The Absent Father: A surprising lesson from history

“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.


            Andrew Jackson

            Rutherford B. Hayes

            Bill Clinton


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.



Published by Doug Wead

Doug Wead is a New York Times bestselling author whose latest book, Game of Thorns, is about the Trump-Clinton 2016 election. He served as an adviser to two American presidents and was a special assistant to the president in the George H.W. Bush White House.

15 thoughts on “The Absent Father: A surprising lesson from history

  1. How does this experience play out in the life of a daughter? How does an absent but *heroic* father affect the daughters in his family?

  2. But even more interesting, given that there are many stay at home dad’s now. What if the mother is absent? *Heroicaly* or other wise? How does that play out in a son or in a daughter?

    Granted, there mught not be as much data to draw from for this conclusion.

  3. Slow week, eh, Doug?

    Your attempt to compare Barry O’s dysfunctional family to McCain’s typical pre-modernist working family dynamic is really stretching it here.

    Barry O was abandoned by a neglectful father in a divorce. His father had no hand in raising him at all.

    McCain’s father, holding a high position of great responsibility, did not abandon his family or divorce his wife. His absences were justified. Work came first in the traditional American household, as it well it should have. This was also how most military officer families operated.

    There is a vast difference between a busy and preoccupied father and a neglectful one who simply packs his bags and leaves.

  4. Yeah. Having an Admiral for a Dad is very “typical,” and in McCain’s case, considering his age, it might even be “pre-modernist.”

  5. I am not a sociologist or psychologist but it seems to me fathering needs a balance. A father is a good example to his son (or daughter) by achieving success at a high level, and by being there to assist his child, at least at times. This is certainly not an easy balance to maintain in today’s Western world.

    Cheers, Doug.


  6. The working father IS assisting the child with the most important asset imaginable — FINANCIAL SECURITY.

    Without that, the child’s life is deigned to a life of misery and shame.

  7. What’s interesting is that President’s whose fathers were absent didn’t choose to do anything different with their families. The family pattern is continued with Presidents who ARE fathers and because of their jobs are strained from being present with their families. I wonder if this is some kind of subconscious choice?

  8. Of course it is a subconscious choice, based on brain wiring. Men are defined by their work, their hunting and gathering instinct.

    They are not wired to be stay-at-homes diapering children and other domestic tasks.

  9. Fathers should NOT be synonymous with absent. That’s the problem. They should come down to earth once in a while and reacquaint with their families once in a while.
    And not happily gone for a long time.

  10. Since when did having to earn a good living for your family become synonymous with being disconnected to the earth?

    Some of us won’t settle for a meager middle class existence where living paycheck to paycheck is acceptable. Some of us work to achieve true financial security to endure economic hardships and downfalls.

  11. I’m one of the “mamas” who raised the “boys” with disconnected dads…three who have exceeded in different fields…to be exact. Consider perhaps that the reputation of over-indulgence is really extraordinary engineering. It’s not easy to stay so in touch with the pulse of a child’s needs and gifts that you can help pave the path to opportunities for success. And, considering perception is the biggest part of reality, who do you suppose helped build the image of a super hero competent dad in the eyes of the son. It likely wasn’t a bad mouthing mama. Not every dad disconnected from the family has a son who is a president. Not every “mama’s boy” with a famous dad goes on to success. It takes inspired or informed strategy. I know how hard I worked. :)Linda

  12. Well, as you say, there are exceptions. It seems to me that a person who sees the glass half full will say, “My childhood shouldn’t keep me back from anything and this proves it.”

    And the person who sees the glass half empty will moan, “My mother didn’t like me much and my father was very supportive so I guess I am doomed to fail.”

  13. Does the child (and later the adult) feel that he or she was loved by the father? That’s in my practitioner experience the crucial question. A father who is home every night and neglects, ridicules or even abuses his child is far worse than a physically absent father who is perceived as loving and protecting.

  14. Since i was born, about thirty years ago, i have never seen my father. My real age is unknown. No body kept record of my age. I lived a miserable live. When i was about to get married, my wife to be then and the parents ask of my father, which i lied that he is dead. Though i later told my wife the truth. But now my mum has refused to tell me who my father is.. Whether alive or death. Because of this i left my country and ttraveled to another county within africa in search for a wife who will be to me like my father and mother. My mum abandoned me through out my life. I grew up alone exposed to the world as a young man. Myschool days were hell to me. I was regulary driven out of school for school fees.. Even in the high school i was driven out of lectuers jjust for school fees. I read text books and make my notes. Registered for exams and wrote. My story is long………..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: