How the Biden Family Gets Away With an Enormous Amount of Sleaze
Back during those heady days of 2016-2020, when all anybody could seem to think, talk, or fight about was Donald Trump, the nation’s best-seller lists were constantly deluged with book after book capitalizing on the End Times-style frenzy.
Melodramatic titles like House of Trump, House of Putin were instant best-sellers and received glowing testimonials from all the typical media venues. George W. Bush speechwriter-turned-conscience-of-US-liberalism David Frum churned out Trumpocracy (followed briskly by Trumpocalypse) to rave reviews and explosive sales. Polemical tracts like The Making of Donald Trump by David Cay Johnston — reputed to be the authoritative text that “connects the dots from Donald Trump's racist background to the Russian scandals” — sold boatloads, as evidenced by the swift commissioning of a sequel from Johnston titled It's Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America (also a NYT best-seller). Amazingly, Johnston has just put out yet another Trump book — that’s right, it came out November 2021 — presumably in hopes that there’s still some last drops of juice to be squeezed from the proverbial Orange.
In short, slap the word “Trump” on any piece of garbage and there was a good chance it’d sell like hot cakes. I’m not saying there were no Trump-related books worth writing, or that they were all necessarily garbage — just elucidating the operative principle in the industry during this period. On the other hand, the Proof of Collusion series by “metamodernist creative writer” turned psycho “meta-journalist” Seth Abramson was in fact garbage.
It became a running joke that even books only peripherally related to Trump would nonetheless need his name somewhere in their titles or subtitles, otherwise you could kiss sales goodbye. People gobbled this stuff up with such reckless abandon that Trump single-handedly created an unprecedented boom for the industry. “There’s really no doubt that the strong feelings around the Trump administration have pushed book sales in a way we’ve never seen before in the political arena,” the head of a market research firm told the NYT last year. “The volume of best-selling titles is really remarkable,” she cheered. At one point a book version of the Mueller Report — which anyone could access online for free — was the top-selling title on both Amazon and the NYT. Just nutty stuff.
The public’s frantic book-buying habits during this period often lent nicely to gallows humor. In July 2020, the top book on the NYT list was The Room Where it Happened, a tome by fired National Security Advisor and uber-hawk John Bolton, who became a hellacious Trump antagonist on the basis of grievances like Trump’s insufficient willingness to bomb Iran. Coming in at Number Two on the list that month was White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, and How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi rounded out the top three. I mean, what can you even add to that? Book-reading liberals simply parody themselves without the need for further commentary.
Then there were the insane, epoch-defining mega-hits from the likes of Michael Wolff and Bob Woodward, whose sales during Trump Times may have surpassed the Bible, Koran, and Harry Potter combined. Both men sold millions and millions of copies of books that were dreadfully bad. (I had the misfortune of reading a few, for journalism, but I would estimate that at least 90% of the people who buy these things never go through the slog of actually reading them. Their purchase functioned more as a symbolic anti-Trump statement, as if one was Defending Democracy by pretending to read Bob Woodward’s latest establishment-flattering snoozefest.)
A slew of sycophantically pro-Trump books from right-wing pundits also sold unbelievably well. If you plastered the word “Trump” on the latest edition of “Green Eggs and Ham” sometime in 2019, you probably could’ve sold a few hundred thousand copies.
But in the words of George Harrison (yes, I just watched the new Beatles documentary), All Things Must Pass. In 2021, nobody’s gobbling up books about Joe Biden, because just there’s nothing titillating about the political existence of Biden. Pro or con, the current occupant of the White House does not rouse anything like the crazed, cross-society passions which flared so wildly during his predecessor’s term. Biden detractors may not favor the guy politically, but they’re also not desperate for vicious personal polemics against him in the same way they might’ve been for, say, Hillary Clinton — or in the way Resistance readers craved a constant serving of hairbrained screeds against Trump. Likewise, the concept of “Biden supporters” was never manufactured into the same kind of collectivizing identity trait that “Trump supporters” came to be; people who might’ve voted for Biden or basically support what he’s doing in office don’t have much reason to signal their fidelity to him through book purchases. After an extravagant five-year spending spree, in other words, the boom is now trending more toward bust.
Into this odd whiplash dropped a deceptively interesting new book by Ben Schreckinger, a POLITICO journalist who’d been covering Biden for several years. The Bidens: Inside the First Family’s Fifty-Year Rise to Power received little or no “buzz” upon its release this September, save for a minor flurry over one of its most newsworthy nuggets: Schreckinger was able to confirm the authenticity of emails found on Hunter Biden’s infamous “laptop from hell.” As you may recall, this was the same laptop that, before the 2020 election, we were all so confidently assured was nothing more than the fruits of yet another devious “Russian disinformation” operation. Schreckinger got a partial copy of the laptop hard drive and did the straightforward journalistic work of confirming with email recipients that these emails were indeed real, rather than ghostwritten by Vladimir Putin. Which makes the censorship of that story on social media last fall all the more egregious.
