Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Is a Dysfunctional Family a Presidential Prerequisite?

The families that have produced U.S. presidents aren't always great role models. In fact, they show a striking tendency to be deeply flawed. The childhoods of past presidents have been marked to an unusual degree by absent fathers, mothers so overinvolved that they could easily have been the original helicopter parents, and in some cases outright dysfunction, based on interviews with historians and family-history scholars and a review of presidential history books.

Helicopter parents rush to prevent any harm or failure from befalling them and will not let them learn from their own mistakes, sometimes even contrary to the children's wishes.

Overbearing, that is.

To be sure, analyzing family patterns from afar, through the veil of history, risks oversimplifying them. Many presidents' families, including the parents of John Adams, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, serve as relatively positive examples. But in this era of parental perfectionism, studying the unusual ones can lend hope to parents that our children, too, can rise above our foibles and failings. Beyond any particular thing, Mr. Wead says, the key to success for past presidents was a harder-to-define internal drive.

Of modern presidents, Bill Clinton has to rank as the one with the most dysfunctional family; it had to be his drive more than anythng else that gave him the drive to succeed.

Some presidents' families have been famously dysfunctional. Thomas Lincoln abandoned 9-year-old Abraham and his sister, 12, for several months in their frontier cabin right after the death of their mother, while he went to find a new wife, says Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author most recently of "Team of Rivals," a book about Lincoln. When Thomas finally returned with their new stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston, the couple found them "wild – ragged and dirty," seeming barely human, the stepmother later wrote.

Abraham's father was "constantly taking him out of school or making him work off debt with other farmers or making fun of him that he was lazy because he was reading" so much, Ms. Kearns says. She and other historians credit his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, and stepmother with providing the nurturing and love that propelled him to leadership. "All that I am or ever hope to be," Lincoln said of his mother, "I owe to her."

That's quite dysfunctional.

An an even stronger pattern, historians say, many presidents had dominant and eccentric mothers. When Nancy McKinley's son William became president, he set up a special telephone wire from the White House to her home in Ohio so they could talk every day, Mr. Wead says. And when young Franklin Roosevelt was quarantined with scarlet fever at his boarding school, Sara Delano Roosevelt found a ladder and climbed to his window to inspect him daily, wrote historian Doris Faber in a 1968 book on presidents' mothers.


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