Chapter One: How the Presidents' Parents Shaped Their Sons and Influenced the Nation
God bless my mother, all I am or ever hope to be I owe to her.
This is the first book written about the presidents' parents. That fact will come as a surprise to many students of history, for there are numerous books devoted to the lives of the presidents' mothers and several written exclusively about the presidents' fathers, but not a single study that treats them both. "Our relationship with our parents is the 'original' relationship of our lives," writes Dr. Dale Atkins, "the template for all other connections." How can one consider the development of these complicated lives without a thorough examination of both parents interacting together with the sons they raised?
Can one really understand Franklin D. Roosevelt without considering the role of his domineering mother, a woman who wouldn't let him take a bath without her until he was nine years old and who sat there, silent in the background, when he gave his first radio fireside chat to the nation? Or how would history read if one considered only the mother of John F. Kennedy, who, according to his wife, Jackie, never once told her president son that she loved him? Imagine trying to understand Kennedy without examining the role of his father, Joe, who as Kennedy himself admitted, made it all happen.
It was not just the presence of an affirming, loving mother that motivated young Abraham Lincoln to read his books, but also the ominous presence of an ignorant, sometimes abusive father described as "cold and inhumane" in his treatment of his son. Lincoln, the boy, may have read his books to escape the angry man, who sometimes hit him so hard that he knocked him to the ground, as much as to impress the woman who nurtured and protected him.
It is curious that no psychologist has taken on this subject, connecting the dots by comparing the parents of the various presidents, searching out any possible common denominators, and extracting any lessons to be learned. Are there things these parents said or did that sparked high achievement in their offspring? Are there patterns to be applied for the rest of us?
It's a difficult and unwieldy subject, to be sure. There are so many variables of time and circumstances, so many generations to cover. And psychologists insist that much of a parent's impact comes in the first five years. There is so much esoteric data demanded. It would be helpful to know if our subjects were breast-fed or bottle-fed. But while we may have studied the lives of our presidents with insatiable and unbridled curiosity, even to the point of exploring their sex lives, there is not much available on the subject of presidential breast-feeding.
Still, we have clues about those early years of nurturing, clues that are based on the things the presidents and their parents have said and done. Thanks to a growing body of sociological data, we can get a picture, even though sometimes blurry, of those early relationships and a feel for how they impacted the lives of our chief executives.
The Positive Impact of a Nurturing Mother
Not surprisingly, a number of presidents' mothers seem to have done everything right. We know that the tender early love of a mother or surrogate creates deep reservoirs of self-confidence throughout one's life. Studies coming out of the former Soviet Union showed that children of the state who were denied physical contact and affirmation even those who were well fed and otherwise cared for had difficulty learning to speak and walk. A nurturing, reassuring, calm mother figure successfully satisfies what psychologists refer to as the intimacy drive of the infant. This leads to a strong attachment between a mother and child. Drawing on the security of this attachment, the child will more quickly explore his environment and thus realize his separate identity. This process is called separation and individuation.
When a child experiences the parent as a safe base, the child's range of exploration will increase. Picture a baby crawling away from his mother and then pausing to look back to see if she is still there. Eventually, the child will internalize this sense of security and consider "the self" as a safe base as well. He or she will begin to feel secure even when alone or away from the parent. The greater the sense of security, the greater the child's autonomous functioning. Thus, there is an essential intertwining among what psychologists refer to as the intimacy drive, the internal location of control, and the need for achievement, all three of which are psychological necessities of life.
Thanks to our open society and thanks to the strong two-party system, we have a virtual banquet of detail on the adult lives of our presidents, including unflattering inside accounts of their personality flaws, as well as their successes. Drawing on such descriptions, we can work backward to an understanding of their early parental relationships.
In studying the presidents, one trend is hard to ignore. Many had very strong relationships with their mothers. As former New York Times reporter Doris Faber discovered in her study, they are "almost without exception mama's boys."
President James Madison considered his mother to be his most trusted adviser. They were close throughout their lives and never seemed to have an argument. Nelly, as she was affectionately called, was often sick with malaria, but she lived to be ninety-six. In her old age, friends said she looked younger than her son. She was lucid and active, and until her dying day she did not need reading glasses.
