Some journalists are making a big deal out of how the Obamas are traveling to foreign ports together as a family unit. After the dysfunctional Clintons, Reagans and Roosevelts and even the Bushes, with their arcane rules of one at a time in the limelight, which meant a former president could not even be told his son was invading Iraq, it is a bit of a shock to see a working family, happy together, with dad doing his thing. In that sense, the journalists are right. This is something new.
On the other hand it is very irritating to read stories claiming that children of presidents have never traveled abroad during their father’s presidencies Anna Roosevelt was a major planner of Yalta and was there on board the Quincy, as were children of Winston Churchill. Notably, First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt was not allowed to come. Eighteen children of presidents actually served on their father’s staff at the White House and had full time jobs, some as the personal secretaries to the president.
As to children of the president traveling abroad? It is very common, one of the perks of power, and the further away from the White House the more they thrive. A trip to Europe has been almost a rite of passage for children of presidents in modern times and in earlier years, when it required a rather lengthy sea journey, it was the place where many lived both before and after the White House.
The Bush twins visited Europe during their father’s presidency, as did children of the Carters and Fords and Nixons and Eisenhowers. I actually traveled with Neil Bush to Europe during his father’s presidency. And he was all over Asia. The Kennedy kids visited Europe with their mother during JFK’s presidency.
FDR had sons in Europe during his presidency, of course in the war, but even before as tourists and businessmen. Joe Kennedy dragged Jimmy Roosevelt around with him when he sought contracts with liquor companies, anticipating the end of prohibition. And Johnny Roosevelt was in the headlines for accidentally insulting the mayor of Cannes, France.
With great fanfare, Theodore Roosevelt sent his daughter, Alice, on a foreign cruise to China and the Philippines. It captured headlines and diverted attention from his secret efforts to end the Russo-Japanese War. So this was a formal, secret use of his daughter in American foreign policy. Having Malia and Sasha along on these trips is not new.
Likewise, President Ulysses S. Grant sent his daughter on a European cruise to get her out of town. He was determined to keep the attractive Nellie from marrying someone on his staff. Like Alice Roosevelt, Nellie Grant had an on board romance and ended up marrying the man she met on the high seas.
When the Grant presidency ended the whole family took a trip around the world. The youngest, Jesse, was so impressed by the experience that he made world travel a fulltime career. Heads of state were told that the visiting young Jesse Grant was a likely future American president himself and so he milked it for all it was worth, wine, women and song.
Webb Hayes, son of Rutherford B. Hayes, was a multimillionaire, founder of what became the Union Carbide Corporation and a soldier of fortune in wars in China (the Boxer Rebellion), South Africa and the Crimea. When his father was president he was his personal secretary and bodyguard.
The Lincolns had planned a trip to Europe but America was in the middle of a terrible Civil War. Their dream trip never happened. The president was assassinated. But the First Lady made the trip years later and took their young son, Tad Lincoln, with her.
Some presidential children were raised in Europe, like Liza Monroe, who ran the White House for her father and a couple of John Adams’ sons and one of Jefferson’s daughters. George Washington Adams was born in Europe. His father and grandfather were both presidents.
When George W. Bush ran for president journalists wrote stories claiming that his foreign travel was limited to a quick visit to Israel with two other governors and a one week jaunt to China when his father was the American representative to the People’s Republic. In fact he had traveled many times to South America and Europe. His sister, Doro Bush, daughter of George H. W. Bush, was baptized in Communist China.
So Europe and foreign travel is no stranger to children of presidents. Just to the know-it-all journalists who don’t pay attention. Malia and Sasha are actually following a very predictable path. Perhaps the reason people are seeing this as new is because the Obamas are new. There were no headlines when Jenna Bush shopped the Champs Elysee but Malia and Sasha would attract a crowd of thousands.
What should we expect next? A guest appearance on a popular sitcom. Another common rite of passage for the children of presidents. And again, journalists will assure us that this too is new. “Unprecedented,” they will say, Malia and Sasha on a television show. Don’t you believe it.
What is new is that we have a functional family in the White House, a marriage that works and children who are not abused or neglected. Regardless of one’s politics, that is a bit of a new thing for Americans and that makes them fun to watch.