In an attempt to neutralize the attack, Trump changed the subject—to Biden’s other son, Hunter. “Hunter got thrown out of the military; he was thrown out, dishonorably discharged for cocaine use,” he spat out.
To a person who feared sharing his name with his son at the moment of his birth, because the child might turn out to be a “loser,” that attack must have seemed devastating. But normal parents don’t stop loving their children because they do bad things. They love them anyway. That’s what being a parent is.
Biden responded by reaffirming his love for his surviving son. “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem,” Biden responded. “He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”
Biden is a mediocre politician. His two prior presidential runs were failures. He has a tendency toward exaggeration to the point of dishonesty, whether overstating his role in the mid-century civil-rights movement or the struggle against South African apartheid. Before becoming vice president to Barack Obama, Biden backed some of the worst policy decisions of the past 30 years—including the 2005 bankruptcy bill, the 1994 crime bill, and the invasion of Iraq.
But when Biden speaks of loss and pain—of Beau, or of the car accident that killed his wife and daughter—he becomes deeply compelling; as Fintan O’Toole wrote, Biden’s grief is “real and rooted and fundamentally decent.” After eight months of funerals, for hundreds of thousands of American families, the kind of grief that Biden speaks of, the kind that accompanies the loss of a loved one, is no longer distant. The president stood in front of that grieving nation, and taunted a father while he was speaking of his lost son. Before the eyes of a nation struggling with an opioid epidemic, he mocked a dad for having a kid with a drug problem.
More than any other moment of the debate, Trump’s response to Biden’s invocation of his dead son—attempting to make him ashamed of his surviving one—threw the dispositions of the two men into sharp relief. I wondered how Hunter must have felt to see his father speak of his pride in his brother, only for his own name to be brandished as a weapon to inflict shame on his father. And I thought about Biden’s response, which was to reaffirm his pride in Hunter, the troubled son living in the indelible shadow of a departed war hero. In the midst of being attacked by a president trying to wield his own family against him, Biden’s instinct was to reassure Hunter that he is also loved, that nothing could make his father see him as a loser.
Biden acted like a father, doing what almost any parent would have done. And yet because Trump is the kind of man who wonders at the moment of his child’s birth whether the child will someday mortify him, he did not anticipate that response. He did not expect that, instead of embarrassing Biden, he would merely advertise the callousness that has made him unable to govern the country with any sense of duty or responsibility, the narcissism that makes him see those concepts as foolish and naive.