Why Have So Many Presidents' Kids Gone Wrong?

Culture Watch

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard.

If you like the service HNN provides, please consider making a donation.

LATE IN NOVEMBER 1988, Doug Wead, who had worked in the campaign that made George Bush Sr. president, wrote a paper about presidents' children for his associate, George W. Bush. What Wead found disturbed him--and disturbed the young George Bush when he read it: The children of America's presidents had a terrible record of failure and premature death. Bush himself had a superficial resemblance to Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr.: a president's namesake, with a brother in politics whose career started in promise and burned out in farce. (Franklin Jr. also failed in a bid to be a governor, a post that George Bush had in mind at the time.)

Wead's forty-four-page paper is now a heart-wrenching and impressive book, All the Presidents' Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Families. One of the spurs for finishing the book may have been the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., who was killed with his wife and her sister while flying a plane in bad weather in 1999. His death saddened Wead but did not surprise him. He already knew that the sons and the namesakes of presidents have a fatal attraction to risk--and that under the power and glory of presidents lies a secret connection of grief."There is no more remarkable common denominator among American presidents than their early encounters with premature death," Wead writes."Twenty-six children of presidents died before the age of five, and dozens more before they reached thirty. Rutherford B. Hayes had seven children; three died before their second birthday. John Tyler lost three of his adult daughters within a six-year period. . . . William McKinley and Franklin Pierce saw all their children die."

John and John Quincy Adams each buried two of their children. Thomas Jefferson buried five of six children; Abraham Lincoln two of four. The curse continued into a more modern era of medicine: Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and the elder George Bush all buried young children. John Adams could not speak for years of his one-year-old daughter. One of Jefferson's daughters died at four months; he carried a lock of her hair all his life."Grover Cleveland found the death of his twelve-year-old Ruth 'almost unbearable,'" Wead notes. The notoriously detached John Kennedy had to be pried away from his infant son's coffin."Calvin Coolidge was a 'different person' after the passing of his teenage son."

Perhaps because they had less to distract them, the first ladies seemed to grieve even more."After the death of her first child . . . First Lady Jane Pierce would wear black for the rest of her life," Wead writes. (She may have been prescient, since her other two children would also die young.)"Mary Lincoln was an emotional wreck after the death of her son Willie and held White House séances trying to speak to him. A grieving Eliza Johnson lived in seclusion on the second floor of the White House during her husband's term." Many years later, Grace Coolidge would die on July 8, the day after the date on which her son Calvin Jr. had perished. Mary Todd Lincoln fell into a coma on the anniversary of the death of her son Tad and died one day after. After Dwight Doud Eisenhower died at age three, his parents made a practice of sending each other flowers and notes on his birthday, the 24th of September. On that date in 1955, President Eisenhower had his first major heart attack. Years later, on the 23rd of September, Mamie Eisenhower had her fatal stroke.

AND IF CHILDREN SURVIVE beyond childhood, that does not end the story. John and John Quincy Adams each had one son who became justly famous and powerful, and each had two sons who became alcoholics. Of these four, two died disgraced and estranged from their families, and three died before age thirty-two. One of these was George Washington Adams, a son and a grandson and a namesake of presidents. Beaten down by his father's relentless exactions, he began to drink heavily, lost money entrusted to him by family members, and fathered a daughter by a maid in a friend's house. En route to a feared confrontation with his ex-president father, he jumped or fell from a steamer into Long Island Sound.

Some presidents' sons became famous, if not quite untroubled: Presidents George W. Bush and John Quincy Adams; Robert Todd Lincoln, captain of industry; Charles Francis Adams, a Civil War diplomat, Senator Robert A. Taft; John Eisenhower, a distinguished historian, and Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, the most-decorated man in the history of America's armed forces--dying a hero just after D-Day at fifty-six, a ripe old age for the son of a president.

But many more suffered defeat and failure, and they flood history in a sad and angry tide. Andrew Jackson Jr. died in a freak hunting accident. Andrew Johnson Jr. was an alcoholic who died young in another accident. A brother died at age thirty-five, a possible suicide. Kermit Roosevelt, third son of Theodore, shot himself in the mouth on an army base in Alaska in 1943.