"Mother McKinley," parent of our twenty-fifth president, was a nurturing parent, observed cuddling her baby for hours at a time. The ultimate break came when her son defied her wishes and rejected a career as a preacher. But the disappointment did not last. Her son's great success brought her quiet pleasure, and the president became so dependent on her prayers that he set up a special wire to her home in Ohio so he could talk to her daily. When she lay dying, he took his presidential train, the Air Force One of its day, and rushed to her side. A few years later, absent the protection of his mother's prayers, William McKinley was felled by an assassin's bullet during an exposition in Buffalo, New York.
"I was a mama's boy," said Woodrow Wilson, "no question about it, but the best of womanhood came to me through those apron strings."
Sara Delano Roosevelt nursed her baby, Franklin, for a full year. A friend at a dinner party once asked what she was feeding him, and she answered, "Nature's own food." Sara recorded her son's every move and could report, "Baby very well and laughing all the time."
Hannah Milhous Nixon was a calm, understated woman who, as in the case of so many other presidents' mothers, was deeply religious. Unpretentious and nonjudgmental, she was a stark contrast to her choleric, loud husband. When Richard M. Nixon was in political trouble, he would call her and she would say, "I will be thinking of you." It was her signal that she would be praying, for as a humble Quaker she took literally the admonition not to pray publicly or make a pretense of one's prayers. In 1974, when Richard Nixon gave his tearful farewell to the nation, he declared, "My mother was a saint."
In 1918, a German pediatrician, Ernst Moro, made the observation that a baby's first and most powerful instinct was to hug, and that when taken from the womb a baby would immediately reach out with both arms in an attempt to grasp his mother.
Moro's observation brings to mind the relationship between President Andrew Jackson and his remarkable mother, Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson. "Betty," as she was called, was an Irish beauty with an indomitable spirit who found it easy to express love to her children. But Betty was born in troubled times. According to legend, she was a patriot who juggled raising her fatherless sons and nursing wounded soldiers during the American Revolution. Then she contracted cholera from a patient, turned deathly sick herself, and suddenly died.
Betty Jackson insisted that her children stay by her bed as she passed from this life, and she used what strength she possessed to give each one of them special words of advice. Her last comments to Andrew were obviously etched deep: "Don't lie or steal, and don't rely on the courts to solve your problems, settle them yourself."
Psychologists who were consulted on this project suggest that America's seventh president, Andrew Jackson, spent his whole life seeking to become one of those very war heroes for whom his mother had sacrificed herself. During the Indian Wars and the War of 1812, and in numerous duels of honor, Jackson was frequently in mortal danger. When he died in his bed in 1845 at the age of seventy-eight, he still carried several bullets in his body, including one that had lodged close to his heart. Throughout his life, Andrew Jackson had sought to be as worthy as those men his mother had nursed, the soldiers who had taken his mother from him. It was a lifelong journey back into his mother's arms.
Andrew Jackson became one of America's greatest military and political leaders and one of its most beloved public figures. Even when he was in retirement, crowds would line the road when he passed by on horseback. He never met his father, described by some historians as an Irish linen weaver and farmer. Andrew Jackson would be one of three American presidents whose fathers would die before their sons were born Rutherford B. Hayes and William Jefferson Clinton being the others but his mother's short life would greatly impact him. Her dying admonition became part of his core beliefs, and thus it was that the last words of a poor young Irish widow helped inspire and frame the great political philosophy of a whole generation of Americans and define its era in our nation's history.
In a sense, part of the Jacksonian years and the popular so-called Jackson Doctrine belong to Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson, a widowed mother of three whose birth date and birthplace in Ireland have been forever lost to history. Nursing the wounded, she was willing to take on a humble servant's role in helping her young nation's birth, never knowing that the small son at her side would rise to lead those very United States and become the most powerful and popular president in its early history.
Some of the most remarkable mothers of the presidents demonstrated a resilience and cunning beyond their times. Abigail Adams, responsible for her family's sustenance during her husband's years of absence in service to his country, sold pins, coffee, sugar, handkerchiefs, and other hard-to-find commodities that John Adams sent home from Philadelphia and Europe. Sometimes she bartered the goods for hard currency and necessities.
A young, widowed Sophia Hayes, mother of our nineteenth president, devised a clever way to avoid almost certain financial ruin: she came up with a complicated formula that involved renting out parts of her farm in exchange for food, which she then bartered for other goods. She not only held her frightened family together but even prospered in a difficult situation.
Herbert Hoover's mother, Huldah, a devout Quaker, was a tower of strength after the death of her husband. She raised her family with stern values, refused charity, sewed for food, and became a popular minister in the Quaker Church. Huldah refused to spend a single penny of her husband's life insurance, saving it instead for her children's education. One night, exhausted after preaching a sermon, she walked twenty miles home in a cold rain, caught pneumonia, and died. Herbert Hoover was suddenly an orphan at the age of nine, but he was empowered with a remarkable heritage.
In 1907, heading into his presidential campaign, William Howard Taft was tapped by his friend President Theodore Roosevelt to make a goodwill trip around the world. With his mother sick and close to death, Taft decided to cancel his trip to be with her. In a trembling, dying hand, Louise Torrey Taft wrote the last words he would ever receive from her, a statement that reflected six generations of one of America's greatest families: "No Taft, to my knowledge, has ever yet neglected a public duty for the sake of gratifying a private desire." He went.
As a volunteer midwife to poor, black tenant farmworkers, Lillian Carter outraged her segregationist neighbors. Brilliant and sassy, she joined the Peace Corps at age sixty-eight, serving in India. She returned a hero to that country during her son Jimmy Carter's presidency. Lillian lived for months at a time in the White House, where she was often shamelessly fawned over by visiting dignitaries and heads of state. When King Hassan of Morocco presented her with yet another gift of "rare" perfume, Lillian retorted, "Oh, you foreigners are all alike." The king laughed uproariously, and a relieved President Carter laughed with him.
Fathers of Power
Not surprisingly, most presidents were the sons of very powerful fathers, some inspirational by example and some abusive. Of course, the father of John Quincy Adams was a president himself, as was the father of George W. Bush. And the father of George Herbert Walker Bush was a U.S. senator and millionaire businessman. William Henry Harrison's father signed the Declaration of Independence and went on to become governor of Virginia. President Benjamin Harrison was the son of a congressman who was himself the son of a president. John Tyler's father was a governor of Virginia.
Zachary Taylor's father was a Revolutionary War hero. "My father contributed much more than words to my life," Taylor said, "He provided the example of a man who did not know the word surrender."
During the years of the American Revolution, Benjamin Pierce, father of the fourteenth president, heard about the Battle of Lexington and left his plow in the middle of the field to head out and fight for independence. He was involved in most of the major engagements of the Revolutionary War, suffering through Valley Forge and eventually rising to brigadier general. He later became governor of New Hampshire. Even after becoming president, the son was in awe of his father's career.
Alphonso Taft, the millionaire father of William Howard Taft, was the secretary of war under Ulysses S. Grant and an ambassador under Chester A. Arthur.
In more modern times, FDR's father was a successful businessman who, among other investments, owned coal mines. He himself had come from a prominent patrician family, once turning down a dinner invitation from the Vanderbilts, considering them to be nouveau riche and beneath the social standing of the family.
Joseph P. Kennedy was a millionaire by age thirty-five and a leading public figure. In the 1960s, when the presidential helicopter lifted off from Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, the young president, John Kennedy, waved to his father below and said to a nearby assistant, "There's the man who did all of this."
Three fathers of presidents were clergy. Both fathers of Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson were Princeton seminary graduates, pastors, and denominational leaders in the Presbyterian Church. William Arthur, father of the twenty-first president, was a fiery Baptist preacher, so quarrelsome that he was run out of five different congregations. But the son rebelled and was never baptized. As president he attended St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, within walking distance of the White House. His mother was mortified that her son had abandoned the family's cherished Baptist faith, but, according to biographer Steven Alcorn, this rebellion may have been at the heart of his drive to succeed.
Many of our presidents sprang from humble origins, but some of their fathers had the most powerful holds on their sons. In some cases the parent was an inspiration, whose integrity and character far surpassed their poverty or diminished social standing. Some were organizers who gave their children a sense of structure and discipline that allowed them to succeed. And others were not only poor; they seemed to lack any discernible parenting gift at all, except for a great love of their children. In some cases, the son rose to vindicate the father.
Nathaniel Fillmore, the first presidents' father to actually visit his son in the White House, was a tenant farmer who sometimes lived off the charity of others. His son's rise is attributed by his biographer to "his father's blunders."
Herbert Hoover's only memory of his father was that of a strong, laughing man, lifting him out of the mud and shaking him off. The boy was only six when his father the sunny, eternal optimist and town blacksmith fell dead of heart disease. His mother, Huldah Hoover, was so poor and their budget so strictly enforced that she often had to forgo correspondence. Even postage stamps were out of reach.
"He was not a talker," Harry S. Truman said of his farmer father, "he was a doer." Dwight Eisenhower's father was humiliated by poverty and forced to declare bankruptcy. Nixon's father was a grade school dropout who struggled financially all his life.
Orphaned at six years of age, Jack Reagan, father of a future president, spent his life as a modest shoe salesman, forever struggling with alcohol. In a scene out of a Frank Capra movie, he was once handed his dismissal notice on Christmas Eve.
Recently released KGB documents show that in 1980 the Soviet Union developed a dossier on Jack Reagan and his struggles. They leaked the information to American journalists during the son's presidential campaign, hoping to derail his candidacy. Jack Reagan, mercifully, was gone long before the Soviet smear campaign. He had lived just long enough to see his son, future president Ronald Reagan, star as George Gipp in the film about the football legend Knute Rockne of Notre Dame University. He would never know that he had been the father of the American president who was credited with ending the Cold War.
Ronald Reagan, meanwhile, would have an enduring obsession with the character he played in the movie. It was his last link to his father. In one of his last public appearances before Alzheimer's disease set in, Ronald Reagan sat backstage and talked to friends about George Gipp: "Some day, when the team is down and there doesn't seem to be much hope, remember me, and tell the boys to win one for the Gipper."
Some presidents rose from very dark and abusive relationships. They might have easily succumbed to the bouts of self-hatred and guilt that plague most victims of abuse. Rather, in each case they discovered a device a way out that enabled them to triumph. Some reacted to their experience by a conscious counteridentification with the parent. That is, they determined that they were the opposite personality of the despised father or mother. This is most surely the example for America's greatest president.
Abraham Lincoln's father, Thomas, could be abusive, sometimes striking out with his fists at the future president. Many respected experts on Lincoln discount these episodes, suggesting that Thomas was only acting within the norm of his times. Albert Ellis makes the point with Rational-Emotive Therapy that we behave according to the truth as we perceive it, and Abe would not have seen such treatment as abuse. Or so it is reasoned.
But Abraham Lincoln saw many things ahead of his time; it is part of his enigma, part of the mystery of his spectacular rise from ignorance and poverty, without any seeming stimulation or trigger to cause it. I focus on the incidents of abuse because they are the most powerful images of his youth, the most conflicted and frightening. Perhaps he was able to achieve enough objectivity to realize the injustice of his situation, especially given the fact that his father did not strike his cousin or his sister or his mother.
Lincoln was nine years old, living in the wilds of Indiana, when his mother died. A few months later his father departed, leaving a grieving Abe, his teenage sister, and a cousin alone in a log cabin in the middle of the woods. A friend who finally sought out the youngsters found them caked with mud and skeletal from months of malnutrition. They were surviving on a diet of dried berries and an occasional squirrel. Although working in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, less than a seven-day trek away, Thomas Lincoln finally showed up a half a year later, with a new wife in tow. Young Abe Lincoln ran to the strange woman and hid himself in her skirts.
Nurtured by his new stepmother, Abraham Lincoln's emotions healed sufficiently to function and his intellect was awakened, but years later he would not bother to attend his father's funeral. Friends joined his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, in convincing him that he should finally name one of his sons after his father. Lincoln, in perhaps a moment of guilt, complied, naming his fourth son Thomas. But he could never bring himself to actually speak his father's name. The boy was called simply "Tad."
As is often the case in an abusive relationship, Abraham Lincoln may have unintentionally passed the pain on to yet another generation. Psychologists suggest that it is common for a child to counteridentify with a flawed parent on a conscious level, while identifying completely on an unconscious level.
His son Robert Todd Lincoln always felt estranged from his father. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the son vented his rage on his mother, using her money to hire doctors to declare her insane. For her part, Mary wrote him a letter confirming what he had always feared, saying that his father never really "liked" him.
Robert Todd named his second child Abraham Lincoln II but refused ever to use the name, calling him "Jack" instead. He told the boy that he would be called "Abraham" only when he was finally worthy. But young Abe II would never be "worthy." He died at sixteen, and so ended the Lincoln family name.
A more successful escape from the cycle of abuse was experienced by Leslie Lynch King, Jr. His father, King, Sr., was a wool trader from Omaha, Nebraska, who conducted a whirlwind courtship of a twenty-year-old Illinois coed named Dorothy Ayer Gardner. Leslie L. King, Jr., was born the next year.
But the father was a violent man, taking out his rage on his wife and beating her frequently. Fearing for her baby, Dorothy left town one night, never to return. She eventually obtained a divorce and married a gentle paint salesman from the Midwest. If Abraham Lincoln needed a stepmother to nurture him back to emotional health, Leslie Lynch King, Jr., found a stepfather who made the difference in his life. The paint salesman from the Midwest gave the young boy direction and a sense of belonging. Years later he formalized the process, adopting him as his own and wiping out the pain of the past by giving him his own name as well. The little boy would become Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr., the thirty-eighth president of the United States, and he would help heal the nation after the trauma of the Watergate scandal.
How Presidents Have "Reconstructed" Their Parents
So many presidents lost their fathers and mothers at an early age that it has been hard for historians to ignore the connection. George Washington was eleven when his father died; Thomas Jefferson fourteen, James Monroe sixteen, William Henry Harrison eighteen, Andrew Johnson three, James Garfield only one, and Grover Cleveland just sixteen when they lost their fathers.
Teddy Roosevelt was nineteen when his father died and only twenty-five when he lost his mother and his wife within hours. His distant cousin Franklin was eighteen when his father died. Herbert Hoover was six when he lost his father and nine when he lost his mother. John Tyler lost his mother at the age of seven, and Calvin Coolidge was only twelve. Andrew Jackson, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Bill Clinton were not yet born when their fathers died. Jackson would lose his mother, as well, at age fourteen.
Psychologists have long argued that there was a connection between revolutionaries and the early deaths of their fathers. Washington and Jefferson are cited, but also Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong. Is it because of an unconscious rage at authority, represented by the father who abandoned them?
In one sense, a parent isn't really dead until his or her children are gone as well, for each child will retain an internalized concept of that parent until his or her last breath. We are told that children modify, distort, and reconstruct the image of their parents as an ongoing part of their internal thought life. This process is especially critical to a child whose parent dies early. Such a child has greater freedom to reconstruct a father or mother and then identify or counteridentify with that parent.
Abraham Lincoln's famous quote "God bless my mother, all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her," or, in some historical accounts, "my angel mother," is almost an obligatory cliché for a biographical account of any one of the presidents' parents. But the psychologists I consulted all agreed that even if Lincoln's mother had been an angel, the son would not have remembered. Nancy Hanks, the mother of the sixteenth president, died when young Abraham was nine years old. Psychologists suggest that a more accurate version of Lincoln's experience should be "All that I am or hope to be, I owe to my own internal, reconstructed, idealized version of my mother." Perhaps more daunting to such theories is the conclusion of Dr. Thomas Schwartz of the Illinois State Historical Society, who warns that we cannot be sure that Lincoln ever made the statement.
A parent doesn't have to die to be successfully reconstructed by the child. One sees this process at work in the life of Ulysses S. Grant, the eighteenth president. Some historians suggest that Hannah Grant, the president's quiet, religious, Methodist mother, was mentally disturbed. Others say that she was a simpleton. The family carefully shielded her from the public. She never granted an interview and never once joined her husband on his many visits to see their son in the White House. This story of her mental incapacity was so publicly pervasive that the family made a special point of trying to contradict it by releasing a statement the day she died, saying that she had read the newspaper as usual that morning before passing away peacefully in the afternoon.
Whatever the problem, President Grant, who died two years after his mother, idealized her from a distance. He did not see her once during his eight-year presidency and made her only a single visit during his retirement and then only so she could see her grandchildren.
Meanwhile, Grant's father, who was boastful, stubborn, and rich from the tanning business, was always available and stayed at the White House for long periods. Yet Grant consistently attributed his success to his enigmatic Methodist mother, who disdained all glory, never set foot in Washington, and was hidden by the family from public view. His biographer referred to an "uncommon detachment" between the president and his mother. It is a bit of a puzzle to historians, but psychologists who have reviewed the president's letters have their own explanation. They say that he worshiped another person the reconstructed image of his mother and thus preferred not to encounter the real one.
Bill Clinton's biological father, William Jefferson Blythe, was a tall, handsome traveling salesman from Sherman, Texas, who epitomized the central figure of so many traveling salesman jokes. He was a serial husband and actually married Virginia Cassidy seven months before his divorce from his fourth wife. It would be his last marriage. Blythe was in a freak auto accident a few months before the future president was born. His car turned upside down, and, trapped inside, he drowned in a puddle of water only inches deep.
If a stepparent would be the salvation for Abraham Lincoln and Gerald Ford, it would be a great trial for Bill Clinton. In 1950, his mother, Virginia Cassidy Blythe, married Roger Clinton, a Buick salesman from Hope, Arkansas. He would eventually give his stepson a new name but not much else. Roger Clinton was an alcoholic and wife beater who once fired a gun at his wife inside his own home. Bill Clinton was only a few feet away.
So what inspired young Bill Clinton to seek a better life? His mother, who would eventually marry five times, was a habitual gambler who worked by days and haunted area nightclubs by night. Could she have provided the example he needed? Not likely, says psychologist Chet Sunde. Rather, Clinton would be susceptible to seduction and flirtation by the opposite sex, and at some deep level of his psyche he would always be looking for a woman of adventure like Mom.
Bill Clinton's success was probably born out of his internal reconstruction of his dead father. Clinton openly pined for his "real" dad, the one who had died before his birth: "I thought about it all the time." The experience spoke to him of the fragility of life and gave him an urgency to move quickly. It was not unlike the experience of George Washington, who was eleven years old when his father suddenly died and who was constantly plagued by premonitions of his own death. It was the driving force for Washington, whose beloved stepbrother and surrogate father died young as well. And it prompted Bill Clinton to move quickly, to take chances. By age thirty-two he was called "the boy governor" of Arkansas and he was on his way.
Breaking Away: the Process of Individuation
Notwithstanding the popular view that the presidents sprang from good soil, a striking number of these families were clearly dysfunctional, and some of the revered presidential mothers were, in fact, emotionally disturbed women. Psychologists write of the "opportunity for trauma or empowerment" when a child eventually breaks from his mother that is, assuming that the child is able to do so. The stronger the bond, psychologists say, the more traumatic the break for both mother and child. This very process may have been the defining moment for some presidents and a trigger for their ambition.
James Buchanan's mother was a brilliant, self-educated woman who could quote John Milton at length and who argued with her son "about everything." The president suggested that the habit contributed to his political skills. Early in his government career, she adamantly demanded that he refuse appointment as minister to Russia. When her campaign failed, she employed guilt as a device, claiming that if he left her she would die before he returned. For the first time in his life Buchanan publicly defied his mother's will. He went to Russia, whereupon she promptly died. Eight years later he became the fifteenth president.
But if American presidents reared by obsessive or even abusive parents are able to triumph anyway, there is ample evidence to show that they are not immune to the same traumas experienced by the rest of us. Things can go wrong when the separation from one's mother and the process of one's own individuation does not occur properly. The result is either detachment or dependency. For a surprisingly long list of American presidents, this very moment of crisis led them on to greatness.
Dwight D. Eisenhower's mother, a deeply religious woman, was a pacifist who openly wept when her defiant son left home for West Point and his rendezvous with history.
Sara Roosevelt, the mother of FDR, dominated her son to the point of obsession. FDR sought independence by marrying his cousin Eleanor, but Sara easily crushed the spirit of his new bride, who finally capitulated and allowed Sara to raise her children. FDR defied his mother by seeking a political career against her wishes, only to be crippled by polio and fall back into her clutches again. "Please don't make any more arrangements for my future happiness," Franklin Roosevelt once wrote to his interfering mother.
According to Kerry Little, a licensed mental health counselor in Fort Lauderdale who has studied the Roosevelt family, the process may have turned one of America's greatest presidents into an unconscious misogynist, leading him to ultimately betray and humiliate the women in his life. But it was also a key to his powerful energy and strength of leadership.
George Washington was openly embarrassed and irritated by his controlling, egocentric mother, who lived to be eighty-one. In his thousands of papers he rarely mentions her name. And Thomas Jefferson allegedly despised his mother, who died while he was writing the Declaration of Independence. Commenting on the fact that Jefferson's voluminous writings seldom mention her name, his biographer Merrill Peterson suggests that the president's mother represented a "zero quantity" in her son's life.
The mother of Franklin Pierce was an alcoholic who suffered from deep depression and grew senile while still in her fifties.
Some psychologists suggest that a "disturbed" mother can become obsessed with her newborn baby, who is dependent and nonthreatening. The same smothering attention that irritates the child when he is older may provide comfort and security during infancy. Notwithstanding the nervousness or irrationality of such a mother, in some rare instances the early, obsessive attention may actually empower the child. This may be just the formula at work in one of the most controversial and perplexing relationships of all the presidents and their parents, the relationship between Mary Ball Washington and her son, the father of America, George Washington. When he was a youth, Mary was obsessively protective, and when he was grown she constantly sought his attention. Indifferent to his successes and absorbed in her own fears of impending poverty, she persisted in her demands, but George Washington kept coming back for more.
The point is that whether the mother was nurturing or abusive, she was strong-willed. This more than any other factor is the common denominator of presidents. Washington may have been irritated by his mother and she may have been too selfish to often express her love, but she was certainly very strong and stubborn, unwilling to bend or retreat or listen to reason. None of her great son's towering achievements intimidated her in the slightest.
Lincoln's mother was so physically strong that she wrestled with men and beat them. The locals in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, would take sucker bets from strangers, suggesting that they could not even beat one of their own women, and then persuade Nancy Hanks to fight for the town's honor.
I found this trend so predictable that even when there was an exception, the pattern was close at hand. For example, John F. Kennedy's mother, Rose, was certainly not a possessive, powerful figure in the tradition of a Mary Washington or a Sara Roosevelt. But Joe Kennedy, the president's father, had all the dynamics at work in his own life. His mother, Mary Augusta, referred to her firstborn son as "my Joe." She was a large, imposing woman who was bigger than her husband, P. J. And she was highly ambitious for her son, shunning the Catholic schools in favor of Boston Latin and later Harvard. Joe was on the track to becoming president himself. One of the nation's richest men, he was ambassador to the United Kingdom when his political misjudgments ended any White House possibilities. Joe transferred his ambition to his sons and minutely orchestrated and financed their political rise.
Dorothy Walker Bush and Barbara Bush are examples of modern, strong-willed mothers of presidents, and both, like Sara Roosevelt, were themselves daddy's girls. "We have some strong women in our family," says Jeb Bush.
Waiting in the Wings
Next to the power of nurturing mothers and reconstructed idealized fathers, the most consistent and powerful dynamic in the raising of a president is what one could refer to as the second-choice syndrome; that is, the president is often the second choice of siblings within a family. Francis Bacon spoke of this phenomenon: "A man shall see, where there is a house full of children, one or two of the eldest respected, and the youngest made wantons; but in the midst some that are as it were forgotten, who many times nevertheless prove the best."
This is certainly not a universal law among presidents, but it does happen frequently enough to bear mention. After the death of Augustine Washington, it was firstborn Lawrence who carried his father's hopes on his powerful shoulders. Little eleven-year-old George would not even have his education provided for. Yet the young child by his bedside, standing in the shadows, would achieve glory and power beyond all that the striving, ambitious father could have dreamed.
This story persists into modern times. The spotlight was on Milton Eisenhower, the high-achieving baby brother in the family, who held several different midlevel government positions and could hold the family spellbound at Thanksgiving reunions with stories of White House receptions. The third son, Dwight, was on a treadmill in the military bureaucracy. In 1939, he was a major in the army and an assistant to a general; only three years later he was the commander of the Allied forces and ten years later the president of the United States.
