The nation’s first families are knit together in a small co-ed fraternity filled with fun, inoffensive facts and a reverence for the White House.
Fun fact about John Tyler, 10th president of the United States: He was born in 1790, married twice and was 63 years old when the last of his 15 children was born.
Another fun fact about President Tyler: He has two grandsons who are still alive, and one of them spent part of this week in Washington.
Ninety-three-year-old Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. joined nearly 50 other descendants of presidents and more than 400 scholars, librarians and preservationists at the four-day summit, hosted by the White House Historical Association.
The presidential relatives shared their personal recollections and old family yarns. They stayed as far away as they could from the modern-day politics that swirled around the rest of the city.
What did they think of President Trump’s claim this week that Google has been unfair to him? Or the Trump-Russia controversy? Or Ivanka Trump’s official role in the West Wing of the White House? Any opinions at all on the White House’s current residents?
“No one talks about that,” insists Susan Ford Bales, daughter of President Gerald Ford. “No! No no no no no.”
It is soooo not a topic of conversation that the conference managed to pull off two hours of panel discussions at the Kennedy Center on the subject of the White House and no one onstage so much as breathed the word “Trump.”
Besides, this is a strange sort of family reunion and everybody knows better than to discuss politics at a family reunion. Even if your dad was president. Especially if your dad was president.
“Since you’ve lived there, you have a respect for the office, whether you like the family or not,” explains Ford Bales, who was a teenager when her father was in office. “I remember being criticized for wearing blue jeans at the White House. And the criticisms that you get are very felt. So you never want to criticize.”
“It’s just about respect and dignity,” says Jason Van Buren, a descendant of Martin Van Buren, as he stood in front of a Kennedy Center stage made to look like the Oval Office. “So you want to keep anything that could be political out of it.”
So what did they talk about? Well, Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of President Lyndon Johnson, boasted that the marriage resulting from her White House wedding lasted longer than that of any other couple married there. She and former senator Chuck Robb celebrated their 50th anniversary last December.
Ford Bales recalled what it was like to date while living at the White House. “The poor boys would show up dripping wet. It wasn’t just that they were going on a date — it was meeting the commander in chief,” she said. And having a Secret Service tail never helped her romantic life. “I’ve never been parking in my entire life,” she bemoaned. (She did, however get to host her high school’s senior prom in the East Room of the White House.)
Tweed Roosevelt explained that every time he uses a credit card, he has to explain that he’s the great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, not Franklin.
Clifton Truman Daniel offered anecdotes about what it was like to be the grandson of Harry S. Truman. Once the former president came to visit Daniel’s childhood home in New York. Daniel remembers his grandfather waking early and positioning himself in a sitting room with a stack of newspapers.
When Daniel and his little brother tried to sneak past to watch TV their grandfather sternly called them back. By the time his mother, Margaret Truman, woke up, she found her two sons perched on either side of their grandfather’s chair.
“Neither of us was moving while he read to us from a book that didn’t have any pictures in it,” Daniel recalled. “And she said, ‘What in God’s name are you reading to those children?’ And he showed her. It was Thucydides. ‘The History of the Peloponnesian War.’ At 6 o’clock in the morning. To a 4-year-old and a 2-year old.”
Even offstage, there were more reminiscences on the past than reflections on the present.
When the presidential descendants were sitting at the bar of the Willard Hotel, where the summit was held, they talked about the rooms they slept in at the White House, the staff members they got to know.
“It’s the staff at the White House that make it such a special place to live,” Ford Bales says.
At a tree-planting ceremony on the South Lawn hosted this week by first lady Melania Trump, Ford Bales recognized a groundskeeper who’d been around since her father’s administration. She gave him a hug.
But it was when she first entered the White House grounds that she was faced with a reminder that every first family is just renting: “I have a pacemaker. They wanted to wand me. He said, ‘This is really safe,’ ” recalls an unconvinced Ford Bales. “ ‘Well, you can call my cardiologist if you set this thing off,’ ” she told the Secret Service guard, before adding, “You know, I used to live here.”
“He was very unaffected. Very unaffected. He just looked at me like, ‘I really don’t care,’ ” says Ford Bales. “I was like, ‘Okay!’ I got the message.”
All of the presidential descendants had one other opportunity to visit the White House when they were invited to a private reception by the Trumps on Wednesday night. There they gathered in the East Room to hear the president call them each out by name. Then, Trump surprised the crowd by announcing that the guests, including all of the White House Historical Association summit attendees, would be welcome to tour the Oval Office that evening.
Lyon Gardiner Tyler was there, accompanied by his daughter, Susan. He bears an uncanny resemblance to his grandfather and smiled for photo after photo with those who wanted to capture a connection to the past.