Three years before he became America’s second president, John Adams told his son John Quincy Adams just how much he expected of the young Harvard graduate. In a 1794 letter, the elder Adams wrote: “You come into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre. And if you do not rise to the head not only of your own profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own laziness, slovenliness and obstinacy.” Anything short of becoming the nation’s leader would reveal shameful character flaws.
By becoming the sixth president in 1825, John Quincy Adams at least succeeded in avoiding abject failure. Whether he achieved success in his father’s eyes is less clear. His two younger brothers, however, could not handle the pressure from their exorbitantly demanding father nearly as well as John Quincy did. Both struggled as lawyers and became alcoholics.
The parenting style of John Adams might not be the primary focus of most historians, but it’s just one of many revealing case studies considered in journalist Joshua Kendall’s new book, “First Dads: Parenting and Politics From George Washington to Barack Obama.’’ Kendall groups presidents into types of fathers and organizes the book according to these categories. Adams, perhaps inevitably, is styled a “Tiger Dad,” but there are also “Playful Pals” (Teddy Roosevelt), “Nurturers” (Harry Truman, Barack Obama), “The Preoccupied” (FDR, LBJ), “Double-Dealing Dads” (John Tyler, Grover Cleveland), and “The Grief-Stricken” (Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Pierce).
The result is a charming and gossipy series of biographical portraits. Even for presidents not carved into the sides of mountains, a granitic solemnity often defines the reputations of past leaders. Encountering presidents as fathers gives depth and dimension to figures who are often reduced to lists of legislative achievements or controversies.
We learn, for instance, that James Garfield sang Gilbert and Sullivan hits to his teenage sons and enjoyed reading Shakespeare aloud to them. We see Teddy Roosevelt crash into the wall of the White House attic while playing a game of tag with one of his boys. And we hear the famous story of Harry Truman threatening to punch a music critic who had the nerve to give his daughter’s public voice recital a harsh review.
Many of the stories show presidents in a less-than-flattering light. FDR’s children actually had to schedule appointments in order to have private conversations with him. LBJ affixed his standard presidential signature to a birthday card he gave his daughter on her 17th birthday. John Quincy Adams, continuing the parenting style of his father, refused to allow his 14-year-old son Charles to return home from Harvard over Christmas vacation because his grades were too low. The teenager spent the break studying in Cambridge.
Even more unsavory are the presidents featured in the “Double-Dealing Dads” section. Thomas Jefferson’s affair with his slave Sally Hemmings is already so notorious that Kendall sensibly omits it, but Jefferson was just one of many presidents to father children with mistresses. John Tyler also probably had children with his slaves, though scholars have only recently begun to take evidence seriously. Warren Harding, nicknamed the “he-harlot” by a friend, also fathered a child with a woman whose claim that she had an affair with the president was ridiculed for years. In 2015, genetic testing of one of her descendants through the website ancestry.com revealed without a doubt that she and Harding did have a child together.
Kendall is a smooth storyteller with a good instinct for vivid details and anecdotes. This alone suffices for pleasurable historical reading, but he also claims to do something more. In the prologue he declares that his book “starts from the premise that character, as traditionally defined, both counts and is worth resuscitating as a critical variable in political analysis.” The sketches in the book certainly do reveal aspects of the characters of various presidents, but there’s little serious political or historical analysis. Ultimately this doesn’t really matter — it’s good enough to watch Teddy Roosevelt’s son bring a pony into the White House elevator or Jimmy Carter’s son smoke a joint on the White House roof.
Parenting and Politics From George Washington to Barack Obama
By Joshua Kendall. Grand Central, 391 pp., illustrated, $27
Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.