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All the Presidents' Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Families

All the Presidents' Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Families

5.0 15
by Doug Wead
From Abigail "Nabby" Adams to Barbara and Jenna Bush, George Washington Adams to John F. Kennedy, Jr., the children of America's presidents have both suffered and triumphed under the watchful eyes of their powerful fathers and the glare of the ever-changing public. Many, like the children of William Henry Harrison and Andrew Johnson, writhed under the pressure and


From Abigail "Nabby" Adams to Barbara and Jenna Bush, George Washington Adams to John F. Kennedy, Jr., the children of America's presidents have both suffered and triumphed under the watchful eyes of their powerful fathers and the glare of the ever-changing public. Many, like the children of William Henry Harrison and Andrew Johnson, writhed under the pressure and fought bitter battles with alcoholism and depression only to die young. Others, like Robert Todd Lincoln, Margaret Truman, and Helen Taft Manning, used the privileges granted them to achieve their own success in the worlds of politics, business, and academia. All, however, had to cope with the entirely unique experience of sharing their fathers with the country that called them to leadership and living a life worthy of their place in history. Combining twenty years of study with never-before-published letters and personal accounts from presidential children, Doug Wead has produced a remarkable and authoritative analysis of the extraordinary people born to American presidents throughout history.

Stories of outstanding presidential daughters; the eight weddings performed in the White House and what later happened in the marriages; tales of the real and rumored illegitimate children of the presidents; a list of presidential children who pursued politics and the five who were almost president themselves; examples of how the pressures of being a celebrity child interrupt the normal desire for intimacy and personal identity; biographies of living presidential children and where they are now -- these are just a few of the historical gems unearthed. Both an entertaining lesson on our nation's history, a study of the problems and solutions of high-achieving parents, and a fascinating look at the father-son dynamics of the current White House, All the Presidents' Children is a must-read for anyone interested in America's most high-profile pedigree.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Wead, who was President George H.W. Bush's special assistant, explores the dynamic bond with their presidential fathers that catapulted offspring to great success or, more often it seems, to the depths of despair. The stress of being the son or daughter of one of the most powerful men in the world, the burden of great expectations, wore away at the mental fabric of many. Some sons became alcoholics, womanizers, gamblers or just plain reckless sorts, while daughters made impossible sacrifices to gain their fathers' approval. After the death of her second son from alcoholism (the elder son drowned, perhaps a suicide), Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, said, "[Y]et another son had been sacrificed on the altar of politics." Among the most interesting of those explored are Robert Lincoln, one of the most successful yet darkest presidential sons; Alice Roosevelt, famous for her fearless tongue and her pet snake named Emily Spinach; John Eisenhower, decorated soldier and military historian; and Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who outdid his famous father on the battlefield. Also profiled are the nine weddings held in the White House. Wead includes only short bios on those presidential children still living, out of respect for their privacy. Still, there is no shortage of drama, scandal and emotion in the lives detailed here, for as Wead sums up, "Two things are unforgivable for the child of a president-success and failure." 16 pages of color photos. (Feb. 18) Forecast: Publication on Presidents' Day should be a good hook to boost sales of this unusual look at life in the White House. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Madmen, murderers, miscreants, martyrs: presidents’ children are just like the rest of us, only more so. So one would conclude from this thoroughgoing compendium by former Bush I administration staffer Wead, whose researches began as a memorandum to the current president when he was contemplating his first run for Texas governor. (No president’s child had ever successfully run for governor, he warned Bush II.) Being the child of a president can be tough duty, Wead capably shows; it makes for loneliness, paranoia, high rates of divorce and alcoholism, and a life expectancy lower than the national norm. It can lead to maladjustment and exceptional nastiness, as witness Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who specialized in bitter complaint about just about every conceivable topic throughout her long life. (Teddy’s daughter died at 96 in 1980, having outlived every other presidential child.) It can yield spasms of rebellion: Patti Davis, Ronald Reagan’s daughter, for example, "took loud, public stands against her father’s policies." Yet there have also been well-adjusted, happy, and productive presidential progeny: William Howard Taft’s daughter Helen, a notable suffragette; Gerald Ford’s son Steve, an actor familiar to fans of The Young and the Restless and Black Hawk Down; and Amy Carter, a hardworking humanitarian like father Jimmy. Wead’s well-written, gossipy narrative is good fun to read, though it doesn’t boast much analytical power. Readers can fashion from it just about any case they care to on the question of whether a president’s kid is apt to turn out a hero like Webb Hayes (son of Rutherford), who won the Congressional Medal of Honor, or a loser like Marshall Polk (adopted son of James),who died in prison. Light enough for a dentist’s waiting room, but substantial enough to amuse and inform White House watchers and students of political history.
From the Publisher
Saturday Evening Post Compelling...captures the human side of presidential history.

