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Children of the White House

New book by Doug Wead shares a look at the extraordinary people born to American presidents throughout history.
/ Source: TODAY

Growing up in the White House has always meant growing up in front of the public. From the young Kennedy children playing and showing off for their parents and the cameras, to the weddings of Luci Johnson and Tricia Nixon, from Susan Ford’s prom to a school-age Amy Carter, being the son or daughter of a president isn’t always easy. In his new book “All the Presidents’ Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America’s First Families” former George Herbert Walker Bush aide, Doug Wead, traces the history of presidential offspring. He discusses the book on “Today.” Here's an excerpt:

“One of the worst things in the world is being the child of a President. It’s a terrible life they lead.”


Shortly after the 1988 election I sat with my boss, George W. Bush, in his office at campaign headquarters on Fourteenth Street only three blocks from the White House. As a liaison to coalitions during the campaign I had learned to read the various moods of George W. as we called him. His father had just won the presidency and, in a few days, the whole tedious and cumbersome business of a presidential transition would be charging into high gear.

“So what happens now?” he asked, leaning back in his chair and kicking his feet up on the desk. It was a rhetorical question, but it was nonetheless an unusual moment for a man who seldom took time for self-reflection. He was not sticking around Washington; that much had been settled. He was going back to Texas and a life of his own.

“Want me to do a paper on presidential children?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. He later told me that he thought no more about it. He certainly did not “commission” a study on presidential children, as some news sources later claimed. I was offering a free memorandum, and he was accepting a free offer. That was all. As part of the campaign staff, I had churned out a thousand pages for his father, why not a few for him?

The 44-page report was completed within three weeks and it was deeply troubling. Research showed that being related to a president brought more problems than opportunities. There seemed to be higher than average rates of divorce and alcoholism and even premature death. Some presidential children seemed bent on self-destruction.

Within days my 1988 report to George W. Bush, the son of the new president-elect, was secreted away in a confidential file, never intended to see the light of day, but the stories I had found continued to haunt me. The expectations set by the public for presidential children — and by the presidential children themselves — were murderously high. Eleven years after I put away my report, John F. Kennedy, Jr., and his wife disappeared while piloting a plane over the Atlantic. Yet another presidential child had died too soon.

On the bright side, one encountered an expansive oasis in this bleak landscape. Presidential children had written dozens of books, led armies, founded some of America’s greatest corporations, helped build some of her finest educational institutions, and worked tirelessly to correct social and political injustice. Lyon Tyler was the president of the College of William and Mary. James Garfield led Williams College in Massachusetts. Helen Taft Manning became dean of Bryn Mawr College when she was only twenty-five years old, and fought tirelessly for the rights of working women. James “Webb” Hayes and Robert Todd Lincoln were among the few exceptions to the curse of the presidential child in business. Both were hugely successful. Hayes founded what eventually became the Union Carbide Corporation. The daughters of Woodrow Wilson battled for woman suffrage and for safer working conditions for female factory workers. There were many great writers, especially in recent years, as evidenced by Margaret Truman’s popular murder mysteries, John Eisenhower’s critically acclaimed tome, “The Bitter Woods,” and Caroline Kennedy’s scholarly, reader-friendly books on the Bill of Rights and the right to privacy.

If premature death took the lives of far too many presidents’ children in early American history, that too was changing dramatically. Before the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, a presidential child could expect to die nine years before the general public, notwithstanding the educational and nutritional advantages a presidential child enjoyed. But after the Grant administration, a presidential child would actually outlive the public by six and a half years.

Some of the presidents’ children’s greatest achievements were in government and politics. Eight were elected to congress. Eleven presidents’ sons served in cabinet or subcabinet positions in administrations other than their fathers’. Many served ably as ambassadors, such as Charles Francis Adams who, during the Civil War, skillfully negotiated behind the scenes in London to cut off British support to the Confederacy and keep them from entering the war. The poet James Russell Lowell said that not even Grant himself had done the Union a better service than the Adams son, toiling away in his isolation in London. Robert Taft was nominated for the presidency three times at Republican National Conventions. Of course, John Quincy Adams, son of the second president, was elected to the White House himself, as was Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of the ninth American president.

Still, the news was overwhelmingly dark, at least compared to the bright and sunny optimism that permeated the 1988 postelection world of George W. Bush, the new president’s firstborn son. When I presented my report he was predictably unimpressed. And I was not surprised. Like Kipling’s “man,” he tended to be skeptical of news that was either too good or too bad; they were both imposters. I knew very well that my own amazement with the project would be a turnoff. The whole Bush family is understated. George W. cannot be stampeded into anything. The idea of a historical curse would not prompt the slightest curiosity or alarm. History could not easily threaten his life. This was particularly so because his self-esteem was inspired within and through his immediate family. Success was measured in terms of one’s moral fiber and sense of duty, not by some material measurement of achievement, or money, or title. Fear normally relates to loss. And the only thing that George W. Bush feared losing was his integrity, and that was in his own hands.

