Tuesday, April 18, 2017

April 18, 2017--Presidential Daddy Problems

Since John F. Kennedy almost all of our presidents and aspirants to the presidency have had Daddy problems.

This struck me again recently when watching Donald Trump, pose in the Oval Office to sign an executive order to gut one more Obama initiative. This one I think having to do with environmental protection regulations.

President Trump has not given much attention to making the White House office his own. The shelves are deplete of books with the exception of an impersonal row or two of leather bound volumes purchased by the foot. Probably an ornamental set of Dickens novels. His desk has a messy stack of papers and files but no visible tchotchkes. And on the credenza behind his desk where all presidents array at least a dozen pictures of their families (even Nixon did this!), on Trump's credenza there is just one picture--a severe black-and-white photo of his Germanic-looking father, Frederick. And, yes, there is also a stack of souvenir golf balls. I assume one from each of his 17 courses.

When thinking about presidents and their fathers, there are reasons to begin with Barack Obama. His Daddy problem stemmed from the fact that he essentially didn't have one. I believe he met his Kenyan father just once when he was 10 years old. The title of his first book, Dreams From My Father, says it all. In fact, it could serve as the title of books by at least a dozen of our presidents--how they each were either in search of their fathers or coveted their involvement, love, and acknowledgement. In Barack's case all of this was missing and that contributed to the kind of adult and president he became.

Of presidents Kennedy had a pathologically involved and controlling father. From early on Father Joe unrelentingly prepped his sons for public life. His oldest boy, Joe Junior, was slated to become president and when he was killed in action in World War II Joe Senior's attention immediately turned to second son Jack, who he pushed to get into politics (JFK was reluctant) and for whom he then behind the scenes bankrolled his career and, it is generally agreed, not only promoted his various runs for office, but in 1960 spread enough money around to assure his winning the nomination and then conspired with political bosses in key states, including bribing them, to fix the vote count to assure his son's election to the presidency.

And once elected, Joe Kennedy, out of public view, played a major roll in influencing policy. It is now also fully known that President Kennedy on a daily basis sought his father's guidance and was powerfully motivated to please him and seek his approbation. Some biographers even say that JFK's hawkish inclinations were in large part to demonstrate manhood to his philandering Daddy.
Joseph and John F. Kennedy
Lyndon Johnson succeeded Kennedy. His father was a major player in the Texas state legislature but a poor businessman. So much so that when his finances collapsed the Johnson family lived for decades in dire poverty. Sam Johnson was a very severe man and never showed son, Lyndon, much affection or offered encouragement or praise. Robert Caro, Johnson's remarkable biographer, writes at length about how LBJ sought to please his father even well after he died. Much of what Johnson did was an attempt to make up for his father's failure and ultimately to surpass him.

Then there was Richard Nixon. No one had a more clinical Daddy problem than young Dick. There is no evidence that his censorious father ever praised him for any of his accomplishments. Quite the contrary. Dick was also raised in virtual poverty--his father's various business schemes for the most part failed and he took his frustrations out on his children, especially the bright, hardworking, and eventually successful son. Desperate for his father's praise and encouragement, he pushed himself beyond sensible or legal limits and brought himself down in the process. The disparagement and constant criticism he felt from his father was a large part of what motivated Dick--to show by his dogged success that he was worthy.

Jimmy Carter's father, according to his biographers, was also a withholding patriarch for whom his son, Jimmy, could never do enough to win his affection or praise. One even goes so far as to say that Carter's propensity to laugh without seeming motivation when speaking in public was the result of a lifetime of accumulated anger. Much of it derived from his father's severity. It was, in a manner of speaking, a nervous laugh that attempted to obscure the frustration and anger he felt from an unhappy, caustic childhood relationship with his Daddy.

Ronald Reagan's father was a lifelong alcoholic who moved his family from town to town across the Midwest in an attempt to find work and change his luck. He was unsuccessful in many ways--never able to provide for his family, establish a sustainable relationship with his wife, or provide emotional support for his children. Son Ronald was so wounded by his upbringing, though he was a great storyteller, that he barely mentioned him. It was as if these memories were so painful that he excised his father from the narrative of his life in an attempt to get out from under the memories of his gnawing presence.

Both Bush presidents, though they achieved the ultimate political prize, never felt they were worthy of their fathers' love or pride. George H.W. Bush's father, Prescott, was a successful financier and later, when elected to the U.S. Senate, was held in high esteem by his congressional colleagues. To him, his children could never do or accomplish enough to earn his fulsome praise. No matter how much George achieved it was never enough. Like many presidential fathers he was emotionally aloof from his boys, never making them feel appreciated or affirmed.

Bill Clinton's biological father died three months before Bill was born. His mother some years later remarried and Bill took his stepfather's name. But the marriage to his mother did not last and after she divorced him, he drifted out of young Bill's life. So in many ways Bill Clinton was fatherless and many who have studied his life and written about him claim that the emotional void that was the result of this unsatisfying family life helps explain his undisciplined nature as a politician, family member, and man.

George W. Bush, son of the 41st president, also felt his father's emotional coolness and thus tried desperately to please him. Many say that his decision to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein was to "finish the job" his father left unresolved when he had American troops come to the aid of Kuwait, which had been invaded by Iraq, and to surpass him as a wartime president. Also, some historians feel that his turning to Dick Cheney to serve as his vice president and cede to him so much of the power of the presidency was the result of Bush's impulse to seek substitutes for his biological parent, in the hope that they would offer him the affirmation he so desperately needed.

Other than as a curiosity should any of this interest or concern us?

It could well be that so many of our presidents having Daddy problems of this kind is a problem.

Seeking acknowledgement to salve fragile self-esteem may in the first instance be what motivated most of them to seek the power of the presidency. Not the desire to protect and improve the lives of those who elected them. If emotionally compromised as a result of the influences of their fathers, it also may be that allowing unresolved intra-psychic issues to influence decision making, particularly in crisis situations, gets in the way of their using their best, most rational judgement. We do not benefit by our presidents, when stressed by the consequences of dangerous decisions, to be so emotionally influenced.

One can only wonder what Frederick "Fred" Trump (ne Drumpf) might right now be thinking as his son attempts to deal with the North Korean threat. It could be that son Donald's boundless ego and insecurity are more on display and influencing his decision-making than any of his predecessors.

I would feel better about the situation if President Trump had a full array of family pictures on his Oval Office credenza, not just the one of Fred. Especially pictures of his children and grandchildren because what he decides and authorizes will affect them and their generation more than Trump himself or those of us who have already had full lives.

Fred and Donald Trump

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