U.S. News & World Report A fascinating study of the 159 first kids.

Mark Victor Hansen author of Chicken Soup for the Soul Some of the greatest missing stories of American history, told by one of America's greatest storytellers.

Product Details

Atria Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.52(w) x 9.64(h) x 1.47(d)

Read an Excerpt


"One of the worst things in the world

is being the child of a President.

It's a terrible life they lead."


Shortly after the 1988 election I sat with my boss, George W. Bush, in his office at campaign headquarters on Fourteenth Street only three blocks from the White House. As a liaison to coalitions during the campaign I had learned to read the various moods of George W. as we called him. His father had just won the presidency and, in a few days, the whole tedious and cumbersome business of a presidential transition would be charging into high gear.

"So what happens now?" he asked, leaning back in his chair and kicking his feet up on the desk. It was a rhetorical question, but it was nonetheless an unusual moment for a man who seldom took time for self-reflection. He was not sticking around Washington; that much had been settled. He was going back to Texas and a life of his own.

"Want me to do a paper on presidential children?" I asked.

"Sure," he said. He later told me that he thought no more about it. He certainly did not "commission" a study on presidential children, as some news sources later claimed. I was offering a free memorandum, and he was accepting a free offer. That was all. As part of the campaign staff, I had churned out a thousand pages for his father, why not a few for him?

The forty-four page report was completed within three weeks and it was deeply troubling. Research showed that being related to a president brought more problems than opportunities. There seemed to be higher than average rates of divorce and alcoholism and even premature death. Some presidential children seemed bent on self-destruction.

Within days my 1988 report to George W. Bush, the son of the new president-elect, was secreted away in a confidential file, never intended to see the light of day, but the stories I had found continued to haunt me. The expectations set by the public for presidential children -- and by the presidential children themselves -- were murderously high. Eleven years after I put away my report, John F. Kennedy, Jr., and his wife disappeared while piloting a plane over the Atlantic. Yet another presidential child had died too soon.

On the bright side, one encountered an expansive oasis in this bleak landscape. Presidential children had written dozens of books, led armies, founded some of America's greatest corporations, helped build some of her finest educational institutions, and worked tirelessly to correct social and political injustice. Lyon Tyler was the president of the College of William and Mary. James Garfield led Williams College in Massachusetts. Helen Taft Manning became dean of Bryn Mawr College when she was only twenty-five years old, and fought tirelessly for the rights of working women. James "Webb" Hayes and Robert Todd Lincoln were among the few exceptions to the curse of the presidential child in business. Both were hugely successful. Hayes founded what eventually became the Union Carbide Corporation. The daughters of Woodrow Wilson battled for woman suffrage and for safer working conditions for female factory workers. There were many great writers, especially in recent years, as evidenced by Margaret Truman's popular murder mysteries, John Eisenhower's critically acclaimed tome, The Bitter Woods, and Caroline Kennedy's scholarly, reader-friendly books on the Bill of Rights and the right to privacy.

