Scandal is such a wonderful driver of human emotions. Just think of the number of things you get to feel in one go: horror, disgust, relief, superiority, guilt and glee, to name just a few. All these flooded through a portion of the American public again this week when a new video emerged of Hunter Biden.
Hunter is the sole surviving son of President Joe Biden and it is uncontentious to say that he is a tortured soul.
His mother and his one-year-old sister died in a car crash in 1972. Hunter and his older brother Beau were injured but they survived. Beau died of cancer at the age of 46, and soon afterwards Hunter started a short-lived relationship with his elder brother’s widow. In between he also developed a serious drug and prostitute addiction. All while sitting on the board of various firms, including a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma.
The video this week shows Hunter, cigarette dangling from his lips, boasting to a prostitute about how much crack he has. Presumably to encourage her to come over.
Of course, people who dislike Joe Biden are undisguisedly delighted. Similar glee was expressed in recent months from the opposite political side when the career of a handsome young congressman called Madison Cawthorn imploded amid a set of scandals. Cawthorn was also in a car crash, which left him using a wheelchair. Like Hunter, the 26-year-old is clearly disturbed and in need of help. But it is hard for either political side to show pity when there are larger prizes in sight. Such as power.
One of the problems of scandals is that they so often occlude the larger story. For instance, it is very hard to stay focused on the composition of Ukrainian energy boards when there are crack, hookers and what Sky described as an act ‘too obscene to describe’ to ogle at. Similarly there were probably a number of questions to be asked about how young Cawthorn ended up in Congress. But all this and more gets lost in the glee with which political opponents tune in to scandalous videos of their opponents. And it never helps that each political side tends to defend their own while happily basking in the discomfort of their opposites.
Is British politics any better? I wonder. I watched with interest earlier this month as Diane Abbott claimed in a BBC interview that Boris Johnson ‘has been rumoured to be the one who likes assaulting women’. That’s quite a claim. Nastier even than the repeated digs made from the despatch box about Johnson’s private life from the oh-so-decent and otherwise easily offended Keir Starmer.
But Abbott’s claim interested me because I suddenly remembered the number of things a cruel person – never mind a fabulist – might say about her. Perhaps the standout moment in Abbott’s career was in 2010 when she tried to justify sending her son to a private school. Asked to defend herself, the socialist Abbott said that she was a hypocrite. As though that closed matters.
Fast-forward a decade or so and that same son was grown up and also clearly a rather sorry case. Having become a diplomat, he apparently also became a drug addict. When a story emerged of him biting the leg of a policeman outside the Home Office, some people briefly thought it rather funny, if odd. And then the details started to come out: that Abbott Jr had an addiction to a horrific drug called crystal meth. That he had chased his mother around her house threatening her with a pair of scissors and attacked nine emergency workers while high on the drug. That he had been sectioned.
At this stage, the media and others drew a quiet veil over the incident, as well they might with such a private tragedy. I have never seen it referred to since – certainly never as a way to attack his mother. Ms Abbott may enjoy making innuendos on Twitter about the private life of Michael Gove (as she did last year) or suggesting that the Prime Minister may have assaulted women. But so far as I know, no one has ever used her own family life against her.
There are a growing number of people on the right who believe that such decorum is the reason the right loses so many cultural and other battles. The claim is that while the right is willing to play nice, the left is willing to play as dirty as hell. One lesson the Trumpist right in America has taken from this is that if you want to beat the left, you must fight as dirty as them. Nothing should be off limits. You must hit them where it hurts, hard.
We can all be provoked into hitting low on occasion. I did recently, when the thug and bully Alastair Campbell once again tried to present himself as a model of political truthfulness. Some things cannot stand.
Nevertheless I think about this issue fairly often, and one incident in particular. More than a decade ago Abbott and I were in a public debate, and at some stage she announced the fact that her son, who was in the audience, had just got his GCSE results – all As. Everyone applauded politely.
For a split second, I debated whether to say: ‘I wonder how he’d have done if he’d gone to the schools you tell everyone else to send their kids to’ – but something held me back. Had the roles been reversed, I am quite certain that nothing would have restrained her. But with her young son sitting there, I thought it would be cruel. I don’t especially applaud myself for the restraint. I just think about it sometimes.
Because there is politics, and there are people’s lives. Somewhere in the political fight, you can lose sight of that. I wonder if the current Conservative leadership contenders will. You can call it wimping out. Or perhaps the tiny voice that says ‘pause’ is the voice not of pity or weakness, but the slightest sliver of civilisation piercing its opposite.
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