Letter from Washington: A grubby kind of normalcy
An ethical quandary surrounding Hunter Biden’s paintings points to a bigger problem
According to the Georges Bergès Gallery website, Hunter Biden is “a lawyer by profession who now devotes his career to the creative arts” and “brings a myriad of experiences to producing powerful and impactful works”. So impactful that the gallery expects the works to sell for as much as $500,000 a pop.
I’ll let you be the judge of Hunter’s psychedelic creations, and whether they warrant that price tag. But the prospect of the work of the president’s son — who started painting only recently and has never sold a picture in his life — being able to command half a million dollars overnight has raised alarm bells.
There are two problems with Hunter’s paintings. First, it looks a lot like he is profiting off his father’s presidency. Would these technicolour swirls be worth half as much if Hunter wasn’t a close relation of the most powerful man in the world? There’s only one serious answer to that question.
Second, they leave open an opportunity for corruption. Paying over the odds for the artwork of the president’s son would be a neat way of funnelling money into Bidenworld on the understanding that one would be getting something in return.
The White House acknowledges the ethical quandary. But their proposed solution is risible. Rather than kibosh darling Hunter’s burgeoning art career, the Biden administration has asked his gallery to keep secret all information about the buyers of the art. The idea is that if no one knows who has bought the art, then how could the buyer command special treatment from the administration.
Because, as we all know, when it comes to corruption, secrecy is the best disinfectant
“Well, I think it would be challenging for an anonymous person who we don’t know and Hunter Biden doesn’t know to have influence,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said of the arrangement. Because, as we all know, when it comes to corruption, secrecy is the best disinfectant.
The practical absurdity of the arrangement, by which government ethics standards are effectively entrusted to New York gallerists (a famously salubrious bunch) was underscored by the recent announcement of two shows showcasing Hunter’s paintings. Would Hunter be attending these events? “Oh yes. With pleasure,” said a spokesperson for the gallery. “He’s looking forward to it. It is like someone debuting in the world. And of course he will be there.”
In keeping with the anonymity arrangement, any discussion of the sale of the art at these private events — which were arranged for potential buyers to meet the creator of the art they may or may not be buying — would obviously be out of the question.
This is not the first time that Hunter appears to be profiting off his name. Earlier this year, he published a memoir, Beautiful Things, for which he is thought to have earned a seven-figure advance. While his father was Vice-President, he was paid $50,000 a month to serve on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company.
Hunter is only the most egregious example of a wider problem in Washington of nepotism and influence-peddling that ranges from out-and-out corruption to the kind of revolving-door lobbying that allows political advisers to get rich when they are out of power.
Steve Ricchetti, one of Biden’s closest confidants, can call no fewer than three of his four children administration colleagues. A trio with the necessary skills and experience. What a happy coincidence! His brother Jeff runs a lobbying firm that, according to the Wall Street Journal, signed Amazon as a client a few days after the election and has more than quadrupled its revenue in the first six months of 2020.
Since it became clear that Kamala Harris would be the next Vice-President, Second Gentleman Doug has landed a cushy sinecure at Georgetown University. His daughter Ella has won a modelling contract and recently made her catwalk debut at New York Fashion Week. Harris’s niece Meena has fashioned a career as a social justice meets girl boss influencer out of her aunt’s rise to the Vice-Presidency (and has received repeated warnings from White House lawyers for doing so).
When it comes to the not-so-mysterious process by which Washington insiders turn influence into money, Ron Klain, Biden’s Chief of Staff, is a classic case. Before becoming the second most important man in the White House, Klain was earning $2 million per year from AOL-founder Steve Case’s investment firm Revolution. That’s a lot of money, but a small fee for Klain’s address book. (Incidentally, Klain’s wife, Monica Medina, has managed to get a job with the administration too.)
The Biden White House likes to boast that it has “established the highest ethical standards of any administration in American history”. That is not as far from the truth as all of the above would suggest. In other words, it’s a low bar. And the Biden administration’s much touted promise of a ‘return to normalcy’ after the Trump years includes a return to the very familiar way in which a new administration makes sure it takes care of its own.
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