There is a scene in Veep, the US political satire, where Selina Meyer’s campaign manager, the cold hearted Amy Brookheimer, prepares to destroy a rival candidate with a story about his infidelity. “If Thornhill strayed once, there may be others,” she says. “Maybe a crack whore if we’re lucky.”
“Call me naive, but isn’t that unethical?” bleats the candidate’s daughter, Catherine.
“You’re naive,” comes the answer. “Welcome to politics.”
What is it about the combination of crack and sex that is so uniquely degrading? It is because, we say, crack tears down every last barrier of dignity in its quest to control you. According to our standard cultural narrative, where cocaine will simply drive you to make a peerlessly deranged double album before it sends you into residential rehab, crack will make you a crack whore, taking enough control of you in one way to drag you down as low as possible in every other.
According to Hunter Biden, whose memoir of grief, addiction and recovery lays himself astonishingly bare, that nightmare of debasement was all too real for him. “I spent more time on my hands and knees picking through rugs smoking anything that even remotely resembled crack cocaine,” he said in one of his book launch interviews. “I probably smoked more parmesan cheese than anyone that you know.”
David Sedaris, legendary humourist beloved of theNew Yorker tote bag set, paints a near-identical picture of his crystal meth addiction in Me Talk Pretty One Day, recalling the nightmarish withdrawal he endured when his dealer (a bald woman who resembled “a cocktail onion speared on a toothpick”) checked herself into rehab.
“It’s torturous and demeaning,” he writes, “yet all you can think is that you want more. I might have thrown myself out the window, but I lived on the first floor and didn’t have the energy to climb the stairs to the roof… Thinking I must have dropped a grain or two, I vacuumed the entire apartment with a straw up my nose, sucking up dead skin cells, comet residue, and pulverised cat litter. Anything that travelled on the bottom of a shoe went up my nose.”
Sedaris was, at the time, a failing conceptual artist, which along with his homosexuality and future career appearing on NPR probably would have marked him out as a true bete noire for a certain kind of conservative – the straight-laced, family-values kind, fixated on gays, feminists, abortion and foul language on TV at the expense of almost all other issues. That is, the Republican right of the 1990s, not the 2020s.
The whole Hunter Biden affair, from Burisma to laptop to crack confessions, is very 90s – not so much in its actual content but in the way the conservative right is exploiting it. The GOP of the Clinton era worked hard to embed the idea that Democratic corruption goes in hand with Democratic debauchery, that the supposedly venal liberal ruling class, who cut deals for the benefit of their friends and family, are also encrusted with sexual, narcotic and even literal filth.
Flick back through the musty archive of anti-Clinton ephemera and you can find the same old hits being played time and again, from the old and entirely unproven rumour of a Clinton lovechild (“Girl, that can’t be my baby!” he is alleged to have told the expectant mother) to claims from sometime lover Gennifer Flowers that she and the 42nd president shared a penchant for slathering each other in condiments. “After those food fests,” goes a passage long quoted by fringe Clinton obsessives, “we’d both be covered with ketchup and milk and whatever”.
The real classics were rehashed in 2015 by far-right Trumpist hitman Roger Stone inThe Clintons’ War on Women, the blurb of which promised to let prurient readers in on “a Clinton family member’s drug rehab treatment that was never reported by the press, Hillary Clinton’s unusually close relationship with a top female aide, and a stunning revelation of such impact that it could strip Bill Clinton of his current popularity and derail Hillary’s push to be the second Clinton in the White House”.
Of course, what derailed Hillary Clinton in the end had nothing to do with a family member’s drug problem or some rumoured sapphic dalliance. It was her opponent who was nearly laid low by a tape on which he was heard bragging about grabbing women’s genitals without their consent – a scandal he tried to deflate by packing a debate audience with women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexually attacking them.
The same was true in 2020, when the Republicans’ fourth-quarter efforts to turn the campaign into a referendum on Hunter Biden’s personal affairs failed dismally. The bizarre Rudy Giuliani-crafted narrative about his laptop came off as little more than loopy agitprop – and with Trump himself having been elected despite everything America knows about him, these almost gothic stories of self-destruction and addiction among family members are no longer capable of turning elections and ending careers like they were. (Not that that’s stopped Donald Trump Jr from ridiculing the younger Biden’s “parmesan” line.)
Today, an altogether different sex scandal is unfolding on Capitol Hill, where millennial Florida Republican Matt Gaetz is furiously insisting he did not pay directly or indirectly for sex with multiple women, among them a 17-year-old. The allegations against him now include that he showed nude photos and videos of women he’d slept with to fellow House members – and that he enhanced his supposed paid-for encounters with ecstasy.
It doesn’t get more sordid than this, really, nor does it get more embarrassing. If crack is the ultimate 80s drug, to hear the name “ecstasy” invoked in a sex scandal featuring a careerist Republican is the most lurid possible 90s throwback. Gaetzgate has everything: the alleged hypocrisy of someone who built their career on character assassination, multiple intersecting illegalities and immoralities, and base biological urges flashed like priapic body parts in the marble halls of Congress.
The widely circulated picture of an empty bulk-size box of condoms resting on a trash bag outside Gaetz’s office might almost count as gilding the lily – but this is a story of tastelessness, shamelessness and self-indulgence taken to almost animalistic success, and it doesn’t call for narrative restraint. Like the endless Clinton eruptions of the 90s, the scandal may or may not be true, but as far as Gaetz’s myriad enemies are concerned, who cares?
Hunter Biden’s personal struggles are playing out in an entirely different genre. Instead of vigorous, enraged denials and anger at the other side, he is offering up a stark account of what grief and addiction can really do to a person – and the American electorate is now well versed enough in what real addiction entails that judging people for their children’s substance problems, as the likes of Gaetz, Giuliani and Trump Jr are wont do do, feels to them both callous and absurd.
Back in the re-election episode of Veep, the candidate Amy wanted to sink with his own adultery thwarts her by spontaneously owning up to it during a TV debate – a move that saves him, at least for the time being. “If there’s any dirty trick I cannot stand,” blasts Amy through clenched teeth, “it is honesty.”