I do not know to whom the fates will award the national plebiscite in 2016, and neither does anybody else. Recent history has been for the most part an unilluminating guide; recent Presidents have come from big states like California and Texas and small states like Arkansas; have been (moderately) conservative and (moderately) liberal; have been tall (Clinton) and short (Carter); have been from the East (Kennedy) and the west (Nixon, Reagan); the North (Kennedy, Ford, Obama) and the South (everybody else). We have not had a woman president but it is just a matter of time.
So who will win two years from now? How can we tell? I do not know the particulars, but I offer this reliable guide: the person we elect President in 2016 will be the person with the most awful father.
Presidential Bad Dads
Consider: except for Jimmy Carter and the immortal W, every President we’ve selected since 1960 has had a notoriously dreadful dad. If your pops was a drunk (Johnson, Reagan, Obama) you have a leg up to the Presidency; if your father was abusive (Kennedy, Nixon, Obama), you are also qualified; and if your father abandoned you (Ford, Clinton, Obama) you have the trifecta. If your father died before you were born, and your stepfather was an abusive drunk, why, you’re Bill Clinton.
OK, let’s get specific. We all know that Barack Obama, Sr., abandoned his family when his son was young. The President apparently dodged a bullet. In this story, President Obama’s half-brother, Mark Obama Ndesandjo, gives this account of his father at home:
“I remember the sounds of my mothers’ screams and I remember the sounds of breaking, things breaking….And I remember that I couldn’t protect her. That’s something that no child ever forgets.”
Roger Clinton, Sr., was much the same way. Of course, Roger Clinton wasn’t the President’s father. William Blythe was, but he drove into a ditch and died before the President was ever born. Roger married the Widow Blythe four years later. Here is an anecdote about Roger that biographer David Maraniss tells in First in his Class.
“One night Virginia [the President’s mother] dressed Billy up to take him to the hospital in Hope to visit her maternal grandmother, who was dying. Roger did not want them to leave. When she said she was going anyway, he hauled out a gun and fired a shot over her head into the wall. Virginia went across the street to the Taylors’ and called the police. Billy slept at a neighbor’s house. Roger spent the night in jail.”
George H.W. Bush’s father was the patrician Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush. Senator Bush neither drank immoderately nor, as far as anyone knows, abused his family. But, as this article in the Guardian discusses, recently-declassified documents indicate that his firm, Brown Brothers Harriman, made a great deal of money from assisting one of Hitler’s most important financiers, Fritz Thyssen, until 1942, when the US Government confiscated BBH’s assets under the Trading with the Enemy Act. Prescott Bush was also the director of Union Banking Corporation, which represented Thyssen’s interests in the U.S. Though there’s no evidence that Prescott Bush’s home life was anything but impeccable, you have to wonder whether a man who could make money from Nazis would have enough empathy to be a good father.
Jack Reagan didn’t make any money from the Nazis. He barely made money at all, as his binge drinking periodically interrupted his career as a shoe salesman and helped to assure his family’s continuing poverty. The influential Reagan speechwriter, Peggy Noonan said this about Ronald Reagan’s father in her biography When Character was King:
“He was usually able to suffer through hard times and boredom but when things were looking up, when progress seemed possible, when the family was gathering to have a good time, a binge would begin, and three days later Jack would emerge, wreckage around him. The future president, never much given to complaint, would say that in his childhood he never knew whether to look forward to Christmas like other kids or dread it, because it meant Dad would start drinking and the fights [with the president’s mother, Nelle Wilson Reagan], would come.”
On July 30, 1913, Leslie Lynch King, Jr., drunk, threatened his wife, Dorothy, and their sixteen-day-old son with a knife. Dorothy moved out and returned to her parents’ home. In five months, they were divorced. King never paid child support and only met his son – then known as Gerald Ford – once, in the lad’s teenaged years. In the interests of completion, I should tell you that the President’s stepfather, Gerald Rudolff Ford, appears to have been a good man and a loving parent. Then again, President Ford was never elected to any office grander than Minority Leader of the House.
“Frank Nixon,” writes Robert Dallek in Nixon and Kissinger, “was a boisterous, unpleasant man who needed to dominate everyone – ‘a “punishing and often brutal” father.’ Edward Nixon, the youngest of the Nixon children described his ‘mother as the judge and my father as the executioner.’ Frank’s social skills left a lot to be desired; he offended most people with displays of temper and argumentativeness* * * Frank was a standing example of what Richard hoped not to be….”
Lyndon Johnson’s daddy, on the other hand, was a sweet-tempered guy, eager to please – a state legislator, and a pretty good one, who won every election he stood for. But Sam Ealy Johnson was also an impractical dreamer, and a bit of a fool. The Path to Power, the first volume of Robert Caro’s titanic biography of LBJ, contains this description of Sam Johnson in Austin:
“He was still, at the age of forty-one, tall and skinny, and he still clomped into the House Chamber in his hand-tooled boots, and he still wore his pants tucked into the boots, and a big Stetson hat, and sometimes a gun, a long-barreled old-style Colt six-shooter (although he may have been the only legislator who still did, and he looked more than a little foolish doing so; Edward Joseph would regularly take it away from him on Saturday nights when Sam was roaring drunk, afraid he’d hurt somebody with it). He still played practical jokes in the House Chamber, and was a leading customer of the bars and whorehouses along Congress Avenue, and he was still loud and boastful when he was sober….and very loud and boastful when he was drunk….”
When his parents died, Sam Johnson was bound and determined to buy their 433-acre farm from his seven siblings. He got into a bidding war with his brother-in-law, and eventually bought it for $19,500.(about $350,000 in today’s money). The trouble was, Sam didn’t know anything about farming. He was soon bankrupt.
And finally, Jack Kennedy’s father was … Joe Kennedy.
What of our other two recent Presidents? Earl Carter was an ardent segregationist, but so was practically every other white person in Georgia in the twenties, thirties and forties. He seems, in his personal life, to be generous and evenhanded, extending credit on the same basis to his African-American customers as he did to his Caucasians. He died too early to be educated by the civil rights movement. And George H.W. Bush appears to have been, as a father, more sinned against than sinner, in that he had to cope early in his family life with the death of his daughter and later with his son’s substance abuse.
These two exceptions don’t “prove the rule” – a shibboleth which has no meaning whatsoever, as far as I can discern – but it does show that we’re talking about a tendency, not a rule – like the tendency of the Republican Party to nominate presidential candidates who live to the west of their opponents. (Mitt Romney was the first Republican presidential candidate to live east of the Democrat since Tom Dewey ran against Harry Truman in 1948).
Still, the presidential bad – or absent – dad is not a recent invention. Some of our best presidents share the background. FDR’s dad died when the future president was two; George Washington lost his dad when he was fourteen; and Thomas Lincoln so infuriated his son that they never spoke after Abe moved out of the family home. On the other hand, Warren G. Harding – a consensus choice for worst president in history – had a sweet and loving father. Dr. George Harding even moved into the White House with his son to help him manage his tempestuous life.
Winston Churchill once said that behind every extraordinary man is an unhappy childhood. So this is your out, fellow unextraordinary person.
If your father, like mine, was sober, loving, and responsible, why – blame him! If not for his good parenting, you’d be in the Oval Office now.