Many children, especially daughters, suffered through difficult marriages. The chaos reached new and strange heights in the family of Franklin Roosevelt--the only man to be elected four times, and a man whose wife became almost as great a celebrity as her presidential husband. The five surviving Roosevelt children wracked up nineteen marriages, with associated scandals and suicide efforts. One daughter's second husband threw himself out of a window. A son's wife (the actress Faye Emerson) was hospitalized after cutting her wrists. The sons moved back and forth between using the family name to get money and indulging in acts of overt and covert hostility."Two sons worked for their father's bitterest enemies, and another married into a family that openly despised him," Wead observes."John, the youngest, became a committed Republican, . . . another endorsed his father's opponent when he ran for a third term."

Why do so many presidents' children commit suicide? Or take risks or take drugs? Different reasons suggest themselves. Being a president's child does not merely refer to the few years the parents may live in the White House. It means a lifetime of being the child of the kind of person who wants to be and then makes himself president. It means having a father who drives both himself and the people around him. It means having a father who is constantly busy, frequently traveling, and for various reasons may be unavailable. It means having a father whose love affair with his calling and country often comes at the expense of his family.

IT IS NO ACCIDENT that the presidents whose children showed the most overt hostility were those of Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt, two great national leaders who found it much easier to establish the illusion of intimacy with millions of strangers than to establish the real thing with their children. Wead tells the story of Roosevelt's son who had to make an appointment through his father's aides for a formal meeting in the Oval Office to discuss a matter of personal urgency. While he talked, his father sat reading a document. The son told his mother he would never talk to his father about anything that troubled him again.

"The stress of the American presidency is a killer," Wead tells us. Some of that stress is passed on in the instant and undeserved fame that comes to the children of presidents--together with constant attention, high expectations, and gleeful notice when they slip. It can come from the overblown praise that makes a father appear all too god-like. It can also come with undue abuse. Presidents' children routinely see their parents denounced as thieves, fools, liars, and killers; and when their parents fail, the failures are public and huge. It can even come, as Wead notes, with"a complete lack of connection between doing and getting." This is what destroyed the elder three sons of Franklin Roosevelt, who got too many freebies and never learned discipline.

Celebrities in general have short, stressful lives: They are four times more likely to commit suicide than normal Americans, two and one-half times more likely to die in an accident, and two times more likely to die of cirrhosis or kidney diseases, often from drinking or drugs. But presidents' children have additional problems that drive self-esteem down. An actor's son may become a doctor and believe he is doing something more important; a doctor's son may become an actor and be much better known. But a president's child has no place to run: no line of work with more power and glory, fame and dazzle, or chance to change the world. A president's son cannot surpass his father; he can just hope to match him. And only two men have done that.

WHEN THAT FIRSTBORN SON is the namesake of the president, as with John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., John Kennedy Jr., and George W. Bush, the strain is intensified. But even when the honors are split up, as with George Washington Adams and his younger brother John Adams, the dangers don't decrease:"When there was confusion over just who the heir apparent might be, the firstborn or the namesake, fate would often overtake them both." John Kennedy Jr. and the four sons of Theodore Roosevelt became extreme risk-takers, perhaps trying in some way to match fathers who were not only presidents but popular heroes. A few weeks before he died, John Kennedy Jr. applied to the Park Service for permission to climb up the face of Mt. Rushmore. The symbolism of this--climbing over the heads of men even greater than Daddy--is almost too neat to be true.

With his narration, history, and psychological musings, Wead seems to have covered most sides of this story, but two points remain to be made. One is the difference age makes in these stories. The elder George Bush became the father of a son at twenty-two and president at sixty-four, a whole lifetime later. George W. Bush was eighteen in 1964 when his father was first elected to Congress, and thirty-four in 1980 when his father was elected Vice President. When his father became president in 1988, he was forty-two--young middle age, the same age Theodore Roosevelt was when he became president and only a year younger than Kennedy.

