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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But many more suffered defeat and failure, and they flood history in a sad and angry tide. Andrew Jackson Jr. died in a freak hunting accident. Andrew Johnson Jr. was an alcoholic who died young in another accident. A brother died at age thirty-five, a possible suicide. Kermit Roosevelt, third son of Theodore, shot himself in the mouth on an army base in Alaska in 1943.

Many children, especially daughters, suffered through difficult marriages. The chaos reached new and strange heights in the family of Franklin Roosevelt--the only man to be elected four times, and a man whose wife became almost as great a celebrity as her presidential husband. The five surviving Roosevelt children wracked up nineteen marriages, with associated scandals and suicide efforts. One daughter's second husband threw himself out of a window. A son's wife (the actress Faye Emerson) was hospitalized after cutting her wrists. The sons moved back and forth between using the family name to get money and indulging in acts of overt and covert hostility. "Two sons worked for their father's bitterest enemies, and another married into a family that openly despised him," Wead observes. "John, the youngest, became a committed Republican, . . . another endorsed his father's opponent when he ran for a third term."

Why do so many presidents' children commit suicide? Or take risks or take drugs? Different reasons suggest themselves. Being a president's child does not merely refer to the few years the parents may live in the White House. It means a lifetime of being the child of the kind of person who wants to be and then makes himself president. It means having a father who drives both himself and the people around him. It means having a father who is constantly busy, frequently traveling, and for various reasons may be unavailable. It means having a father whose love affair with his calling and country often comes at the expense of his family.

IT IS NO ACCIDENT that the presidents whose children showed the most overt hostility were those of Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt, two great national leaders who found it much easier to establish the illusion of intimacy with millions of strangers than to establish the real thing with their children. Wead tells the story of Roosevelt's son who had to make an appointment through his father's aides for a formal meeting in the Oval Office to discuss a matter of personal urgency. While he talked, his father sat reading a document. The son told his mother he would never talk to his father about anything that troubled him again.

"The stress of the American presidency is a killer," Wead tells us. Some of that stress is passed on in the instant and undeserved fame that comes to the children of presidents--together with constant attention, high expectations, and gleeful notice when they slip. It can come from the overblown praise that makes a father appear all too god-like. It can also come with undue abuse. Presidents' children routinely see their parents denounced as thieves, fools, liars, and killers; and when their parents fail, the failures are public and huge. It can even come, as Wead notes, with "a complete lack of connection between doing and getting." This is what destroyed the elder three sons of Franklin Roosevelt, who got too many freebies and never learned discipline.

Celebrities in general have short, stressful lives: They are four times more likely to commit suicide than normal Americans, two and one-half times more likely to die in an accident, and two times more likely to die of cirrhosis or kidney diseases, often from drinking or drugs. But presidents' children have additional problems that drive self-esteem down. An actor's son may become a doctor and believe he is doing something more important; a doctor's son may become an actor and be much better known. But a president's child has no place to run: no line of work with more power and glory, fame and dazzle, or chance to change the world. A president's son cannot surpass his father; he can just hope to match him. And only two men have done that.