Hunter Biden's interview and the ghost of Billy Carter

Hunter Biden/ABC News
Hunter Biden/ABC News

We often forget that politicians, just like you and me, are subject to the immutable bylaws that govern family relations:

Rule No. 1: Ultimately, you can’t control what your brother, sister, son, daughter – or even a parent – chooses to do. Even if the behavior embarrasses you, as sometimes it is meant to do.

Rule No. 2: Publicly trashing said behavior just makes everything worse.

Ask Bill Clinton. Or George W. Bush. Or Jimmy Carter. All had maverick siblings – one even had a beer named after him. Heck, go knock on Grant’s Tomb. If Ulysses answers, ask about his brother Orvil.

On Tuesday morning, some 12 hours before his father and 11 other Democrats began a presidential debate in Ohio, Hunter Biden introduced himself to the American public with something like an apology.

“In retrospect, look, I think that it was poor judgment on my part,” Joe Biden’s son told ABC News. “Was it poor judgment to be in the middle of something that is … a swamp in many ways? Yeah.”

Hunter Biden denied any wrongdoing. And in fact, beyond the poor optics, no evidence of malfeasance has surfaced.

But the son acknowledged that he had given President Donald Trump and his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, a ripe target by accepting a $50,000-a-month position on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas firm – while his father, as vice president, was pressing Ukraine to crack down on corruption.

Hunter Biden left that board in May. Two months later, in a White House-documented phone call, Trump suggested that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky "do us a favor, though," by investigating the Bidens. Other evidence has indicated the possibility that $391 million in military assistance and a White House hand-shake were dependent upon that request. The phone call has become the center of a fast-moving impeachment inquiry.

If you listen carefully, right about now you should be able to hear the thwack! thwack! thwack! of Democratic palms meeting Democratic foreheads.

They’re wondering how Hunter Biden’s conduct could matter when we have a real estate-happy president whose financial ties to authoritarian-led regimes in Turkey and Russia have yet to be disclosed, and whose children (and an in-law) hold White House security clearances while pushing their own financial ventures in foreign lands.

And these critics have a point. But the Trumps represent a dynamic of another kind – the family-based clan that finds itself, by means fair or foul, at the top of a power pyramid. The Kennedys may be the closest precedent, as discomforting as the comparison might be to some. Family loyalty and cooperation are an essential part of the formula.

The tale of Hunter Biden is just the opposite, and something we’re far more familiar with in American politics – the rogue relative. The tipoff came when the younger Biden was asked if his father had ever commented on his Ukrainian venture.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Joe Biden is reported to have said. And that, as many of us know, is dad-speak for “Please, don’t.”

Hunter Biden likely has found himself overshadowed by his older brother Beau, who was attorney general of Delaware and a military veteran being groomed for better things — when he died of a brain tumor. Beau’s death figures large in Joe Biden’s decision make a third run for the presidency.

Hunter Biden, an attorney, was discharged from the U.S. Navy five years ago after failing a drug test. During his 2017 divorce, his wife accused him of blowing the family cash on drugs and strip clubs.

I couldn’t watch Hunter Biden’s interview without thinking of Billy Carter, who found himself in the spotlight when his older, over-achieving brother won the presidency.

“In ’76, he made things a lot more fun for those of us who were stuck in Americus, and going out to Plains every day, trying to cover what was going on with the candidate,” said Curtis Wilkie, who at the time was a reporter for the Boston Globe. He now teaches at the University of Mississippi.

“Billy ran for mayor of Plains, right before Jimmy was inaugurated. That was something of a circus. Billy was drinking ‘way too much, and his behavior was fairly antic.

“Billy had two planks in his platform. One was he was going to raise the taxes of his cousin, Hugh Carter, who he disliked. He very publicly called him a self-made [so-and-so]. That probably didn’t do a whole lot to create a happy family situation there in Plains,” Wilkie said.

Billy Carter’s second campaign plank was the removal of a rather ugly artificial Christmas tree that the government of Taiwan had sent as a good will gesture to the president-elect’s home town.

Billy Carter lost that election. Shortly afterwards, the Christmas tree disappeared.

“Some people – they broke the tree, yanked it down, and dragged it down the highway, all the way to Americus, and destroyed the tree. Billy had an alibi, but I think the GBI actually investigated the case. Everybody had a pretty good idea that it was the good ol’ boys who hung out at his service station,” Wilkie said.

1976 - Plains, Ga - President Jimmy Carter and his brother Billy talk peanuts in Plains in 1976.
1976 - Plains, Ga - President Jimmy Carter and his brother Billy talk peanuts in Plains in 1976.

Credit: Unknown

Credit: Unknown

With his brother in the White House, TV appearances at $5,000-a-shot began coming Billy Carter’s way. A brewer introduced “Billy Beer” – though its namesake quietly retained his preference for cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

President Jimmy Carter never criticized his brother, always emphasizing that Billy Carter was his own man, making his own decisions. That is, until 1978, when it came to light that Billy Carter had accepted $220,000 from the government of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. The older brother was required to disavow his younger brother’s actions.

The next year, after an incident in which he publicly urinated on the tarmac of Hartsfield International Airport, Billy Carter was hustled into a rehabilitation facility – the same one that U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge had exited the month before.

Ultimately, Billy Carter would move with his family to Alabama. He died in 1988.

“In some ways, I hold myself and other journalists responsible for helping to create a monster, ‘cause we were writing all these stories about what a wild man he was,” Wilkie said. “I think, to maintain this image, he began drinking more and more. It was a whole lot of fun in the summer of ’76, but it got darker.”

Funny thing about the Mississippi-born Wilkie. Before he was the Globe’s stake-out man in Plains, he was a newspaper reporter in Wilmington, Del., where he first met a young up-and-coming New Castle County Council member named Joe Biden.

Many have questioned Joe Biden’s somewhat muted response to Trump’s attacks on his son. But the former vice president is in a box similar to the one that Jimmy Carter found himself in some 40 years ago.

“It creates an awkward situation. They all have love for the family member, and they don’t want to come down too hard on them, and yet they need to have some separation from them when it begins to cause problems,” Wilkie said.

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