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First Kids

An A&E documentary looks at the lives of presidential progeny.

12:00 AM, Sep 12, 2003 • By ERIN MONTGOMERY
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YOU'VE SEEN George W. Bush in standard presidential attire--a suit. But chances are you haven't seen him in a snowsuit as a toddler, frolicking in wintry weather with another future president, his father. This charming clip alone, taken from a Bush family home movie, is reason enough to tune into All the Presidents' Kids, a 90-minute documentary premiering this weekend on A&E (Sunday, September 14, 8:00 p.m. EST/PST).

The video footage in the documentary is extensive and intriguing. There's the fun-loving Luci Baines Johnson dancing the watusi as a teenager and, later, looking the radiant bride at her White House wedding reception; Amy Carter getting arrested in 1987 for protesting CIA recruitment on her college campus; and John F. Kennedy Jr. speaking candidly at the 1988 Democratic Convention about his ambivalent political aspirations. The documentary provides equal coverage of much "older" presidential children as well. There's the heartbreaking story of 11-year-old Benjamin Pierce, who is said to have been beheaded in a train accident in front of his parents just a few days before his father's inauguration. And at the very beginning there was John Parke Custis (son of Martha Washington by a previous marriage) who attempted to swindle his step-father, George Washington, in a cattle deal.

Doug Wead, former special assistant to George Bush and author of the monumental All the Presidents' Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Families, provides insightful commentary throughout and seems to leave no interesting first child unexamined.

THROUGHOUT HISTORY, first kids have struggled to emerge from their fathers' long shadows and make names for themselves, separate from their fathers' extraordinary identities. Richard Blow, JFK Jr. biographer and former executive editor of George magazine, contemplates the enormous pressure in a segment of the documentary titled "Out of the Shadows": "If John F. Kennedy Jr. had become a painter of . . . watercolors, everybody would have said, 'That's too bad--he could've done such great things.' That's not fair, but it's reality. And he knew it; and I think he knew in some sense that he was either going to have to try to meet these expectations or live with the fact that he was a national, cultural disappointment."

In other cases, first children attempted to follow in their fathers' presidential footsteps. But even then, only two sons have succeeded in doing exactly that: John Quincy Adams and George W. Bush. Another segment follows William Howard Taft's son, Bob, on his campaign trail. Bob Taft, who ran unsuccessfully for president three times, faced hurtful public opinion that he was "not colorful enough" to be president. The documentary describes him as "the only child of a president to be held in higher regard than many presidents."

Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter concludes the documentary with an interesting observation about why most viewers will be tuning in in the first place--America's obsession with celebrity culture: "If we've gotten to the point . . . where [we] think people are part of [our] family who [we've] never met . . . we're in trouble in terms of our understanding of reality." But "All the Presidents' Kids" suggests that these children are very much a part of our family--the American family--and rightfully remain ingrained in our cultural memory.

Erin Montgomery is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.