The Memo: Hunter Biden and the politics of addiction

The president’s son spoke about searching on his hands and knees for crack cocaine in an interview that aired on Sunday — and even his political opponents did not seek to take advantage.

That alone demonstrates that, for all the other corrosive factors afflicting American politics, the nation has at least taken some halting steps forward in how it sees drug- and alcohol-related issues.

The arc of progress can be traced through recent presidents.

It’s only a generation since then-candidate Bill Clinton felt obligated to claim that he “didn’t inhale” while experimenting with weed as a student. 

President George W. Bush was elected after referring to his problems with alcohol in a way that was not dishonest — but not especially candid either. “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible,” was his soundbite of choice to block further inquiries.  

President Obama’s rise to the White House came despite an admission of low-level cocaine use in his earlier memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” Some opponents tried to weaponize the admission, but the issue did not get great traction with the general public.

Hunter Biden is admittedly in a different category, neither holding nor seeking public office. But his willingness to be so open about his experiences while his father is president — and the apparent lack of political blowback for doing so — is a positive sign.

“It seems that every once in a while a huge figure is willing to come along and share their story and try to smash through the stigma,” said Mary Bono, a former congresswoman from California who served from 1998 to 2013. 

Bono was in the vanguard of elected officials warning about the scale of the nation’s addiction problem.

“I don’t know Hunter Biden, but the more stories about this, and the more someone talks about their struggles, it helps people,” Bono said.

Biden’s newly published memoir, “Beautiful Things,” paints an unflinching picture of his addiction to crack and alcohol. In it, he writes of being “so desperate for a drink that I couldn’t make the one-block walk between a liquor store and my apartment without uncapping the bottle to take a swig.”

In an interview with CBS “Sunday Morning” to publicize the book, he talked about having “spent more time on my hands and knees picking through rugs, smoking anything that even remotely resembled crack cocaine.”

He told interviewer Tracy Smith: “I probably smoked more Parmesan cheese than anyone that you know.”

President Biden has praised his son’s memoir. In an interview with Norah O’Donnell of CBS News back in February, the president lauded “the honesty with which he stepped forward and talked about the problem. … It gave me hope reading it.”

Patrick Kennedy, the scion of the famed family and a former congressman from Rhode Island, also praised the younger Biden for his openness. 

Kennedy crashed his car into a barricade on Capitol Hill in the early hours of the morning while in office in 2006. He entered rehab soon afterward and did so again in 2009. He is now a mental health advocate.

“Hunter taking his platform to talk about something that every family has gone through to some degree is a good thing,” Kennedy said. “But I think what’s driving an even greater acceptance in talking about these things is that it is impossible to treat this part of health care if people are being secretive about their illness. The illness thrives on secrecy.”

Both Kennedy and Bono can remember a time, not long ago, when such openness was more difficult — and more risky.

“I was the author of the biggest mental health bill on the Hill, and I myself was scared to go to treatment because I was worried people would think I hadn’t recovered,” Kennedy recalls. Back then, “even though I am a champion, I am stigmatized so much that I don’t want to get continuing, ongoing care because I’m worried it will seem that I don’t have it together.”

Bono recalled talking publicly about her teenage son’s addiction to prescription drugs, roughly a decade ago.

“Some people said, ‘You were just a bad mother. It’s your fault.’ There is still a huge obstacle that we have to surmount,” she remembered.

The stigma has begun to be eroded partly because of the sheer scale of the problem. 

Data from Gallup for 2018 and 2019 indicates that almost half of U.S. adults, 46 percent, have had direct experience of alcohol or other drugs causing problems in their family. In 2017, a psychiatric journal published results of a study showing 1 in 8 American adults met diagnostic criteria for alcoholism.

The opioid epidemic has ravaged huge parts of the country, too. The crack epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s was seen, fairly or otherwise, as a problem primarily affecting Black urban neighborhoods. Not so with opioids, which cross every conceivable line in American life.

The prevalence of drug and alcohol issues has apparently contributed to a transcendence of partisanship, too.

Back in the days of the 2016 Republican presidential primary, leading contenders for the nomination, including Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and then-candidate Donald Trump, talked about family traumas related to alcohol or substance abuse — presumably to show empathy toward others struggling with similar issues.

Congress even has a bipartisan Addiction, Treatment and Recovery Caucus, co-chaired by Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.). The caucus has noted that U.S. opioid deaths have recently surpassed 30,000 per year for the first time — and that substance abuse in total is estimated to cost the nation about $600 billion.

Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics said, regarding substance abuse generally, that it was “now so widespread that it’s hard to see how there could be prejudice around it.”

Sabato also recalled just how much the media’s treatment of such subjects has changed. 

In writing his 1991 book, “Feeding Frenzy,” about attempts to discredit politicians over issues of personal behavior, he spoke to a number of veteran journalists of an earlier generation.

They told stories “of members of the Senate stumbling completely dead-drunk into the Senate during proceedings,” he recalled. “The press gallery was right there. And not one person reported on it because that was the informal rule — you didn’t report extramarital affairs, you didn’t report binges on liquor.”

Mary Bono says that during her time on Capitol Hill, she and her colleague Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), were “the first to raise the issue [of addiction] and even in Congress there was this attitude that it was hush-hush — ‘We don’t talk about that.’”

That kind of complicit silence may also have been rooted in the idea that addiction was a moral failure. The legacy of that attitude is still around, according to experts, but it is at least fading.

Addiction “is not a moral failing, it is an alteration in the pathway of the brain and its reward system, and we know that for a fact,” said professor Gail D’Onofrio, the chair of emergency medicine at the Yale School of Medicine and an expert in addiction. “We have very evidence-based treatments that work and we also know the consequences of inaction, particularly around opioid use disorder — of people who present with a non-fatal overdose, approximately 5 percent will be dead within one year.”

There is still a long road to be traveled. Patrick Kennedy asserts that the nation is still way behind when it comes to integrating mental health into health care overall. Too often, he says, mental health care is underfunded and seen as a whole separate entity from physical care.

But, even with those caveats, no one really doubts that candor on the issue is a welcome step toward properly addressing it.

“The more we can get the word out that [addiction] is a disease and is very treatable, the better it will be for everyone — including the individual,” said D’Onofrio.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Addiction Bill Clinton David McKinley Donald Trump Hal Rogers Joe Biden Ted Cruz Tim Ryan

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