Biden isn’t the only president with problematic family members
Barbara Perry surveys first family calamities from James Madison onward
Occasionally, U.S. presidents must long to be James Buchanan. Although not envying his rank at the bottom of presidential polls for failing to prevent the Civil War, they might appreciate his lifelong bachelorhood. At least he avoided family calamities, if not the dissolution of the body politic.
President Biden has lost two children to accident and illness. Now he faces the challenge of supporting his surviving son, Hunter, who has besmirched the family name with his drug abuse, tax violations, out-of-wedlock child and irresponsible relationships — personal and professional. If these Job-like tragedies weren’t enough for the Biden patriarch, the collapse of Hunter’s plea deal, and Attorney General Merrick Garland’s appointment of a special counsel to investigate his business dealings, provide ammunition for the president’s opponents just as his reelection campaign moves into high gear.
Can President Biden take some solace in knowing that his predecessors have survived similar familial hardships? From children, to First Ladies, to siblings, to parents, numerous presidents have endured controversial family members with potential political fallout, especially if legal investigations ensued.
James and Dolley Madison produced no children in their union, but the first lady’s son, Payne, by her deceased first husband, was an incorrigible gambler and drinker, who burdened his mother and stepfather with debts soaring to $40,000 (equivalent to over $1 million today). Theodore Roosevelt reportedly commented about his free-spirited daughter that he could either be president or “attend to Alice” but not both. Cousin Franklin Roosevelt’s five children entered into a total of 19 marriages, with multiple divorces. His daughter Anna moved into the White House with her two young children after leaving her first husband, at a time when failed marriages were considered an aberration from societal and religious norms.