The Magazine

First Dad

The burden of having a president as father.

Jun 16, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 39 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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All the Presidents' Children

Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Families

by Doug Wead

Atria, 456 pp., $26

LATE IN NOVEMBER 1988, Doug Wead, who had worked in the campaign that made George Bush Sr. president, wrote a paper about presidents' children for his associate, George W. Bush. What Wead found disturbed him--and disturbed the young George Bush when he read it: The children of America's presidents had a terrible record of failure and premature death. Bush himself had a superficial resemblance to Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr.: a president's namesake, with a brother in politics whose career started in promise and burned out in farce. (Franklin Jr. also failed in a bid to be a governor, a post that George Bush had in mind at the time.)

Wead's forty-four-page paper is now a heart-wrenching and impressive book, "All the Presidents' Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Families." One of the spurs for finishing the book may have been the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., who was killed with his wife and her sister while flying a plane in bad weather in 1999. His death saddened Wead but did not surprise him. He already knew that the sons and the namesakes of presidents have a fatal attraction to risk--and that under the power and glory of presidents lies a secret connection of grief. "There is no more remarkable common denominator among American presidents than their early encounters with premature death," Wead writes. "Twenty-six children of presidents died before the age of five, and dozens more before they reached thirty. Rutherford B. Hayes had seven children; three died before their second birthday. John Tyler lost three of his adult daughters within a six-year period. . . . William McKinley and Franklin Pierce saw all their children die."

John and John Quincy Adams each buried two of their children. Thomas Jefferson buried five of six children; Abraham Lincoln two of four. The curse continued into a more modern era of medicine: Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and the elder George Bush all buried young children. John Adams could not speak for years of his one-year-old daughter. One of Jefferson's daughters died at four months; he carried a lock of her hair all his life. "Grover Cleveland found the death of his twelve-year-old Ruth 'almost unbearable,'" Wead notes. The notoriously detached John Kennedy had to be pried away from his infant son's coffin. "Calvin Coolidge was a 'different person' after the passing of his teenage son."

Perhaps because they had less to distract them, the first ladies seemed to grieve even more. "After the death of her first child . . . First Lady Jane Pierce would wear black for the rest of her life," Wead writes. (She may have been prescient, since her other two children would also die young.) "Mary Lincoln was an emotional wreck after the death of her son Willie and held White House séances trying to speak to him. A grieving Eliza Johnson lived in seclusion on the second floor of the White House during her husband's term." Many years later, Grace Coolidge would die on July 8, the day after the date on which her son Calvin Jr. had perished. Mary Todd Lincoln fell into a coma on the anniversary of the death of her son Tad and died one day after. After Dwight Doud Eisenhower died at age three, his parents made a practice of sending each other flowers and notes on his birthday, the 24th of September. On that date in 1955, President Eisenhower had his first major heart attack. Years later, on the 23rd of September, Mamie Eisenhower had her fatal stroke.

AND IF CHILDREN SURVIVE beyond childhood, that does not end the story. John and John Quincy Adams each had one son who became justly famous and powerful, and each had two sons who became alcoholics. Of these four, two died disgraced and estranged from their families, and three died before age thirty-two. One of these was George Washington Adams, a son and a grandson and a namesake of presidents. Beaten down by his father's relentless exactions, he began to drink heavily, lost money entrusted to him by family members, and fathered a daughter by a maid in a friend's house. En route to a feared confrontation with his ex-president father, he jumped or fell from a steamer into Long Island Sound.

Some presidents' sons became famous, if not quite untroubled: Presidents George W. Bush and John Quincy Adams; Robert Todd Lincoln, captain of industry; Charles Francis Adams, a Civil War diplomat, Senator Robert A. Taft; John Eisenhower, a distinguished historian, and Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, the most-decorated man in the history of America's armed forces--dying a hero just after D-Day at fifty-six, a ripe old age for the son of a president.