Joe Kennedy expected his firstborn son Joe, Jr., to have a public career but never Jack, the sick one, too shy to speak publicly, the writer. There was a moment when Jack first ran for Congress when Joe Kennedy sat in a car with a longtime colleague, watching his skinny, frail, shy son Jack shaking hands with factory workers. Joe would tell his friend that he had never thought he would see such a scene in a thousand years. He hadn't thought his son had it in him.
As you will read in later chapters, the spotlight was on George W. Bush, the eldest son in the family of President George Herbert Walker Bush, but he chafed under the heat of expectations, developed a drinking problem, and finally disqualified himself from any significant public career by his reckless behavior. The spotlight shifted to Jeb, the second son, with the father, George H. W. Bush, openly proclaiming that he would have a national career. But with the spotlight off, George W. thrived and came roaring back, beating his brother into a gubernatorial slot. Within a ten-year period, starting at a point of financial desperation, George W. Bush became a millionaire, was elected governor of Texas, and became president of the United States.
Piecing the Puzzle Together: How This Book Came About
By the end of my four-year study of presidents' parents, I had developed a new appreciation for the American presidents themselves, how some of them overcame abusive fathers or neurotic mothers, how they avoided becoming victims. During a fifteen-year study of presidents' offspring, which resulted in my book All the Presidents' Children, I had seen the worst side of many of America's chief executives. Even the great ones stumbled in their parenting roles, even those august men on Mount Rushmore. George Washington was so remote to his stepchildren that they stopped speaking when he entered a room. Jefferson penned an awful letter to his daughter, listing the ways she could be "worthy" of his love. Lincoln was indulgent to the point of the absurd and passed on his estrangement with his own father to his third-born son. And Theodore Roosevelt, who initially struck me as the ideal parent, who romped with his children on the grass, also often pushed them beyond endurance. Three of his children died far too young, one by his own hand.
Still, when one considers the emotional baggage they carried into their parenting roles and the relationships they had with their own parents, these presidents were remarkable men. Again and again the lesson is brought home that circumstances and events that would destroy most children were often the very things that sparked greatness in our presidents.
Several psychologists and licensed family counselors advised me in the analyses and preparation of these stories. All concluded that available biographical sketches of presidential parents tend to be idealized by history. Some of the accounts are pure political fiction. Most of the stories were told during the president's lifetime, when no contemporary observer seemed willing to say anything too critical of a president's mother and father. And the story of Lincoln's childhood, written in earnest after his assassination, when he was already headed for historical sainthood, is only myth. Still, the stories emerge from the swamp of presidential correspondence and papers, and, if one is patient, the parents can be seen more clearly, both their good points and their flaws.
In the final part of this book, the reader will find biographical sketches of all the presidents' parents, appearing in chronological order. But most of this study will focus on six important stories that are representative of the whole. Writing an account of George Washington's parents was problematic. Few documents survive, and the sources are often contradictory. But Washington's powerful personality, formed in his youth, set the nation in motion and established much of its traditions. For similar reasons I devoted several chapters to the story of Abraham Lincoln's presidency. While much of his story cannot be told with certainty, the myth itself impacted the culture of the nation and, in so doing, influenced the presidents who followed.
The four great political family dynasties of American history the Adamses, the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, and the Bushes were chosen for the obvious reason that in each case the family formula resulted in the emergence of multiple public figures and national leaders. Something was at work here, and I wanted to know just what it might be. The James Roosevelts were chosen because they are a classic example of the familiar threads that weave their way through so many of these stories. The Kennedys were included for the opposite reason. Their story brazenly contradicts so many of the others a strong, engaged, father instead of a strong mother, for example. Finally, the Adamses' and the Bushes' stories are compelling, each with different lessons to impart. Yet, even though those stories are separated by almost two hundred years, one can eerily recognize many of the same dynamics at work in both.
As you will discover in the following pages, some of the parents of the presidents, either by accident or design, stumbled onto modern secrets of raising a high achiever. But more often than not, these are the stories of ordinary families often dysfunctional, abusive ones who produced children who soared to greatness anyway. Many times, these are the stories of parents who did the wrong things and got the right results, for sometimes surprising reasons.
Copyright © 2005 by Doug Wead