Vice President Henry Wallace once observed of his boss, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "He doesn't know any man and no man knows him. Even his own family doesn't know anything about him." It's not surprising that Wallace would think ill of a man who dumped him from the ticket while seeking a fourth term—a move that enabled Harry Truman, rather than Wallace, to ascend to the presidency. But given Roosevelt's relationship with his own children, Wallace's comment was probably a product of insight, not just bitterness.
In this new book on presidents and their families, Joshua Kendall does not just confirm Wallace's observation, he contends that presidents' relationships with their families provide a fuller picture of the men and their lives inside and outside the White House. And Kendall makes this compelling case with an effective (and wide-ranging) series of stories.
For instance, FDR not only did not appear to know his kids that well, but he outsourced parenting to some very problematic characters. Kendall tell the story of "Old Battleax," a cruel nanny for the Roosevelt children hired by their grandmother (FDR's mother) Sara. Old Battleax physically abused the kids, locked one in a closet for hours, and once punished young James by forcing him to wear his sister's clothing and march along East 65th Street in Manhattan. To FDR's credit, James recalled that "Father was as happy as any of us kids" when Old Battleax finally left—as a result of Eleanor discovering the nanny's liquor stash. Franklin Roosevelt, it would seem, could manage the country through World War II but couldn't handle his own household staff.
FDR's parenting techniques, such as they were, may come as a surprise, but no one would be shocked to know that Lyndon B. Johnson was somewhat inattentive to his children. In fact, Lynda used to read the Congressional Record in depth just so she could have a conversation with her dad. As for Luci, she also found LBJ hard to reach except when she returned from what she called "daddy duty"—working in Johnson's campaign, speaking on behalf of her father against Barry Goldwater in 1964. After those trips, Kendall writes, "LBJ gave her his undivided attention."
Jimmy Carter appeared to have the opposite problem from Johnson and Roosevelt: He was so solicitous of his daughter Amy that he became a national laughingstock after saying, in a debate with Ronald Reagan in 1980, that he consulted with Amy about nuclear weapons policy. Carter's foolish comment—not to mention the shameless politicization of his own daughter—hurt him in the campaign. A few days after the debate, Reagan joked to a crowd in Milwaukee that "I remember when Patti and Ron were tiny kids; we used to talk about nuclear power." Johnny Carson ribbed Carter about the incident as well, saying that "this will be a significant monologue because I asked Amy Carter what she thought were the most important issues to make jokes about."
Yet with all the abuse he took for such seeming solicitude, Carter still had major deficiencies as a father. Years after leaving the White House, one of his sons, Jack, told the former president on a hunting trip: "Daddy, I've been wanting to tell you for years. I think the way you treated me as a child almost ruined my life." And once again, Carter proved that he listened to his children, even to his detriment. After his initial anger subsided, he recalled that "I went home and told my wife about it, and it took us a long time to realize that we were not good parents." Obviously, we are not privy to all the particulars of Jimmy Carter's parenting, but this seems like an astounding reaction: If every parent who heard their kids say something along the lines of "You ruined my life!" determined that they had failed as parents, the roster of self-described good parents would probably be a null set.
At times, Kendall's approach can lead to a very different impression of a president than the one handed down by history. Ulysses S. Grant's reputation, derived largely from his tenure as a Civil War general, is that of a battlefield butcher who drank too much. With his family, however, he was a different person: He missed his children terribly when traveling, so much so that he dreamed about them and pleaded with his wife for updates on their activities. And when he was with them, he was even more attentive, making paper boats and reading to them from the novels of Charles Dickens. (Little Dorrit, it seems, was quite popular in the Grant house.)
Kendall does not just look at presidents and their children, but how these commanders in chief treated their wives as well. This is somewhat well-trod ground, although it is amusing to learn that Mamie Eisenhower stopped playing tennis with the temperamental Ike in order to preserve their marriage. Kendall also delves into marital infidelities, such as Warren G. Harding's, while largely ignoring the many affairs of John F. Kennedy, the office liaisons of Lyndon Johnson, and the well- and not-so-well-known trysts of Bill Clinton. The informed reader is left wondering whether some kind of political filter determined Kendall's approach and selections.
Of course, the big question in a book such as this is whether the subject being examined—the family lives of presidents—illuminates history's judgments on the presidents in question and their legacies to the nation. On this point I would have to say: probably not. Character is important, but family circumstances are so private and unique that they are not always the best portal through which to make these evaluations. If told that a divorced man with few intimate friends and standoffish relations with his children would be a president who would cut taxes, bolster the military, reform the tax code, win a major conflict, and improve America's reputation around the world, I suspect that most Americans would vote for such a man, regardless of his personal circumstances. We know this because the American people have already done so, and the man's name was Ronald Reagan.