If premature death took the lives of far too many presidents' children in early American history, that too was changing dramatically. Before the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, a presidential child could expect to die nine years before the general public, notwithstanding the educational and nutritional advantages a presidential child enjoyed. But after the Grant administration, a presidential child would actually outlive the public by six and a half years.

Some of the presidents' children's greatest achievements were in government and politics. Eight were elected to congress. Eleven presidents' sons served in cabinet or subcabinet positions in administrations other than their fathers'. Many served ably as ambassadors, such as Charles Francis Adams who, during the Civil War, skillfully negotiated behind the scenes in London to cut off British support to the Confederacy and keep them from entering the war. The poet James Russell Lowell said that not even Grant himself had done the Union a better service than the Adams son, toiling away in his isolation in London. Robert Taft was nominated for the presidency three times at Republican National Conventions. Of course, John Quincy Adams, son of the second president, was elected to the White House himself, as was Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of the ninth American president.

Still, the news was overwhelmingly dark, at least compared to the bright and sunny optimism that permeated the 1988 postelection world of George W. Bush, the new president's firstborn son. When I presented my report he was predictably unimpressed. And I was not surprised. Like Kipling's "man," he tended to be skeptical of news that was either too good or too bad; they were both imposters. I knew very well that my own amazement with the project would be a turnoff. The whole Bush family is understated. George W. cannot be stampeded into anything. The idea of a historical curse would not prompt the slightest curiosity or alarm. History could not easily threaten his life. This was particularly so because his self-esteem was inspired within and through his immediate family. Success was measured in terms of one's moral fiber and sense of duty, not by some material measurement of achievement, or money, or title. Fear normally relates to loss. And the only thing that George W. Bush feared losing was his integrity, and that was in his own hands.

For the most part, my study was irrelevant to him. What happened to other presidential children meant nothing. He was not in the least superstitious. He made only one personal comment during my presentation. It was when I spoke of the eerie similarity between the Franklin Roosevelts and the George Bushes. Both families had five children, four boys and a daughter. Both had an additional child that died young. One Roosevelt went west, just as Neil Bush had done, one went to Florida, like Jeb, where he was elected to office, and finally, FDR, Jr., the firstborn and namesake, went home to New York where he ran for governor.

I took great pains to explain that it would all turn out very differently for the Bush family for many reasons. It was discreetly discussed among Bush friends that George W. was planning to return to the family base in Texas to run for governor someday, just as Jeb would run in Florida, and Neil would run in Colorado. Maybe one of them would win.

"What happened to FDR, Jr.?" George W. wanted to know.

"He lost," I said. "In fact, no presidential child has ever been elected governor of a state." He groaned. But six years later, George W. Bush was indeed elected the governor of Texas and in 1998 was reelected, winning 69 percent of the vote in an historic landslide.

It may be that he did not entirely forget the study I submitted to him in 1988. Nine years later, when he was leading in the national presidential preference polls, I asked him what he was going to do. "I'm not going to run," he answered.

"And why not?" I asked, "You are at the head of the pack."

"Because of the girls," he said, referring to his twin daughters. "They would be in college then and it would ruin their lives."

"Did it ruin your life?" I asked.

"No," he paused, "It made my life."

When George W. Bush was finally, narrowly ratified the winner of the 2000 presidential election, he became the first child of a president to win that office since John Quincy Adams, the first "heir apparent" in American history. Remarkably, that was not all he had in common with Mr. John Quincy Adams. Both men were named after their fathers, but with different middle names or, in the case of Bush, differently configured names. And both lost their general election vote total to a candidate from Tennessee -- George W. Bush losing to Al Gore but winning in the Electoral College, and John Quincy Adams losing to Andrew Jackson but winning the presidency in the U. S. House of Representatives.

