to taking cocaine in his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father - Mark Wilson/Getty © Provided by The Telegraph Barack Obama admitted to taking cocaine in his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father - Mark Wilson/Getty

“It’s really about framing your side of the story, especially for someone whose behaviour in the past might be concerning to someone who might vote for them. And if you’re honest about your failings, voters may be more likely to feel they can trust you,” Gadarian adds.

Some commentators have suggested that Joe Biden’s team has leant on Hunter to get an exculpatory memoir into the public domain, but Gadarian disagrees. The White House is probably less than thrilled about the publication of the book – the president, unsurprisingly, has always shown a great reluctance to talk about his son’s private life – but, unable to stop its publication, plans to adopt a hands-off approach.

“I would be surprised if they didn’t vet it carefully, but although they may answer questions in a press conference about it, my guess is they will not be putting it front and centre,” says Gadarian.

Will the memoir really help Hunter, though? Jeremy Trevathan, publishing director at Pan Macmillan, believes memoirs do have the power to reshape a public figure’s image.

“Broadcast and print journalism are a pretty ephemeral way of establishing your side of a story. Doing it in book form is probably a more significant way of establishing your position in the public record, particularly if it’s complicated and a long story,” he says.

One autobiography that was a huge public relations success was Jeffrey Archer’s first volume of his prison memoirs, which earned the author unexpected sympathy following his conviction for perjury and perverting the course of justice in 2001. The disgraced peer’s colourful stories about life inside and his observations about his fellow inmates, as well as his criticisms of the Victorian conditions in Britain’s jails, endeared him to many readers and set tills ringing in bookstores up and down the land.

Jeffrey Archer wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Jeffrey Archer, pictured while on day release from prison, in 2002 - Johnny Green/PA © Provided by The Telegraph Jeffrey Archer, pictured while on day release from prison, in 2002 - Johnny Green/PA

“Jeffrey wasn’t really trying to change the narrative around him, in fact you could say that [the prison diaries] reinforced his disgrace, but by being honest about it they had the effect of achieving some measure of redemption for him from many people,” says Trevathan, who worked on the book.

Other controversial figures who have been partly rehabilitated by memoirs include Edward Snowden, whose Permanent Record convinced many readers of his sincerity and passion even if they disapproved of his activist methods, and Stormy Daniels, the pornographic film actress whose affair with Trump led to reports of an alleged “hush money” deal, and who came across as a brave survivor of childhood abuse in 2018’s Full Disclosure.

Outside of politics, many people who have been painted as villains have found that writing a memoir is the only way to tell their side of the story.

Salman Rushdie, frustrated at his image as a sullen ingrate, took the opportunity in his memoir Joseph Anton to express his heartfelt gratitude for what Britain had done for him following Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa. Even the then prime minister, John Major, had once commented on the gulf between Rushdie’s image and the reality, the writer said.

More recently, Woody Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing has offered a detailed rebuttal of claims that he sexually abused his adopted daughter, and has somewhat stemmed the tide of former colleagues denouncing him: Larry David has said that “it’s hard to walk away after reading that book thinking that this guy did anything wrong”.

But it’s a risky game. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex were accused of collaborating with the authors of a biography, Finding Freedom, which aimed to tell their side of the story, although this was denied by the couple. 

The book revealed details of their battles with the Duke of Cambridge and Palace staff, and their fears that other members of the Royal family were leaking stories. In the event, it fuelled claims that they wanted privacy only when it suited them, forming part of a spiral of self-justification that culminated in their controversial Oprah Winfrey interview.

Then there is OJ Simpson, whose book If I Did It was denounced as self-serving and exploitative; he was forced to hand over the publishing rights to the family of Ronald Goldman (the friend of OJ’s ex-wife who was also murdered) as part of a financial settlement following his civil trial, and they reissued the book with the uncompromising subtitle “Confessions of the Killer”.

The cover was also changed. Glancing at the book, the word ‘If’ was so small, it looked like the title was “I Did It”.

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