For the most part, my study was irrelevant to him. What happened to other presidential children meant nothing. He was not in the least superstitious. He made only one personal comment during my presentation. It was when I spoke of the eerie similarity between the Franklin Roosevelts and the George Bushes. Both families had five children, four boys and a daughter. Both had an additional child that died young. One Roosevelt went west, just as Neil Bush had done, one went to Florida, like Jeb, where he was elected to office, and finally, FDR, Jr., the firstborn and namesake, went home to New York where he ran for governor.

I took great pains to explain that it would all turn out very differently for the Bush family for many reasons. It was discreetly discussed among Bush friends that George W. was planning to return to the family base in Texas to run for governor someday, just as Jeb would run in Florida, and Neil would run in Colorado. Maybe one of them would win.

“What happened to FDR, Jr.?” George W. wanted to know.

“He lost,” I said. “In fact, no presidential child has ever been elected governor of a state.” He groaned. But six years later, George W. Bush was indeed elected the governor of Texas and in 1998 was reelected, winning 69 percent of the vote in an historic landslide.

It may be that he did not entirely forget the study I submitted to him in 1988. Nine years later, when he was leading in the national presidential preference polls, I asked him what he was going to do. “I’m not going to run,” he answered.

“And why not?” I asked, “You are at the head of the pack.”

“Because of the girls,” he said, referring to his twin daughters. “They would be in college then and it would ruin their lives.”

“Did it ruin your life?” I asked.

“No,” he paused, “It made my life.”

When George W. Bush was finally, narrowly ratified the winner of the 2000 presidential election, he became the first child of a president to win that office since John Quincy Adams, the first “heir apparent” in American history. Remarkably, that was not all he had in common with Mr. John Quincy Adams. Both men were named after their fathers, but with different middle names or, in the case of Bush, differently configured names. And both lost their general election vote total to a candidate from Tennessee — George W. Bush losing to Al Gore but winning in the Electoral College, and John Quincy Adams losing to Andrew Jackson but winning the presidency in the U. S. House of Representatives.

There was a time when George W. Bush was the archetypal presidential son, the heir apparent, headed for disaster, scandal or an early grave, and moving with all the confidence of a sleepwalker. Like many before him, he had the prerequisite drinking problem. Cousins and family members generously dubbed him “a late bloomer.” In 1988 I interviewed his younger brother, Marvin Bush, asking him if any of the new generation had a political future. “Jeb is the serious one,” Marvin replied without hesitation. “We have always thought that he would have a public career.”

“And what about George?” I asked. After all, he was the elder, the senior Bush of his generation.

“George?” Marvin laughed, “George is the family clown.” Marvin was not being entirely disrespectful. It was a reference in part to the role George had assumed after the death of younger sister, Robin, of leukemia at age three. He had become the family cheerleader, his mother once remarked. He had taken on the responsibility of keeping the family’s attention diverted.

Notwithstanding how history will eventually judge the presidency of the younger Bush, he is without doubt a renascent phenomenon among presidential children. What made the difference? Was the role of the presidential parents, George and Barbara Bush, significant?

There are some clear reasons why George W. was able to handle the stress that defeats so many other presidents’ children, reasons which we will examine in later chapters, but certainly part of the formula was a trusty weapon that he had discovered early in life, and one that he consistently employs to this day. Keep the “expectations” low. Success is relative. It takes the pressure off if they underestimate you. And if there is no pressure at all, well, who knows how far one can go?

On January 20, 2001, George W. Bush was inaugurated the forty-third president of the United States. The family “clown” was now the commander-in-chief, the most powerful man in the world. Even inside the family, brother Marvin had underestimated him, as had political rivals Governor Ann Richards and Vice President Al Gore and others before and after, even though in many cases they had been warned. Just as George W. had helped bring healing to the family in Texas after the tragic loss of Robin long ago, George W. was now bringing healing to the family after the father’s national election loss in 1992 to Bill Clinton.

In 1988, while writing my report on presidents’ children for George W. Bush, I struggled to find a positive slant to a very dark picture. Despite the cruel examples that preceded them, each new generation of presidents’ children has been filled with hope and almost naïve ambition. And so I ended my paper with a number of upbeat stories and references to John Quincy Adams, the son who had become president himself. “Can lightning strike twice in the same place?” I asked, and I closed my forty-four-page paper with the rather smarmy conclusion that “anything is possible.” That was 1988 and only twelve years later, indeed, the “impossible” had happened. Lightning had struck. George W. Bush, the president’s son, had become the president himself.

Excerpted from: “All the Presidents’ Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America’s First Families” bu Doug Wead. Copyright © 2003 by Doug Wead. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.