In 2020, after he died at 46 from a neuroblastoma, Beau was remembered for shunning opportunities to cash in on the family name. Most famously, in 2008, he turned down a political appointment to his father’s U.S. Senate seat, instead choosing to fulfill his duties in the Army National Guard.
And yet, a dozen years earlier, his entrance into the legal world spurred a backlash. In June 1996, after Beau was appointed to the Department of Justice, the Wilmington News Journal
published a piece that weighed his credentials against his connections. At the time of the appointment, his father served as the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department. Among other things, Beau’s job involved implementing the Brady Gun bill and the Violence Against Women Act — two laws spearheaded by his father.
“I don’t see any conflict,” Sen. Biden insisted to the Journal. He and others pointed to Beau’s sterling credentials, including a clerkship for a federal judge in New Hampshire. That judge, Steven McAuliffe, endorsed Beau as “very hard-working, very dedicated,” and yet he was far from an objective observer. As the story noted, he had served as the New Hampshire co-chairman for Biden’s failed 1988 presidential run.
Beau, for his part, was clearly frustrated by the reporter’s insinuating questions, and counseled Hunter, who’d just graduated Yale, about the scrutiny to come. “I would tell my brother to do what he wants to do and to be honorable doing it,” he said, before asking the reporter a question. “Are you trying to say we both should have been doctors?”
Five months later, the Journal
published a similar piece on Hunter’s new job at MBNA. His father seemingly disapproved of the MBNA appointment, telling the paper that he was “a little disappointed” his son hadn’t entered a conventional law firm. It wouldn’t be the last time Biden expressed muted concern over his son’s exploits teetering ever-so-close to his own. Decades later, after Hunter was appointed to the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma — another job that raised questions about his qualifications — then-Vice President Biden, whose foreign policy portfolio included Ukraine, told Hunter,
“I hope you know what you are doing.”
Then, as now, Hunter was defiant. “Unfortunately, no matter where I went to work, some people would make an issue of it,” he told the Journal in 1996. He insisted that the move to MBNA was born from his interest in business law, but also for family reasons. “Ninety percent of the reason I took the job is that it’s close to home,” he told the paper.
Hunter later acknowledged in his memoir that money was also a factor. “Being a corporate lawyer was the antithesis of what I’d thought I’d be doing,” he wrote. “But I had $160,000 in student loans from college and law school, a burgeoning family, and no savings.” He noted, almost giddily, that, by the time he left MBNA, “I had more money in the bank than any Biden in six generations.”
In addition to his six-figure salary, Hunter also received a signing bonus. Such a generous package was not unusual at MBNA, which, according to Crouse, “paid extremely well.” Hunter used his newfound wealth to send his daughter Naomi to private school, to help pay off Beau’s student debt, and to buy a house. Kathleen wanted to be pragmatic with their new wealth and suggested they see a financial adviser, but Hunter was against it. They eventually met with someone, but only once, according to Kathleen’s book. The adviser suggested they purchase a home for no more than $170,000.
Weeks later, Hunter fell in love with a sprawling old estate and former frat house on Centre Road, in Wilmington’s poshest part of town. The estate had gorgeous trappings, like high hemlocks and marble mantelpieces, but also remnants from its college tenants, including a pool table and an old refrigerator with a hole cut in it to accommodate a beer keg. At $310,000, the house cost nearly twice as much as the family’s proposed budget, but Hunter was insistent, and Kathleen again relented. (In his memoir, Hunter contended that the family ultimately flipped the house for about twice what they originally paid.)
Hunter seemingly became intoxicated by his money, but also captive to it. He indicates in his memoir that once MBNA introduced him to upper-middle class life, “every decision I made after that was based on how to maintain what I had, and how to make more.”
Hunter seemingly delayed his start date at MBNA to fulfill a family promise: serving as co-chair for his dad’s 1996 reelection campaign. Beau, Kathleen and various other Bidens worked long days to assist this effort. Most nights, Hunter hosted them and other campaign staff on his back porch for drinks. (In her memoir, Kathleen notes that it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when Hunter became a lobbyist in D.C., that she “watched his drinking spiral from social to problematic.”)
Ahead of Election Day, MBNA signaled clear support for the veteran senator. When the Biden campaign held a swanky
$1,000-a-head fundraiser at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, it was attended by Cawley, who per a
bank spokesperson at time, “strongly supports the senator.” (Cawley later became a
major backer of President George W. Bush, with Biden and Bush
coming together in 2000 to honor Cawley and his wife for their record of social entrepreneurship.)
According to the Journal, MBNA’s chief counsel directed 150 executives on which of the state’s politicians to give to, and how much. During the 1996 campaign, a crew of MBNA executives showered Biden with more than ten thousand dollars in a little more than a week. “There wasn’t anybody watching you to make sure you did it, but you were encouraged to participate in local, state and federal politics by making contributions,” recalled Crouse, who gave to an array of politicians, including Biden, and to MBNA’s PAC.