But when it comes to presidents and their relatives, poor perceptions and foolishness often run neck-in-neck toward the finish line.
How foolish was it for the president’s son, Hunter Biden, to attend a White House state dinner for the president of India?
Garland says he has nothing to do with the case against the younger Biden that, most recently, resulted in him agreeing to plead guilty to minor tax related charges and admitting to the facts of a gun charge — a deal that might keep him out of prison.
But there is, to be charitable, some political disagreement on that point, made worse recently by an IRS whistleblower who claims Garland’s Justice Department has tried to interfere in the investigation.
If you know anything about presidents and their relatives, this is just the latest chapter in an age-old saga.
Put it this way: If modern media, including Twitter, had been around in the early 1800s, Dolley Madison’s heroics in saving artwork from a burning White House might not have been enough to save her from the embarrassments of her son.
As it is, the fact that James Madison is remembered as the father of the Bill of Rights and not as John Payne Todd stepfather, is no doubt a source of relief in the hereafter.
Payne (perhaps “pain” is more accurate) was Dolley’s son from a previous marriage. He was repeatedly arrested for causing trouble, including incidents involving assaults and shootings. He ran up so many debts that his stepfather had to mortgage his Montpelier plantation to cover them all.
To make matters worse, the president made him a special secretary to a team of U.S. diplomats on a peace mission to Europe. According to various accounts, he used his time in Europe to gamble and otherwise live it up at his parents’ expense, running up more than $8,000 in debt (or nearly $150,000 in today’s money).
Imagine how that one would play today.
Historian Ralph Ketcham called Payne “a classic example of the young American, warned of by Franklin and Jefferson, who was so dazzled by the courtly graces of Europe that he became unfit for useful life in his own country.”
Not that he was terribly fit for that to begin with.
And if you’re a little older than I am, you might remember the trouble Lyndon Johnson had with his brother, Sam Houston Johnson. The younger brother had a drinking problem which the saturdayeveningpost.com says led to him often speaking freely, under the influence, with everyone, including reporters. Sometimes these conversations included confidential information.
ABC News says the president “supposedly ordered the Secret Service to keep his brother as a virtual White House prisoner, to reel in his drunken cavorting.”
Straight-laced Jimmy Carter had his beer-drinking brother, Billy Carter, who tried to cash in on his family’s fame by marketing Billy Beer.
“I had this beer brewed up just for me. I think it's the best I ever tasted. And I've tasted a lot. I think you'll like it, too,” it said on every can. But in private, Billy drank Pabst, and the Billy product lasted barely a year.
Bill Clinton pardoned his half brother, Roger, for his conviction on drug trafficking and cocaine possession charges. That was near the end of Bill Clinton’s second term. A few months later, Roger pleaded guilty to a DUI. It wouldn’t be the last time.
If you really know your history, you’ll remember Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, from his first marriage. She was such a rebel and a flirt that the president once said, “I can do one of two things. I can be President of the United States or I can control Alice Roosevelt. I cannot possibly do both.”
At least in that case, the public seems to have been more amused than outraged.
It may be that, as ABC News put it, “There's a Roger Clinton or a Billy Carter swinging from every family tree.” The dysfunction of presidential families may be an endearing byproduct of democracy, given how, as is often said, anyone can grow up to become president.
But then, it’s not exclusive to democracy. Even royal families are prone to scandal. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. ... If you look for perfection, you'll never be content.”
Still, it’s hard to laugh things off while an investigation is underway.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., repeated the official Democratic line on Sunday when she said of Hunter Biden’s state dinner appearance, “I think as the president explained, that’s his son. That’s a separate thing.”
If history teaches anything, it is that the misdeeds of a president’s family member — whether criminal, mere foolishness or just matters of perception — are never truly separate things from the halls of power.