Beyond the attacks, aides say the former vice president agonizes over how his hyper-public position has added to the formidable burdens of being his remaining son. If Hunter sounds down on the phone, Biden aides say, it can send his father into a funk and inflict a melancholy that lingers.
Mr. Biden will rarely bring up Hunter himself, they say, although others certainly will. When a reporter asks a skeptical question about Hunter, the mood in the room shifts. Aides become tense knowing that Mr. Biden might lash out. “You’re a damn liar, man,” Mr. Biden said, jarringly, at a December campaign event in Iowa after a voter suggested he had sent his son to Ukraine to “get a job and work for a gas company” in order to gain access to that country’s ruling class.
“It’s almost a cliché now,” said Ted Kaufman, Mr. Biden’s longtime chief of staff and short-term successor in the Senate after Mr. Biden became vice president in 2009. “Joe Biden used to say this all the time, and he meant it: ‘Delaware can always get another senator, but the kids can’t get another father.’ His rule was that if one of his kids ever called, we were told to get Biden no matter where he was.’’
In his more raw and vulnerable moments, friends say, Mr. Biden will let himself wonder if he might have fallen short as a parent. Despite all of his efforts, the nightly Amtrak commutes from Washington to Wilmington and the obvious mutual affection, they say he wishes he could have done more to protect his children and steer them clear of harm.
As is well known, Mr. Biden’s first wife and daughter were killed in a car crash a few weeks after he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972. Beau, then 3, and Hunter, 2, were badly injured but survived. Beau died of brain cancer in 2015, and Mr. Biden has described his late son — an Iraq War veteran and a former attorney general of Delaware — as his hero, inspiration and role model. He has spoken expansively of Beau’s example, military service and his own grief over his eldest son’s death.