Compare that with John F. Kennedy, elected at forty-three, who became president and the father of a son the same month. John F. Kennedy Jr. left the White House when he was three and spent his whole life in the giant shadow of a father he could not remember himself. George W. Bush not only remembered his father, he had known him intimately as a child, a teenager, and a more-or-less equal adult. It was the problems of that adulthood--as he tried and failed to catch up with his father who always kept rising--that may have caused him his acknowledged problems, particularly his drinking. It was only after his father had failed in public--when he lost the 1992 race to Bill Clinton--that the career of the younger man started to flourish.

THE SECOND POINT to be made is that these strange strains and stresses are no longer confined to the children of presidents. The most pressured political sons of the twentieth century were those of Albert Gore Sr. and Joseph P. Kennedy, two men who weren't president but thought that they should be and aimed their sons at the White House with a force and ferocity never yet seen in an actual president. Meanwhile, in all the ways that matter--power, pressure, exposure, and privilege--the families of Robert F. Kennedy, Edward Kennedy, and Governor Jeb Bush of Florida are nearly"presidential," and all of them have the drug problems to prove it. The current state of the Jeb Bush family, with one child being groomed for political stardom and another in court-ordered rehab for substance dependency, is a pattern John Adams would recognize.

Doug Wead has written a great story and a frightening thesis, a must-read for students of horror and history, for all politicians who try to rear children, and for the publishers and writers who may try to exploit them. Some people have wondered why George and Laura Bush keep their children so far from the life of the White House. All the Presidents' Children tells us why.

This article was first published by the Weekly Standard and is reprinted with permission.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

dustin - 10/31/2003


dustin - 10/30/2003

lack of dicaplin

dustin - 10/30/2003

lack of dicaplin

Herodotus - 6/27/2003

Well pointed out, but keep the consistency.

Which Reagan and Bush children do you refer to, and what specifically can we identify as failings?

Bob Huddleston - 6/26/2003

Caroline Ward has already pointed out the misleading and ahistorical failure of the author to consider the demographics of nineteenth and early twentieth century presidents.

Theodore Roosevelt was hardly the "most decorated" American soldier, but he was an overachiever, as had been his brother Quentin, killed as a pilot in World War I.

Icky Eisenhower died, IIRC, in the influenza epidemic after World War I. His father was then an obscure Army officer, so Icky's death could hardly be ascribed to something "presidential."

Given that the surviving Eisenhower boy went on to a very normal and distinguished life, the author's thesis continues to self-destruct.

JFK Jr's risk taking may have led him to make a stupid beginner's mistake in trying to fly in deteriorating weather, but that hardly indicates he "went bad."

Margaret Truman, John Eisenhower, Caroline and John Kennedy, the Johnson daughters, Amy Carter, and Chelsea Clinton -- a nice collection that any parent would be proud of.

Indeed, the only failures of First Children since World War II are the Reagan and Bushes children. Perhaps Republicans need to practice the alleged family values they preach.

caroline ward - 6/26/2003

This thesis might be appropriate for the tales of adult presidential children, but in describing all the early deaths of infants and youths the author has forgotten (or never knew) the demography of the years before the rise of public health measures in the later 19th c. (I mean here primarily clean water and sewage systems, and the like).
Infant/youth mortality was extremely high for everyone before, say, the 1870s-1880s. Fully 1/4 of all children died before the age of 1 and 1/2 before the age of 21 in the time of Jefferson & Adams, and the figures were not much better, if at all, in the age of Lincoln. All parents mourned their children. There is nothing unusual in these stories of deaths of young people. The same tale could be told of many other contemporary families not just prominent ones.

David L. Holmes - 6/26/2003

Try the same analysis with the children of ministers, especially in the centuries when every major city had one or more "prince of the pulpit" and when even local clergy were viewed as THE personage, or parson, in a community. Even in recent decades, when clergy have experienced declining influence, several of the leading religious figures on radio and television have had similar problems with their sons.

Herodotus - 6/23/2003

It would be interesting to compare this data set with comparable data sets for children of prominent industrialists and business leaders over this timeperiod too, to see if this is a phenomenon associated with fame and success, or the presidency specifically.