“There is no passion more deeply rooted in my bosom than the longing for posterity to support my father’s name.”
- John Quincy Adams
There is curious anecdotal evidence that some of history’s most powerful leaders came from homes with absent fathers. And we are seeing this scenario acted out again in the lives of our two presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain.
Senator Barack Obama, whose father left home in 1963, was only two years old. They were separated by continents. Obama was twenty-one years old when he was told in a telephone call that the father he never knew was killed in an automobile accident.
John McCain, son and grandson of navy officers, had a father who was a four star admiral. He was very loving but very busy and usually faraway.
Many fathers of the American presidents die young. And even the ones who live usually fall into the Obama-McCain category. “I was never there,” says George Herbert Walker Bush, “Barbara raised him.”
Three fathers of presidents died before their sons were even born.
Rutherford B. Hayes
And many others died at an early age. James Garfield was one year old when his father died. Andrew Johnson was three, Herbert Hoover six, George Washington eleven, and Thomas Jefferson fourteen. Fully nineteen presidents lost their fathers before they reached age thirty. And only two fathers actually attended their sons’ inaugurations.
There is a very predictable family formula for strong leaders, good and bad. They have an attachment to the mother and an absent father. Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedung all fit the pattern as neatly as Washington and Jefferson.
This is why presidential historians always wax eloquent on Mother’s Day. Curiously, most presidents, including the current occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, are openly “mama’s boys.” It must make Sigmund Freud smile for one of his most enduring discoveries was how the perceived favorite child of a mother is empowered for life. But what is the father’s role in our presidents’ lives? There is a surprising, positive, answer to that question and it reveals much about the development of great leaders.
But first, consider the overwhelming evidence that mothers play a key role. Many recent presidents were literally named after their mothers but none of their many siblings.
Ronald Wilson Reagan named after his mother Nelle Wilson.
Richard Milhous Nixon named after his mother Hannah Nixon.
Lyndon Baines Johnson named after his mother Rebecca Baines.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy named after his mother Rose Fitzgerald.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt named after his mother Sarah Delano.
Woodrow Wilson named after his mother Janet Woodrow.
And on and on it goes back into history. Rutherford Birchard Hayes named after his mother Sophia Birchard. Of course it is not a perfect formula or Marvin Pierce Bush would be the president, not his older brother, George W. Bush, but it is common enough to defy any odds. “You are a Delano,” FDR’s mother, Sarah Delano used to tell him, “not a Roosevelt.”
“God bless my mother,” Abraham Lincoln supposedly said to his law partner William Herndon,” all I am or ever hope to be I owe to her.”
“I was a mama’s boy,” said Woodrow Wilson, “no question about it, but the best
of womanhood came to me through those apron strings.”
So what is going on here and what does it mean for Father’s Day? Not only are most presidents unabashed devotees to their mothers but, to add insult to injury, in most cases, the fathers were not even there.
For many years this dynamic nagged on me. Not only is it the template for leadership but it seemed to be the template for aggressive and criminal behavior. America’s prisons, for example, are full of young men who are also attached to their mothers and have an absent father. For many years I agreed with psychologists who theorized that both presidents and criminals drink from the same poison cup with vastly differing results. It was a strange tonic for good to the achieving presidents and a formula for terrible emotional damage to the criminal.
And then the puzzle was solved. The source of the solution, as in the case of many of the world’s great solutions, came from a Pakistani taxi cab driver, on my way to a television studio interview. “Have you checked out the fathers in question?” he asked. “Yes, they are absent from their families but what do the fathers of presidents and the fathers of criminals do differently with their lives?”
A quick study showed that the fathers of criminals are just absent. The fathers of presidents are absent but high achievers or sometimes heroes who expressed their interest or love to their sons. Even the poorest presidential father, Jacob Johnson, father to our seventeenth president, was a veritable legend in his home town.
According to Barack Obama, his father was the first African admitted to the University of Hawaii and he surprised the school by graduating first in his class. “He won another scholarship to pursue his PhD at Harvard, but not the money to take his new family with him – or so I was told. A separation occurred, and he returned to Africa to fulfill his promise to the continent.”
John McCain’s father and grandfather were both four star admirals. It was a first in American military history. And both were legendary, even heroic. But often gone.
The fathers of presidents were governors, senators, multi millionaires, generals, ambassadors, preachers and in two cases presidents themselves. Franklin Roosevelt’s father was seeking to build the first canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
There is a compelling moral to the story.
If a father only spends his life serving his sons, reducing himself to the role of a taxi driver, running them to little league and soccer practice and math camp, all to show that they are a loving father willing to sacrifice their own advancement to give their sons an opportunity they never had, don’t expect the sons to grow up to be major league ball players or brilliant engineers. They will likely grow up to be taxi drivers just like their fathers, driving their sons all over suburbia as well.
On the other hand, if a father does something great with his life, achieves something significant or heroic, then, even if he is absent, his son will likely follow and may even do better, just to rub it in.
There is now much evidence that the role of the father, even his absence, is just as important in shaping leaders and presidents as is the role of the mother. Affirmed and empowered by their mother’s love but also hurt and frustrated by their father’s absence, a leader, including most American presidents, will strive to prove their value and worth with their great achievements.
(Selected quotes taken from The Raising of President and All the Presidents’ Children by Doug Wead, Atria Books.)
See Doug Wead quoted in this recent New York Post article on the fathers of our presidents.