There was a time when George W. Bush was the archetypal presidential son, the heir apparent, headed for disaster, scandal or an early grave, and moving with all the confidence of a sleepwalker. Like many before him, he had the prerequisite drinking problem. Cousins and family members generously dubbed him "a late bloomer." In 1988 I interviewed his younger brother, Marvin Bush, asking him if any of the new generation had a political future. "Jeb is the serious one," Marvin replied without hesitation. "We have always thought that he would have a public career."

"And what about George?" I asked. After all, he was the elder, the senior Bush of his generation.

"George?" Marvin laughed, "George is the family clown." Marvin was not being entirely disrespectful. It was a reference in part to the role George had assumed after the death of younger sister, Robin, of leukemia at age three. He had become the family cheerleader, his mother once remarked. He had taken on the responsibility of keeping the family's attention diverted.

Notwithstanding how history will eventually judge the presidency of the younger Bush, he is without doubt a renascent phenomenon among presidential children. What made the difference? Was the role of the presidential parents, George and Barbara Bush, significant?

There are some clear reasons why George W. was able to handle the stress that defeats so many other presidents' children, reasons which we will examine in later chapters, but certainly part of the formula was a trusty weapon that he had discovered early in life, and one that he consistently employs to this day. Keep the "expectations" low. Success is relative. It takes the pressure off if they underestimate you. And if there is no pressure at all, well, who knows how far one can go?

On January 20, 2001, George W. Bush was inaugurated the forty-third president of the United States. The family "clown" was now the commander-in-chief, the most powerful man in the world. Even inside the family, brother Marvin had underestimated him, as had political rivals Governor Ann Richards and Vice President Al Gore and others before and after, even though in many cases they had been warned. Just as George W. had helped bring healing to the family in Texas after the tragic loss of Robin long ago, George W. was now bringing healing to the family after the father's national election loss in 1992 to Bill Clinton.

In 1988, while writing my report on presidents' children for George W. Bush, I struggled to find a positive slant to a very dark picture. Despite the cruel examples that preceded them, each new generation of presidents' children has been filled with hope and almost naïve ambition. And so I ended my paper with a number of upbeat stories and references to John Quincy Adams, the son who had become president himself. "Can lightning strike twice in the same place?" I asked, and I closed my forty-four-page paper with the rather smarmy conclusion that "anything is possible." That was 1988 and only twelve years later, indeed, the "impossible" had happened. Lightning had struck. George W. Bush, the president's son, had become the president himself.

Copyright © 2003 by Doug Wead

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Saturday Evening Post Compelling...captures the human side of presidential history.

U.S. News & World Report A fascinating study of the 159 first kids.

Mark Victor Hansen author of Chicken Soup for the Soul Some of the greatest missing stories of American history, told by one of America's greatest storytellers.

Meet the Author

Doug Wead is a former special assistant to President George H. W. Bush and is now a prominent corporate and university campus speaker. A cofounder of the relief organization Mercy Corps and author of twenty-seven books, including the New York Times bestseller All the Presidents' Children, he lives near Washington, D.C., with his family. Visit his websites at www.dougwead.com and www.mercycorps.com.

