One of our most urgent national problems is addiction to drugs and alcohol. It now kills about a quarter-million Americans a year, leaves many others homeless and causes unimaginable heartache in families across the country — including the family living in the White House.
Hunter Biden, who has written about his tangles with crack cocaine and alcohol, reached a plea agreement on tax charges a few days ago that left some Republicans sputtering, but to me, the main takeaway is a lesson the country and the president could absorb to save lives.
While the federal investigation appears to be ongoing, for now I see no clear evidence of wrongdoing by President Biden himself — but the president does offer the country a fine model of the love and support that people with addictions need.
When Biden was vice president and trailed by Secret Service agents, he once tracked down Hunter when he was on a bender and refused to leave until his son committed to entering treatment. Biden then gave his son a tight hug and promised to return to make sure he followed through.
“Dad saved me,” Hunter wrote in his memoir, “Beautiful Things,” adding: “Left on my own, I’m certain I would not have survived.”
On another occasion, the Biden family staged an intervention, and Hunter stormed out of the house. Biden ran down the driveway after his son. “He grabbed me, swung me around and hugged me,” Hunter wrote. “He held me tight in the dark and cried for the longest time.”
Last year Sean Hannity broadcast an audio recording of a voice mail message that President Biden left for Hunter. Hannity thought it reflected badly on the president; my reaction was that if more parents showed this kind of support for children in crisis, our national addiction nightmare might be easier to overcome.
“It’s Dad,” the president says in the message, and he sounds near tears. “I’m calling to tell you I love you. I love you more than the whole world, pal. You gotta get some help. I don’t know what to do. I know you don’t, either. But I’m here, no matter what you need. No matter what you need. I love you.”
I don’t have family members with addictions, but I’ve lost far too many friends to drugs and alcohol. At this moment, I have two friends who have disappeared, abandoning their children, and when last seen were homeless, abusing drugs and supporting themselves by selling fentanyl. I fear every day that they’ll die from an overdose, or that they’ll sell drugs to someone else who overdoses.
I’m terrified for them and furious at them — but even more, I’m outraged that so many Americans are suffering pain and inflicting pain, yet our policies toward addiction are lackadaisical and ineffective: Only about 6 percent of people with substance use disorder get treatment, according to the federal government. We should be expanding access, boosting research for medication-assisted treatment, pressing China harder to curb exports of fentanyl precursors and addressing the economic despair that drives some people to substance abuse.
The Bidens benefited from the connections and resources often necessary to access detox and rehab programs; these should be readily available to all.
Some Republicans allege that the president himself was engaged in influence peddling, and that Hunter received favorable treatment from the Justice Department; an I.R.S. whistle-blower who assisted in the investigation says that a prosecutor in the Justice Department did indeed interfere on the side of Hunter. Maybe there will be future revelations, but for now, as best I can sort things out: 1) Hunter acted inappropriately to monetize his proximity to the White House, just as Donald Trump and members of his family did; and 2) Joe Biden acted honorably (although I do think it was a mistake to take Hunter to China on Air Force Two in 2013 when he was pursuing business there, and Biden was flatly wrong to say in May that “my son has done nothing wrong”).
The Biden administration kept on a Trump appointee as U.S. attorney in Delaware, precisely to continue an independent and credible investigation of Hunter. The prosecutors appear to have pored over 15 years of Hunter’s business dealings and have not so far identified any misconduct by the president. And the plea agreement the prosecutor reached with Hunter does not seem lenient. (Most people in similar circumstances, including Roger Stone, have not been prosecuted criminally.)
Congressional Republicans will continue to make allegations. Some Democrats have seemed reluctant to engage, perhaps finding the Hunter saga sordid and likely to taint those who touch it. I think that’s a mistake. What I see is an opportunity for the president to take on the nation’s drug and alcohol problem as forcefully as he took on his son’s. Hunter Biden appears to have come back from the brink, and that can reassure families now in despair; millions of desperate Americans could use that hope.
One precedent: The former first lady Betty Ford’s heroic acknowledgment in the 1970s of her struggles with drugs and alcohol pulled back the curtain on addiction and got many more people into treatment.
Joe Biden undertook a major federal push to combat cancer after it claimed his son Beau; I wish he would transform his administration’s present ineffective effort against addiction into a similar all-out initiative against the forces that almost killed Hunter.
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Nicholas Kristof joined The New York Times in 1984 and has been a columnist since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur. You can follow him on Instagram and Facebook. His latest book is “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.” @NickKristof • Facebook
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