President Joe Biden and family after he was sworn in at the U.S. Capitol, January 20, 2021. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Hunter Biden, the surviving son of President Joe Biden, was indicted on Sept. 14, 2023, on gun-related charges – facing a possible criminal trial while his father is campaigning for reelection. The charges relate to Hunter Biden’s alleged lying about his drug use when he purchased a gun in 2018. And a conviction could mean prison time of 10 years or more.
As Hunter Biden’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 Biden is found in a rogues’ gallery of difficult presidential relatives.
As a historian of the American presidency, I see the case of Hunter Biden as a revealing indicator of the ways that presidential children have figured in American public life, whether they were beloved or reviled.
Most presidents and first ladies have attempted to protect their children – especially their young children – from the scrutiny and the emotional toll of public life. Whether they were publicly visible or not, their children have always been factors in the presidents’ public lives and presidents have sought to exploit the political benefits they can draw from their children.
Meanwhile, commentators and the American public alike have drawn their own conclusions about individual presidents and the presidency as an institution in part on the basis of presidential children.
In my own research, I have observed that presidents have consistently looked to their adult sons as potential political allies, only to find that young children and especially young daughters have become more effective political assets. Those dynamics have only intensified over time, especially in recent decades as presidents increasingly put their private lives on public display.
Presidential children have reflected how Americans think about age and gender, parenting and politics.
Those sometimes abstract concepts assume real form in presidential families. And they operate in unexpected ways. The fact that gender norms often precluded presidential daughters from an explicitly political role paradoxically could make them more popular public figures. The assumption that young children should be free from the political rough-and-tumble has recently made them highly effective symbols for presidential image-making.
Presidents have often sought a role for their adult sons in supporting their administrations. Many of those sons happily obliged. In 1837, Martin Van Buren appointed his son, Abraham, to serve as his private secretary, at the time a high-level confidential advisor. Over a century later, Dwight Eisenhower selected his son, John, to serve as assistant staff 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.
The ambitions of John Quincy Adams, son of the second president of the U.S., John Adams and himself a future president, raised accusations of nepotism in a country that claimed to have eliminated a royal class. But Martha Jefferson Randolph could fill the traditional role of first lady and serve as confidante to her father, the widower and third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson.
The sons of Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt both faced accusations that they traded on their fathers’ names to secure undeserved offices. In contrast, Woodrow Wilson’s daughter, Margaret, served as first lady for over a year before her widowed father remarried. Her younger sister, Jessie, was an activist for women’s suffrage and the League of Nations.
As journalists, historians and the American public have tried to pierce the veil of privacy surrounding presidential private life over the past half-century, presidents and the politicos who surround them have also sought to remove that veil, but selectively so, with an eye toward their own advantage.
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. These were major public events in their own time, and the notion that Nixon wanted to exploit the event while never abandoning his antagonism toward the Washington press corps was a subplot in the 2017 film, “The Post.”
The Johnson and Nixon 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 Place Called Hope,” 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, even when Barbara became an activist with left-leaning organizations. Barack Obama joked with TV host Jimmy Kimmel about managing his daughters’ social media accounts, as if he were just another befuddled father.
In an era of identity politics, when the explicit invocation of feminism could generate a political backlash, these young daughters provided the means for these three presidents to reinforce the image of themselves as members of just another American family and modern fathers who supported their daughters.
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.
How to look normal
The template of presidential children making their fathers appear more familiar and accessible still rules.
While the adult children of most Republican candidates have been invisible on the current campaign trail, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – often described as awkward and lacking charm – has made a point of appearing with his young children.
Joe Biden’s preferred political origin story is the image of the caring father who was sworn into the Senate in a hospital ward so he did not leave Beau and Hunter following the car crash that killed Biden’s first wife and his only daughter.
At the Democratic Convention in 2008, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden nominated his father as the party’s candidate for vice president. He was the latest presidential son to campaign for his father. But Beau died from brain cancer at age 46. With Beau gone and Hunter’s legal problems a political liability, Biden has taken a page from his predecessors’ handbook.
If his administration cannot cast Biden as a young dad like Ron DeSantis, they can surround him with his grandchildren. In fact, when Biden won the presidential election in 2020, one of the first photos from the Biden camp came from his granddaughter, Naomi, showing her generation of the family literally surrounding their grandfather.
The indictment wasn’t the only bad news for the Bidens – father and son – in one week. Hunter Biden had already become the ultimate lightning rod for his father, with the announcement on Sept. 12, 2023, 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 Biden’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.
Peter Kastor, Professor of History & American Culture Studies, Associate Vice Dean of Research, Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis