Tags: Who | Fathers | Least | Fathers | Best

He Who Fathers Least, Fathers Best

Friday, 15 June 2007 12:00 AM

"There is no passion more deeply rooted in my bosom than the longing for posterity to support my father's name."

— John Quincy Adams

Presidential historians always wax eloquent on Mother's Day. Curiously, most presidents, including the current occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, are openly "mama's boys." It must make Sigmund Freud smile for one of his most enduring discoveries was how the perceived favorite child of a mother is empowered for life. But what are the fathers' role in our presidents' lives? There is a surprising, positive, answer to that question, and it reveals much about the development of great leaders.

First, consider the overwhelming evidence that mothers play a key role. Many recent presidents were literally named after their mothers but none of their many siblings.

Of course it is not a perfect formula, or Marvin Pierce Bush would be the president, not his older brother, George W. Bush, but it is common enough to defy any odds. "You are a Delano," FDR's mother, Sarah Delano used to tell him, "not a Roosevelt."

"God bless my mother," Abraham Lincoln supposedly said to his law partner William Herndon, "all I am, or ever hope to be, I owe to her."

"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."

Not only are most presidents unabashed devotees to their mothers, but in most cases, the father is not even there. Many fathers of presidents died young. And even the ones who live are usually absent.

"I was never there," says George Herbert Walker Bush, "Barbara raised him."

Three fathers of presidents died before their sons were even born: Andrew Jackson, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Bill Clinton. And many others died young.

James Garfield was 1 year old when his father died. Andrew Johnson was 3, Herbert Hoover 6, George Washington 11, and Thomas Jefferson 14. Fully 19 presidents lost their fathers before they reached age 30. And only two fathers actually attended their sons' inaugurations.

This has long been held as a family dynamic of strong leaders, good and bad. There is an attachment to the mother and an absent father. Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedung — all fit the pattern as neatly as Washington and Jefferson.

This formula is so predictable throughout history that it began to trouble me. However, not only is it the template for leadership, it seems to be the template for aggressive and criminal behavior.

America's prisons, for example, are full of young men who are also attached to their mothers and have an absent father. For many years I agreed with psychologists who theorized that both presidents and criminals drink from the same poison cup with vastly differing results. It was a strange tonic for good to the achieving presidents and a formula for terrible damage to the criminal.

And then the puzzle was solved. The source of the solution, as in the case of many of the world's great solutions, came from a Pakistani taxi cab driver, on my way to a television studio interview.

"Have you checked out the fathers in question?" he asked. "Yes, they are absent from their families, but what do the fathers of presidents and the fathers of criminals do differently with their lives?"


A quick study showed that the fathers of criminals are just absent. The fathers of presidents are absent but high achievers or heroes who expressed their interest or love to their sons. Even the poorest presidential father, Jacob Johnson, father to our 17th president, was a veritable legend in his home town. The fathers of presidents were governors, senators, multimillionaires, generals, ambassadors, preachers, and in two cases, presidents themselves.

There is a compelling moral to the story.

If a father only spends his life serving his sons, reducing himself to the role of a taxi driver, running them to little league and soccer practice and math camp, all to show that they are a loving father willing to sacrifice their own advancement to give their sons an opportunity they never had, don't expect the sons to grow up to be major league ball players or brilliant engineers. They will likely grow up to be taxi drivers just like their fathers, driving their sons all over suburbia as well.

On the other hand, if a father does something great with his life, achieves something significant or heroic, then, even if he is absent, his son will likely follow and may even do better, just to rub it in.

There is now much evidence that the role of the father, even his absence, is just as important in shaping presidents as is the role of the mother. Affirmed and empowered by their mother's love but also hurt and frustrated by their father's absence, a leader, including most American presidents, will strive to prove their value and worth with their great achievements.

(Selected quotes taken from "The Raising of a President" and "All the Presidents' Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Families" by Doug Wead, Atria Books.)

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"There is no passion more deeply rooted in my bosom than the longing for posterity to support my father's name."- John Quincy Adams Presidential historians always wax eloquent on Mother's Day.Curiously, most presidents, including the current occupant at 1600...
Friday, 15 June 2007 12:00 AM
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