Elected Dads Elect Fathering Styles

Father’s Day is here, perfect timing for the launch of Joshua Kendall’s book First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama.  I heard his highly entertaining and insightful talk at the New Haven Museum.

Grant and family

Grant and family

President Grant fell into the ‘Sweet Dad’ category, one of six Kendall used to group the 43 Presidents, all of whom had children (5 adopted).

No surprise that Mr. Obama also falls in the Nurturer category.







And so did Truman.  When Margaret was criticized for a concert she gave in 1950, Truman turned ferocious with the media.  The mail that came in overwhelmingly supported the father standing up for his daughter.  Kendall suggests that this fierce, fatherly protectiveness led Truman to make the decision to drop the bomb–to protect American boys from harm.

Just so you know, George Washington was apparently very sweet to Martha’s children, whom he adopted.

The Preoccupied Dads will come as no surprise to you.  Those ambitious politicians focus all on career and little on family.  Linda Johnson had to read the Congressional Record to get LBJ’s attention.


Carter and Amy, 1974

Carter and Amy, 1974

Surprisingly, Carter was tough on his three sons, reflecting his own upbringing, his military training at Annapolis, and the practice of spanking.  Jack didn’t speak with his father for two years, but when he did tell his father of his pain, to his credit, Carter reflected and learned from what he had done:  passing on harsh parenting that he received, without thinking.  We consider Carter a Peacemaker now, and Kendall makes the case linking the personal growth that came from learning about his parenting.

You know I like the Playful-Pal Dads.  Grant loved playing with his children, and Kendall attributes his alcohol problem to missing his children when he was stationed in California.  Teddy Roosevelt was a playful dad, and Alice was frisky right back.  With lifelong asthma, TR couldn’t tolerate cigarette smoking and told his daughter, “no smoking under my roof.”  Alice complied, by smoking on the roof.

Having three daughters may have swayed Woodrow Wilson to finally relent on Suffrage.  I don’t know though.  He was verbally brutal about the protesters, that he found so annoying when he was trying to deal with ‘weightier’ matters.  Kendall also suggests a Freudian interpretation (he does psychiatric research), when one of his daughters married the best dancing bachelor, to mimic her father’s dancing prowess.

Double-Dealing Dads had children outside their marriages.  One of LBJ’s secretaries said the president offered to set her up in an apartment in New York.  While she turned him down, others didn’t.  Harding apparently had sex in a White House closet in 1928.  Careful where you hang your coat!

An older Grover Cleveland married his young ward, not a pleasant thought, and then cheated on her, fathering a child with a mistress.  He verbally slammed the mistress as ‘a drunk and a slut’ when he was the alcoholic with loose morals.  He won the election anyway.  Being promiscuous doesn’t necessarily mean being a bad president.  ‘Grover the Good’ was an honest politician, known for his integrity with a budget.

Now, what’s really cold are the Antebellum cheaters.  Tyler and Harrison both had slave children, and Kendall has tracked paperwork showing Tyler sold his own children, including Sylvanius Tyler, who recorded that Tyler had 52 children.

Tiger Dads are authoritarian, and the tendency seems to get passed down.  John Adams told John Quincy he would be a failure if he didn’t become president.  John Quincy Adams told his son George Washington Adams that JQ wouldn’t attend his Harvard graduation unless he was among the top five.  At age 28, GW committed suicide, likely from mental illness, no doubt exacerbated by parental badgering.

Jefferson was so controlling, he gave his daughters lists of what clothing to wear.

The Bush family, 1964

The Bush family, 1964

The challenge of losing a child either makes or breaks a president, per Kendall.  The grief Lincoln felt over losing beloved Willy made him step up as a war leader, while Piece suffered a breakdown from the loss of his third son, while in office.

As a side note, when Robin Bush died, Barbara, in her late 20s, suffered from depression, and her hair turned white overnight.  George W. turned into a clown to cheer her up.  At least we know the source of that behavior now….

The difference between the public and private man, of course, can be striking.  FDR was like a father for so many.  He saw people through the Depression, through war.  He seemed so strong.  But he leaned on his own son, needy, yet also preoccupied.  His younger sons had to make appointments to see him.  Eleanor was distracted with her many involvements.  Perhaps as the result of their own parenting, the five Roosevelt children had 19 marriages among them.  Chaos!

The Roosevelts, 1939

The Roosevelts, 1939

Kendall said that Hillary Clinton has a male parenting style, whereas Obama’s approach resembles female parenting.  You know, nurturing, involved, inclusive.  Bill and Hillary told Chelsea about disparaging remarks being made about her philandering father.  She was 6.  Chelsea still relates to her parents via politics.  Kendall described Trump’s children as “more normal than he is,” and they are involved in his business as Vice Presidents.  Both sets of children meet their parents on the parents’ turf.

Toward the end of his talk, Kendall differentiated between fathering and mothering.  Traditionally, mothering is about nurturing; fathering is about procreating.  He assured us that things have shifted since the 19th-century origins of those gendered distinctions.

Here’s to all our fathers – human, fallible, foibled, and doing the best they can!




One thought on “Elected Dads Elect Fathering Styles

  1. fascinating! And, so glad someone wrote this book since Cookie Roberts did one on Ma’s.

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