That in its own right is a laudable enough journalistic accomplishment for Schreckinger — the kind which, during Trump Times, would’ve been sufficient to elicit a mass-purchasing frenzy. Even if most buyers let the book sit on their coffee tables to collect dust for a few weeks before tossing it in some nondescript bin. However, as Schreckinger told me: “I haven’t seen any numbers, but it definitely has not hit the bestseller lists.” Nor was the book apparently reviewed in mainstays like the NYT or Washington Post — another hit to its sales potential among the Highly Educated.
These omissions are all the more noticeable because there’s plenty of other “buzzworthy” material in the book, well beyond the laptop stuff — or at least material “buzzy” enough that if anything like it was unearthed in a book involving Trump, the lucky author would’ve been able to afford several new vacation homes.
For example, Schreckinger reports that way back in 1972, Biden or someone connected to Biden appears to have paid the guy who later claimed to have killed Jimmy Hoffa — and whose story was recently dramatized in the Netflix movie The Irishman — to organize a truck drivers’ strike. This strike proved fortuitous for Biden, as it prevented the distribution of major Delaware newspapers on the eve of Joe’s first election to the Senate. Newspapers that day were set to contain an advertising insert purchased by Biden’s opponent, the incumbent Republican senator J. Caleb Boggs, which was supposed to be a big enough deal that it could’ve sunk Joe’s chances at the last minute. But happily for him, the newspapers never left the printing facility — thanks to the valiant efforts of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who at that time worked for the Teamsters branch in Wilmington. Whatever the full truth, it’s certainly an interesting tidbit about a pivotal moment in the political trajectory of the current president. You can just imagine the spasm of angry memes that would’ve arisen from this kind of thing in relation to Trump — it would’ve become part of the general lore. But hardly anyone seems to know about a notorious mob hitman’s apparent role in facilitating the rise of Biden.
Schreckinger also talks to the first husband of Jill Biden (I personally didn’t even realize she’d been divorced) and produces evidence that her initial rendezvous with Joe in the early 70s may have been adulterous; she and Joe consequently concocted a wholesome cover-story. Which, whatever. Who cares. At the same time, Joe as a sitting US senator did set his sights on college-aged Jill after seeing her modeling photos in a tourism ad at the Wilmington airport, and then enlisted his younger brother Frank, who was an acquaintance of Jill’s, to set them up. Imagine how that’d fly today, with all the newfangled hubbub about “power dynamics” and such. There are also just weird discrepancies over the years in how the two have told the tale of how they first met. I wouldn’t call this the most groundbreaking scoop in the world, but it’s certainly “buzzy” enough that if anything comparable had come out about Trump, you’d never hear the end of it.
Romantic revelations aside, how about the fact that the FBI probed Biden’s fundraising operation when he was in office as Vice President — to the point that one of the top bundlers on his 2008 primary campaign “wore a wire”? Or that in addition to his laptop misadventures, Hunter Biden was a free-wheeling hedge fund guy at the exact time Joe bemoaned the unregulated free rein of hedge funds during the 2008 financial crisis? Or that business deal after business deal involving Biden family members devolved into some sort of convoluted fiasco, oftentimes resulting in criminal charges? Some of this had already been reported, but Schreckinger fills in much of the detail that is otherwise absent from the public conception of Biden — with the running thesis that Biden’s extended family has profited handsomely off his political stature for decades, and this was all by design.
Again, maybe not a blockbuster with direct relevance to contemporary policy-making — but Schreckinger does prove that some of Biden’s ancestors on his father’s side were slaveholders. It’s the sort of thing you’d have to issue a painstakingly apologetic statement about today, particularly if you’re an old white guy in the Democratic Party and black voters in the South salvaged your 2020 primary campaign.
Curiously, the media never followed up on the ancestral slave-holding angle last year, even though rumors about it had spread online. They were able to wiggle out of doing so because a particular rumor had gotten facts wrong — the claim that Biden’s great-grandfather was a Confederate soldier was bogus. But pompously “fact-checking” bogus internet rumors (and labeling them dangerous “disinformation”) then became the full extent of the media’s inquiry on the subject. Even though it later turned out to be substantively true that Biden descended from different slave-owners. Do you think that little factoid might’ve been a tad inconvenient for him during the George Floyd-fueled hysteria of summer 2020?
Then there are other oddities reported by Schreckinger, like when Joe as Vice President had his attending physician give his niece Caroline a referral for a plastic surgeon in NYC. The surgery was supposedly botched, and this somehow led to Caroline making over $100,000 in unauthorized purchases at a Greenwich Village pharmacy with somebody else’s credit card. She got off with probation and community service. A sap with a different last name probably would’ve ended up in Rikers.
Or that brother Jim Biden’s construction company stumbled into a $1.5 billion contract to build houses in Iraq, though the firm’s role was ultimately nixed after a series of Three Stooges-like mishaps. Or that Joe’s other nieces worked in the Obama administration before moving onto high-level corporate positions at Starbucks and Coca-Cola. Missy Biden Owens took a job as “director for public affairs and diplomatic relations” for the carbonated sugar drink conglomerate, which coincided with Jill Biden posting a blog on the White House website extolling Coca-Cola’s feel-good international development initiatives. Missy also accompanied Jill on an official delegation to Havana just as Coke was trying to enter the embargoed Cuban market. On and on with these sorts of things, which can seem minor in insolation, but add up to a comprehensive pattern of familial influence-peddling and self-dealing.