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All the Presidents' Children 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have been following Wead's books & speaches for over 25 years. This is classic Wead. He reaches back into history and makes it relevant to us today. He captures the 'moral of the story' and serves it to us, 'Wead style.' He's done it again!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Truly a captivating read. I plan to purchase additional copies and send them as gifts. Congratulations Mr. Wead, you offered an honest and educational experience!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Doug Wead's book, ALL THE PRESIDENTS' CHILDREN, will be an excellent resource to educate future generations about the personal lifes of our presidents and their families. Doug illustrates, in a profound way, the humanism of these families through their vulnerabilities, weaknesses and above all their strengths. Thank you Doug! Pam, Troy MI
Guest More than 1 year ago
This must be the one book that has been written that covers the entire history of the leaders of our country in such a unique and comprehensive way. It is not unusual to read the history of one President, but to see the human side of so many great leaders in one document is astounding. It is hard to imagine what it took to accumulate all the research necessary to compile the information for this book. It is such an insightful look at the enormous demands of leading a nation and a family at one time, and in some cases, the toll that it took on the latter. You will find in this book, details of history that perhaps have never been written about in this way.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a must read and a keeper. I would have loved to have had this book in school. What an amazing trip thru our history. The presidential families came alive with the pressures and challenges that they have had to deal with. It holds your interest all the way to the end. You feel like you are actually there experiencing everything right along with them. This book is not just for history buffs. It has something for everyone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had been privileged to hear Mr. Wead speak before. I did not know what an insightful and meticulous writer he was, however. This book, carefully researched and well written, gave me hours of enjoyment and information in the dynamics of father/mother/child relations in the families of the highest political achievers in our nations history. This is a must read for both serious and casual followers of the history of our nation.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It was designed to be fun to read and to indulge the reader. No other book has been too specific in delineate the abstract of this hiding topic. It is part of our structured history!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed learning more of the history and mysteries surrounding the presidents and their children especially being an immigrant here where I never knew much of this.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Wead has done an outstanding job following the lives of the the president's children. I found the book an excellent and informative read. I would definately recommend this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is informative and very interesting. Once you start reading, you will not want to stop. I find the conclusions well thought out and the whole book will give you a fresh perspective on our first families.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The value of this book is that it covers new territory. No matter what you have read and studied about American History or the American Presidents, there will be many surprises here. The perspective alone brings out many things and there is new information here from various presidential letters; but the greatest contribution comes from connecting the dots, putting all of these stories back to back, clearly demonstrating trends. I was riveted by Lincoln. I had thought we had pretty well exhausted him but seeing his children in light of other presidential children made him fully dimensional in a way I had never seen before. This book is fasincating!
Guest More than 1 year ago
How reassuring to know, as this thoroughly unpretentious, candid account of the lives of the presidents' children lets us see, that the great and powerful are not immune to the temptations and the family griefs that the rest of us face. The best thing about this delicious volume is that unlike so much pompous history, this book is written extremely well without any self-indulgent intellectualese. For anyone who wishes that more insightful American history were available without so much rhetorical posturing, this book is a cool breeze in a domain filled with far too much hot air. I gave a copy of this book to my father in-law and would recommend it as a gift for anyone who plays a parent's or mentor's role in the giver's life. It is a marvelous way to show appreciation to anyone who has avoided the mistakes that many of our presidents and first ladies made while raising their families in that pressure cooker, the White House.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Having an interest in US history, but by no means an authority, I casually bought Wead's book. After starting to read it, I couldn't put it down. I read it from cover to cover in two sittings. Previously, I had never thought about the children of presidents and don't know of another author who has written on the subject. Wead writes so clearly -- as great storytellers always do -- that I felt like I was there with the children. I celebrated with some, felt sorry for others and laughed throughout the book. A facinating look into the famous families whose names we all know, but whose members we have never heard of. Enjoyable, fascinating reading!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the definitive book on the subject and full of extraordinary stories. I will never see the presidents the same way again. I was impressd by the source notes, well over a thousand and found myself spending days buried in them even after reading the book. Robert Todd Lincoln was a favorite and Wead's treatment of Alice Roosevelt is unforgetable and haunting. This really gets you thinking about George W. Bush who is, after all, a president's kid himself.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Doug Wead has always been a favorite storyteller of mine, but in his new book, he has outdone himself. His sketches of the presidential children brought them alive for me, and it was gratifying to learn new information about some presidential kids who had gotten a pretty bad rap in the past (see Margaret Wilson). Wead focuses on lessons learned (see Amy Carter, Michael Reagan, and Patti Davis.) There were stories of strength and invaluable service to our country (see Charlie Taft and John Eisenhower)and iron will (see Margaret Truman). I also liked the way he wrote about the White House weddings, focusing not on sappy gowns and cakes, but on the fascinating mysteries that surrounded many of them. This book is a must read for history buffs and anyone in search of a new perspective on life in the White House.