Both Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan inspired millions of Americans by radiating an infectious optimism. But neither “Great Communicator” proved as adept at connecting with his own kids.
To his brood of five, FDR was largely an absentee dad. As his eldest child, Anna, later recalled, during her teenage years, her father “wouldn’t give me the time of day.”
And though Reagan doted on his wife, Nancy, he often left their two children — Patti and Ron — feeling neglected. As the late Nancy Reagan acknowledged in her memoir, “Apparently… the children have felt at one time or another that Ronnie and I were so devoted to each other that there wasn’t room for them in our affections, and that they were sometimes left out.”
In contrast, less successful presidents, such as Harry Truman and Gerald Ford, have tended to be more popular with their domestic subjects. Truman’s only child, Margaret, noted that her father was “never too busy or too preoccupied to take time out for the second great love of his life, his daughter.” She described herself as “a total Daddy’s girl.”
All 43 men who have been president (Grover Cleveland served two, nonconsecutive terms) have had some experience as a father. While 38 sired biological children, the other five adopted or had guardianship of children. As a general rule, the presidents who rank the highest in polls taken by historians have not been superlative parents. Theodore Roosevelt was an exception, as he turned out to be a particularly skillful leader of both the nation of 90 million and his family of six. While scholars have repeatedly pored over the leadership lessons from America’s greatest presidents, they have had comparatively little to say about the wisdom of America’s greatest presidential fathers.
Here are a few things these exemplary First Fathers can teach us about parenting.
If your child fails to show an interest in sports, be understanding. Your kindness may well cement a lifelong bond. As a girl, Gerald Ford’s daughter, Susan, could not manage to toss a softball even a few yards. When his wife, Betty, needled Susan for not being as athletic as the other girls in the neighborhood, who were racking up awards for their softball prowess, the Michigan Congressman put his foot down. “Leave her alone,” he insisted. “From that day forward,” Betty wrote in her memoir, “Susan gave him her unqualified adoration.”
If someone publicly attacks your daughter, stand up for her. And if you have to, it’s okay to go overboard. On Dec. 5, 1950, 26-year-old Margaret Truman gave a concert at Washington’s Constitution Hall. The next morning, after reading the harsh review of her singing in The Washington Post, her father fired off a threatening missive to the paper’s music critic, Paul Hume. “Some day I hope to meet you,” the president wrote. “When that happens, you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beef steak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!” After Truman’s letter was published, his aides feared a public relations disaster. But when they demanded that he acknowledge his gaffe, the president demurred, insisting that 80 percent of the mail would be in support of his action — a prediction that turned out to be correct. And his daughter was eternally grateful, noting, “I’m glad chivalry isn’t dead.”
To encourage excellence, give your kids homework assignments for which you hand out letter grades. Lyndon Johnson’s first job was teaching high school, and he forever remained a pedagogue. He was constantly grading his two girls — Lynda and Luci. In the summer of 1964, he asked the 17-year-old Luci to make campaign speeches on his behalf in 26 states. As Luci stated, whenever she returned to the White House, “My father would ask me to tell him about three new people whom I had met; and then to name three things that were important to them. He also wanted to know what I had learned along the way and he expected me to respond with a laundry list.” Luci passed this crash course in American politics easily. “His girls loved their dad and always wanted to get an A-plus,” recalled a Johnson staffer.
If your child is stricken by a scary illness, offer big dollops of tender loving care. Dads make good short-term nurses. In the fall of 1897, the youngest of Woodrow Wilson’s three daughters, Nell, 7, came down with scarlet fever. When her skin began peeling, the Princeton professor decided to “quarantine” his “little chick” in her room to make sure that she would not spread the disease to her two sisters. And he moved in, giving Nell what she later called “a perfect week.” He entertained her by reading to her and playing on the floor with her. He also set up a pulley with a basket, which they used to send letters to other family members. “We had our meals together,” Nell later wrote, “he fed me, he petted me, slept in the bed beside me and my bliss was complete.”
If your son or his friends injure you during roughhousing, be a good sport. But use the incident as a teachable moment. As president, Theodore Roosevelt was an active member of “the White House Gang,” a play group led by his youngest son Quentin and composed mostly of the boy’s classmates from the Force Public School. On many an afternoon, the president would take a break from his official duties to join the fun in the White House attic. One day, when the boys saw Roosevelt bounding up the stairs, one group member turned out all the lights. After the president chased the gang members around for a few minutes, they heard a loud smack. Roosevelt had smashed his head against a pillar, missing a nail by just a few feet. “When a block of wood meets a block of wood, there’s bound to be a headache,” the good-natured president said. “I’m quite all right. But never, never again, turn off a light when anyone is near a post!” When the other boys tried to punish the offender by locking him in a chest, Roosevelt came to the boy’s rescue, declaring “Shutting up boys in cedar chests for more than 60 seconds is strictly forbidden — henceforth!”
Joshua Kendall is the author of “First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama.”
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