The Magazine

First Dad

The burden of having a president as father.

Jun 16, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 39 • By NOEMIE EMERY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

WHEN THAT FIRSTBORN SON is the namesake of the president, as with John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., John Kennedy Jr., and George W. Bush, the strain is intensified. But even when the honors are split up, as with George Washington Adams and his younger brother John Adams, the dangers don't decrease: "When there was confusion over just who the heir apparent might be, the firstborn or the namesake, fate would often overtake them both." John Kennedy Jr. and the four sons of Theodore Roosevelt became extreme risk-takers, perhaps trying in some way to match fathers who were not only presidents but popular heroes. A few weeks before he died, John Kennedy Jr. applied to the Park Service for permission to climb up the face of Mt. Rushmore. The symbolism of this--climbing over the heads of men even greater than Daddy--is almost too neat to be true.

With his narration, history, and psychological musings, Wead seems to have covered most sides of this story, but two points remain to be made. One is the difference age makes in these stories. The elder George Bush became the father of a son at twenty-two and president at sixty-four, a whole lifetime later. George W. Bush was eighteen in 1964 when his father was first elected to Congress, and thirty-four in 1980 when his father was elected Vice President. When his father became president in 1988, he was forty-two--young middle age, the same age Theodore Roosevelt was when he became president and only a year younger than Kennedy.

Compare that with John F. Kennedy, elected at forty-three, who became president and the father of a son the same month. John F. Kennedy Jr. left the White House when he was three and spent his whole life in the giant shadow of a father he could not remember himself. George W. Bush not only remembered his father, he had known him intimately as a child, a teenager, and a more-or-less equal adult. It was the problems of that adulthood--as he tried and failed to catch up with his father who always kept rising--that may have caused him his acknowledged problems, particularly his drinking. It was only after his father had failed in public--when he lost the 1992 race to Bill Clinton--that the career of the younger man started to flourish.

THE SECOND POINT to be made is that these strange strains and stresses are no longer confined to the children of presidents. The most pressured political sons of the twentieth century were those of Albert Gore Sr. and Joseph P. Kennedy, two men who weren't president but thought that they should be and aimed their sons at the White House with a force and ferocity never yet seen in an actual president. Meanwhile, in all the ways that matter--power, pressure, exposure, and privilege--the families of Robert F. Kennedy, Edward Kennedy, and Governor Jeb Bush of Florida are nearly "presidential," and all of them have the drug problems to prove it. The current state of the Jeb Bush family, with one child being groomed for political stardom and another in court-ordered rehab for substance dependency, is a pattern John Adams would recognize.

Doug Wead has written a great story and a frightening thesis, a must-read for students of horror and history, for all politicians who try to rear children, and for the publishers and writers who may try to exploit them. Some people have wondered why George and Laura Bush keep their children so far from the life of the White House. "All the Presidents' Children" tells us why.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.