MOTHER'S DAY is probably an appropriate time to consider what Moms in general have done to the country in general. Of particular interest is what mothers have done to influence what may be, outside of professional sports, America's last remaining male bastion, the presidency. Although considerable ink is spilled on the influence of First Ladies, the real female power behind the throne is the commander-in-chief's dear old mom.
Twentieth-century presidents have been Mama's boys extraordinaire. FDR, generally considered the first modern president, encapsulated the modern attitude. In 1910, when he was approached by a group of New York's rough and tumble Democratic bosses about running for office, guess what this master politician replied. "I'd like to talk with my mother about it first." Given that Sara had taken an apartment in Cambridge to be near Franklin when he attended Harvard, this bonding should not have surprised the pols.
Harry Truman followed in his predecessor's footsteps sequentially and maternally. Truman called his mother from the Oval Office once or twice a week and wrote her at least that often. He phoned her 30 minutes after ending the war with Japan and had a portrait of his mother hung in the White House.
Fellow Democrat Lyndon Johnson referred to his mother as "the greatest female" he ever knew, "without any exceptions." With Johnsonian exuberance he stated, "She was the strongest person I ever knew."
When he was in the Senate he used to break off meetings and phone home to Texas to "see what Mama thinks." And LBJ probably took away much of the mystery in any future Freudian biography with his first grade poem, "I'd Rather Be Mama's Boy."
Nor were Republican presidents slouches when it came to Mom. Calvin Coolidge died carrying a picture of his mother in the case of an old- fashioned watch. It was in the pocket over his heart. (Biographers trace Silent Cal's mother complex to his having lost his mother when he was 12.) Warren Harding brought or sent his mother flowers every Sunday for the last several decades of her life. And even though fairly busy during the war, Eisenhower regularly wrote his mother.
In that public catharsis of his Watergate farewell speech, President Nixon called his mother a "saint." Hannah's view of her son was on a similar elevated religious plane. Doris Faber, in her maternally supportive biography, "The Presidents' Mothers," noted approvingly that Hannah, above the stairway landing in her little house, hung a huge three-dimensional portrait of our 37th president. It was lit from behind and when plugged in the plastic replica of Dick Nixon glowed.
All this adulation going back and forth was based on more than blood ties. The mothers of our presidents were, almost without exception, the dominant influence in their boys' formative years, and beyond. An incredibly strong group of women, they passed on to their sons the certainty of religion and the confidence of being their mother's favorite.
It's hardly a coincidence that 22 of 38 presidents were their mother's first boy, with JFK and Nixon inheriting the pedestal at the death of older brothers. And they drove their sons. Rebekah Johnson pressured Lyndon just as much as Sara Roosevelt directed the life of her only child. These mothers pushed their sons to overcome the sense of failure frequently lurking in their own family background. And certainly to outshine the underwhelming male figure they had married.
Which brings up dear old dad. Whatever happened to the male authority figure sternly marching his sons to masculine maturity and sterling success? Not much. The fathers appear on the scene as the family equivalent of imploding stars, their early energy being traceable only to the blank space they occupied in the home.
A tendency toward chronic failures in business was matched by their lack of influence in raising sons. Historically speaking, these Daddy-dearests had one major enduring function: They gave their wives and sons an unacceptable model which the next generation was expected to surpass.
Outside of procreation, the impact of our presidents' fathers on the world was modest to say the least. Their professional legacy was a chronicle of frustrated ambitions and downward mobility. Wilson's father was a nomadic scholar, Harding's a quack doctor. Truman's dad was an unsuccessful mule trader. Described by Faber as a perpetual adolescent, he managed to lose the family farm and house in speculation.
Papa Eisenhower was an unsuccessful storekeeper, as was Nixon's father, who also failed in carpentry and lemon fields. Lyndon Johnson's dad didn't make a go of either farming or politics. The father of Ronald Reagan had a career marked by frequent job changes and what is called a drinking problem. Hoover's dad died when the future president was a child, and Jerry Ford did not meet or know of his paternal father till he was a teen-ager.
Even where the fathers achieved success in the outside world, their role in the family was secondary to mom's. FDR's father was in his mid- 50s when Franklin was born and left the raising of his son in the firm hands of Sara. Joe Kennedy, the best known of contemporary first fathers, was an exception although his absences gave Rose the opportunity to mold the children in their early years.
Otherwise, only Earl Carter combined success on the outside with dominance in raising his son, according to "Mama's Boys," a 1983 Psychology Today article by David McCullough. Miss Lillian, our most famous contemporary First Mommy, played a secondary role to Mr. Earl in shaping young Jimmy. Given present opinion of his son's presidency, Papa Carter might have been advised to leave the kid alone.
Clearly all this paternal absence combined with maternal adoration produced something more than sissies. Rather, the offspring were strong, self-assured men. Men who, when the time came, did stand up to their moms. Roosevelt, for instance, continued in politics after being stricken by polio despite the wishes of his mother.
Psychiatrists have deeply bent the knee in awed respect to life with mama. Oedipus aside, Sigmund Freud is quoted in at least two biographies of Lyndon Johnson: "A man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success." And Erich Fromm suggested that mom may have been at the bottom of these men's career choice; politics became a way of substituting mass adulation for the maternal attention they got when growing up.
So this Mother's Day, as our New American Woman rededicates herself to raising the next generation's presidents, the lessons are clear. Forget your career and devote your waking hours to that first-born son. Shower him with affection, confidence, fantasies of great things ahead, religious conviction and (good luck) strict discipline.
Ignore your daughters and other sons. Statistically they just don't make it. (Remember Donald Nixon, Sam Johnson and Billy Carter?) Closely manage his affairs while assuring him of his capacity to achieve anything he wants. Demand perfection, yet offer unconditional love. Start teaching him as young as possible. And one other thing. Get rid of the old man.