Q&A: Rick Perlstein on Hunter Biden and the echoes of Jimmy Carter’s brother

In the weeks leading up to the 2020 presidential election, I interviewed Rick Perlstein—a leading historian of the conservative movement, whose latest book, Reaganland, had recently been published—for CJR. We discussed the endless (but misleading) media comparisons between the 2020 and 1968 elections, but also the many media themes and foibles lurking beneath the surface of Reaganland and Perlstein’s other books—from sensationalism to persistent false equivalence between Democrats and Republicans—and how they echo in contemporary political coverage. (“The secret is I’ve really produced a three-thousand-page exercise in media criticism,” Perlstein told me.) At one point, Perlstein noted overblown coverage of a scandal involving Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy, in the run-up to the 1980 presidential election, and compared it to coverage, in 2020, of Joe Biden’s son Hunter. In a separate interview around the same time, Perlstein characterized the Billy Carter scandal as the “But her emails! of 1980.”

Fast forward three years and But her emails! (a reference to overblown coverage, in 2016, of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server) is back in the discourse, as I wrote recently in this newsletter. And Hunter Biden never left the discourse. Recently, Republicans in the House opened an impeachment probe into Biden, Sr., over his supposed ties to his son’s foreign business dealings, despite not yet having presented any compelling evidence of such a link (let alone any high crimes or misdemeanors). They will hold their first hearing tomorrow. 

The recent Republican push to tie a president to an embarrassing relative, and the media coverage of those efforts, put me in mind of my earlier conversation with Perlstein, so I called him back up to dig deeper into the Billy Carter precedent. Perlstein sees the coverage this time around as less frenzied than in the Carter case—the Hunter Biden story, he says, does not have the same “narrative thrust”—and yet there are some parallels, not least between the characters of Billy and Hunter themselves. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

JA: The Hunter Biden scandal—or
scandals—have been going on for so long that it’s almost hard to remember where they began. How did the Billy Carter scandal(s) come to light and grow to become a national storyline?

RP: The two big parallels are that we had a close family member—a loyal, loving family member—who was president and who really had no interest in throwing their family member under a bus, [and] some real abuses involving money and corruption, but also, interestingly enough, involving substance abuse. [I once saw a speech by] Billy Carter’s widow, and she gave a very moving presentation about his alcoholism, how difficult it was having his little brother being in charge of the free world, and how he eventually cleaned up and unfortunately died of cancer soon afterward. We have an addict in recovery who behaved in terrible ways. And in both cases, both the mainstream political media and the Republicans really took advantage of this sensational story.

Basically, there are two kinds of Billy Carter scandals. One was that he was this embarrassing redneck lout who would cry out for attention, doing things like producing his own brand of beer, Billy Beer; saying embarrassing things; doing embarrassing things for the camera, like a giant belly flop in a swimming pool in front of the media; holding court at his gas station on the front seat of an old Chevy that he used as his throne. And the other was quite serious—he accepted money from the Libyan government to try and influence the Carter administration. It’s not really in dispute. He traveled to Libya; he said terrible, embarrassing things. It was a drip, drip, drip that really came to a head around the time, embarrassingly enough, of the Democratic National Convention [in 1980]. And Jimmy Carter had absolutely nothing to do with it. 

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The Republicans convened an investigative committee in Congress and very cleverly put a Democrat in charge of it; there was a little more trust in bipartisanship back then. And it was one of the things that hounded [Jimmy Carter] all the way to election day. The really striking media-criticism portion of this was that one of Ronald Reagan’s closest advisers, the guy he named national security adviser, [Richard Allen] was wrapped up in an influence-peddling scandal at around the same time. I discovered that it received hardly any attention; not a single article mentioned this in the New York Times. “Billygate” was the subject of over fifty New York Times articles in the previous month, even though, as I write, the best efforts of nine senators had yet to reveal anything worse than a few instances of poor judgment on the part of anyone but Billy; no one in the White House. So for some reason, this colorful Billy Carter was everywhere in the fall of 1980, and this parallel Reagan scandal was completely ignored.

To back up a bit, was there any sense in which Billy Carter was used to embarrass his brother or was featured in media coverage before the 1976 election, when Carter was running for president? 

It was a different kind of narrative then: The basic story that the media was telling about Jimmy Carter in 1976 was that he was this refreshing, populist voice from the hinterlands, and that he had this colorful family. It was part of Jimmy Carter’s charm; it worked for him. And, just like the media suddenly started covering every time Gerald Ford stumbled when his presidency started stumbling, the media began to represent the louche and redneck associations of Jimmy Carter with the failures of his presidency—that he brought, as they called it, the “Georgia mafia” to Washington. The idea that these are people who don’t play the Georgetown cocktail party game was a very serious concern of, for example, Sally Quinn in the Washington Post; there were front-page articles about it, that these guys don’t go to parties, they work instead. The fact that these people were outsiders was to blame for the administration’s failures. And the Billy Carter story carried in the wake of that. It really was related to the cultural-gatekeeping function of the guardians of polite Capitol opinion.

So in 1980, do you think the Billy Carter stuff impacted the result? It was such a blowout for various reasons—Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in a landslide—but you do, in the book, challenge some of the historical narrative-making about what contributed to the result, for example around the Iran hostage crisis…

I think [the Billy Carter scandal] did have an effect. But it was really a tributary to the larger torrent of narrative about the failure of the Carter presidency; that Carter wasn’t presidential. The fact that he had this redneck brother who was taking cash on the barrelhead from an outlaw state was one more drop in the bucket. It was just one more way in which people thought Jimmy Carter was not impressive, and Ronald Reagan was.

You mentioned that the characters of Billy Carter and Hunter Biden are strikingly similar, as well as their relationships to their respective relatives who were president. How do you see the media coverage comparing, then versus now? 

Any model that relies on the framework that we have two political parties and that they deserve an equal hearing in the annals of journalism will structurally advantage the side that’s willing to lie and cheat, basically. I call it the booster-seat theory: if you have to give equal attention to the claims of someone who’s telling the truth and the claims of someone who’s provably willing to lie and distort, it’s like giving a little kid a booster chair in a restaurant so he can sit at the level of the grownups. And of course this can be, and is, weaponized by Republicans. When they hold Congressional hearings, almost exclusively for the purpose of entering into the public record disinformation that the media has to report on, that makes the media dupes.

I think that by the end of the Trump administration, and certainly after January 6, the media managed to form a habit of mind where a certain sort of lie—i.e., Donald Trump won the election—would always be flagged as a lie. They somehow broke the seal on that taboo, and if they quoted Donald Trump saying, I won this election, there’d be a parentheses saying, According to all experts, Biden comfortably won the election, freely and fairly. There’s no reason that that same practice, now that the precedent has been set, could not be used for all sorts of lies. 

Do you have any reflections on what the role of the media should be in scrutinizing presidential families? If there are presidential relatives trading on the family name, that is something that’s worthy of media scrutiny, even absent a tie back to the president. But the story structurally does tie back to the president, just by putting the name in the news. 

The act of the family member is newsworthy… 

But it’s only newsworthy because they’re related to the president, who doesn’t choose their relatives. That’s the conundrum, I guess…

Then every story—at the top, at the bottom, and probably several times in the middle—should say that the president has nothing to do with this or that no evidence has been produced. And it also should affirmatively explain—in the way that elite reporters always manage to introduce these opinionated notions that fit the narrative—what the Republicans are doing: Some say that this is part of a strategy aimed at discrediting the president by X, Y, and Z. Which falls well within the norms of even both-sides journalism.

Finally, Billy Carter was in many ways a troubled character, as you noted. Do you have any sense of what his relationship with the media was like?

They loved him as a colorful rogue and he cultivated that. He was a media superstar from the beginning of the Carter presidency. He put on a good show; he made good copy, as they say. He was someone who courted the limelight from day one, day two, day three, all the way up to day, like, 1,463, including when he was under the most heightened scrutiny, for example peeing within range of the cameras. He was not his own best friend. Jimmy Carter had, I think, a really charming way of dealing with it. He was very playful about it. But he also was a loyal brother, and he refused to throw his brother under a bus. And Joe Biden refuses to throw his son under a bus. That’s a tough row to hoe for a politician.

Other notable stories:

  • In recent days, a pair of new books have started to roll out about the Times and the Post, respectively. Marty Baron, the former editor of the latter paper, published a first excerpt from his memoir, Collision of Power, in The Atlantic, reflecting on how the Post landed on its “Democracy dies in darkness” strapline among other stories from his tenure. Meanwhile, Adam Nagourney, a reporter at the Times, has been promoting his (unofficial) history of that paper, sitting for interviews with New York magazine and Vanity Fair, among others. In a review for the LA Times, Julia M. Klein considered the books together, writing that while “media junkies will find both books indispensable,” they “should appeal to anyone interested in power: how it operates, and how it is lost.”
  • The Pew Research Center asked Black Americans how they perceive the media’s coverage of Black people, and found “critical views… regardless of age, gender and even political party affiliation.” Among other findings, almost two thirds of respondents agreed that “news about Black people is often more negative than news about other racial and ethnic groups”; almost as many said that “the news only covers certain segments of Black communities,” while “43% say the coverage largely stereotypes Black people, far higher than the 11% who say it largely does not stereotype.” And few of the respondents were hopeful that the coverage will get better anytime soon.
  • New York Public Radio, which oversees the radio stations WNYC and WQXR and the news site Gothamist, said that it would lay off around 12 percent of its workforce, citing a “free fall in the advertising market.” The Times has more (and we interviewed Victor Pickard about cuts to public radio earlier in the year). In other media-business news, Punchbowl, an insidery startup that covers Congress, expanded its web offerings. Axios has more (and we profiled Punchbowl last year). And the LA Times launched “Climate California,” a section covering climate change, the natural world, health, and science.
  • In global press-freedom news, Jesús Gutiérrez—a journalist in the Mexican town of San Luis Río Colorado, which borders Arizona—was killed, possibly in the crossfire of an attack on local police. In Hong Kong, Ronson Chan, the head of a leading journalists’ association, was sentenced to five days in prison after refusing to show his ID card to plainclothes police. And, also in Hong Kong, the media mogul Jimmy Lai has now been in jail for a thousand days. His son says that “media attention” alone is keeping Lai alive.
  • And—after Jann Wenner, the former editor in chief of Rolling Stone, told the Times that the magazine’s botched 2014 story about an alleged rape at the University of Virginia was the sort of thing that could have happened to any outlet—Derek Kravitz, who worked on a Columbia Journalism School audit of the story, pushed back. “No, Mr. Wenner,” Kravitz writes for CJR, “failures like this don’t happen to everybody.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.


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