With the Republicans surging into Election Day, the likelihood of a Hunter Biden investigation in Congress has increased exponentially. A Republican Congress will be eager to delve into the panoply of issues surrounding Hunter, including his drug use, his use of his father's name in efforts to enrich himself, and his consulting agreements for which his qualifications are at best questionable.
Hunter may be the first presidential child to become the active subject of a presidential investigation, but he is far from the only one to receive disproportionate press attention.
While most presidential children have been forgotten by history, the remembered ones seem to fall into three categories: successes, embarrassments, and tragedies. The successes are probably the most famous. John Quincy Adams was the son of our second president, John Adams. He had a degree from Harvard, spoke multiple languages, and served as a congressman, as senior U.S. ambassador in multiple countries, and as secretary of state. In his impressive diplomatic career, he helped negotiate a treaty renewal with Prussia, was involved in the negotiations ending the War of 1812, and helped draft the Monroe Doctrine that warned European nations to stay out of the Western Hemisphere. He was the most prepared person to be president in the 19th century, and perhaps ever.
He became president after the 1824 disputed election against Andrew Jackson. After losing to Jackson in a rematch, he went back to the House, where he was an active voice against slavery for almost two decades. Adams himself had a successful son, Charles Francis Adams, who became a diplomat and helped the Union stave off British recognition of the Confederacy in the Civil War. The other most prominent successful presidential son was, of course, George W. Bush, the son of our 41st president, George H.W. Bush. After a heavy drinking period in his youth, Bush 43 turned his life around with the help of both his wife, Laura, and the evangelist Billy Graham. Bush 43 became governor of Texas in 1994 and was reelected in 1998. Interestingly, Bush 43 was not considered the Bush progeny most likely to become president: That had been Jeb Bush, who lost his first race for governor of Florida in 1994, allowing George W. Bush to grab the pole position and run and win for president in 2000. Jeb(!) did later win the governorship of Florida, where he served quite successfully from 1999-2007, before running quite unsuccessfully for president in 2016. George W. Bush's daughter Jenna is also a success, albeit in a different field, earning a reported $4 million annually as a host on Today.
Some other, less prominent successful presidential children include Abraham Lincoln's son Robert, a secretary of war and U.S. minister to Great Britain; James A. Garfield's son James R., who became secretary of the interior; and Herbert Hoover Jr. and Franklin Roosevelt Jr., who both became undersecretaries, of state and of commerce, respectively. Teddy Roosevelt's son Teddy Roosevelt III was a general who landed at Normandy on D-Day during World War II. He died a month later, of a heart attack, at the age of 57.
Teddy Roosevelt also had a daughter, Alice, who was helpful to Roosevelt in his diplomatic efforts. In 1905, Alice toured Asia and helped lay the groundwork for the Portsmouth Summit, at which Teddy Roosevelt negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace prize for those efforts, but he got it with an assist from "Princess Alice."
Alice, however, also earned a place in the second category, that of embarrassing presidential children. Her less helpful activities included chewing gum, smoking, and going into debt from both shopping and gambling habits. Roosevelt once lamented to his friend Owen Wister, author of The Virginian, "I can be president of the United States. I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both."
Roosevelt's cousin Franklin Roosevelt also had challenging children. His son John drove his car right up to the White House front door as a drunken high schooler. Elliott Roosevelt caused a scandal by marrying a woman a scant five days after divorcing his first wife, and James Roosevelt lost his job as his father's secretary amid stories of inappropriate use of both his position and the family name for financial gain.
John Adams had good luck with his son John Quincy but less luck with his other children. The two other Adams boys, Charles and Thomas, were alcoholics who struggled with their careers. And his daughter Nabby married the roguish William Smith, also an alcoholic, who would end up in debtors' prison. Adams once complained in a letter to his wife, Abigail, "My children give me more pain than all my enemies."
Some presidential children have ended up in embarrassing situations through no fault of their own. Margaret Truman was an aspiring singer who once got a bad review in the Washington Post, prompting President Harry Truman to write a nasty letter to the critic, saying, "Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!" When the contents of the letter became public, Truman himself got bad press and angry letters in response. Jimmy Carter invoked the name of his daughter Amy in a conversation about nuclear war during his 1980 debate with Ronald Reagan. Carter was widely mocked for discussing nuclear weapons with a 13-year-old. Ohio State debate professor James Golden said at the time, "It's that kind of statement that lends itself to ridicule." And an adolescent Chelsea Clinton was mocked during a Wayne's World skit on Saturday Night Live, leading to a media uproar and an apology from the show's creators.
The last and saddest list is the tragedies. Joe Biden himself lost a daughter, Naomi, in a car crash in 1972, and his son Beau to cancer in 2015. According to Doug Wead, author of All the Presidents' Children, no fewer than 26 presidential children died before they turned 5. One of those was Dwight Eisenhower's firstborn son, Ikky, who died of scarlet fever when he was only 3.
Two presidents, William McKinley and Franklin Pierce, witnessed the deaths of all of their children. Pierce had a particularly tragic occurrence. In 1853, after his election victory but before his inauguration, Pierce, his wife, Jane, and their 11-year-old son, Benjamin, were in a train accident. Pierce and his wife were fine, but Benny died. Jane blamed the death on Pierce's new position, reasoning that God wanted to remove all distractions before Pierce assumed the presidency, and became a mostly absent first lady as a result. Nine years later, another presidential 11-year-old, Willie Lincoln, would die of typhoid fever while his father was serving as president and enmeshed in the Civil War. Both Lincoln and his wife, Mary, were heartbroken by the loss, with Lincoln saying, "My poor boy, he was too good for this Earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!" Mrs. Lincoln would later die in 1882, on the anniversary of the death of another Lincoln son, Tad. Tad died in 1871, at 18, six years after his father's assassination.
Calvin Coolidge was also devastated by the loss of a son in the White House. His tennis-loving son Calvin Coolidge Jr. developed a blister on his foot by playing tennis without socks. He died of blood poisoning from the blister. Coolidge later wrote, "When he went, the power and the glory of the presidency went with him."
Coolidge's son probably could have been saved by antibiotics, which had not yet been invented. But another 20th century invention did take the lives of several presidential children. Quentin Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt's son, died in a dogfight during an aerial battle in World War I. And John Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash, in 1999, 36 years after his father's assassination.
As this recounting shows, the experience of being a presidential child is a mixed bag. A handful has achieved great success. Some have had embarrassing experiences that would not have happened had their fathers not been elected president. And some even died when they might not have had their fathers not been presidents. In the investigations ahead, Hunter will be fortunate if his name ends up on the largest and yet safest category of all for presidential children, the forgotten ones.