How Mothers (and Fathers) Make Presidents

  • Share
  • Read Later
The morning that Richard Nixon left the White House, he told the staff, with tears in his eyes: "My mother was a saint!"

It was true, by all accounts. Hannah Nixon was a saint. Of course, if Nixon had decided that his goodbye speech called for impartial candor, he might have added: "And my father was a lout!"

Freud said something about the mama's boy having the "feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success." Mothers are often president-makers. But complications arise.

There seems to be a sort of presidential configuration — saintly mother, loutish father. You see the pattern in Ronald Reagan's parents back in Illinois, and, God knows, you see it in John Kennedy's — Mother Rose off to mass every morning (if not off to Paris to buy clothes), and Papa Joe off to Gloria Swanson's bed in Hollywood. Bill Clinton's mother Virginia Kelley, though no saint in any sense that would impress Rome, had a saint's devotion to her boy, while his father died in an accident before Bill was born and his stepfather enacted the part of the muzzy, drunken male.

In 1914, when Lyndon Johnson was in the first grade in the Hill Country of Texas, he was asked to read a poem to his classmates and their parents. The poem he chose was "I'd Rather Be Mama's Boy."

But it won't do to be saccharine about these matters. One conqueror, Julius Caesar, had a famous dream in which raped his mother. What did that mean?

The idea of Mother's Day vibrates with a residual impulse to canonize mothers, even though a feminist might say that the habit of doing so ought to vanish, unlamented, when the conditions producing wifely and motherly martyrdom (Hannah Nixon's or Rebekah Johnson's, for example) also recede. It can only be a good thing for women — right? — when they are not called upon to be saints in the old style of forbearance and abnegation, asked to lead a life that would wither a woman like Rebekah Johnson and leave her more embittered than her children, the once-a-year sentimentalists, would know.

On the other hand, if you drain the sentimentality out of Mother's Day, you may have nothing left. How to deal with such a hole in the calendar? Should we declare a new holiday, to be called Daycare Day, to honor a new cultural arrangement?

What difference does a mother make? Rearrange a few biographies. Suppose Nixon had been raised by a mother more along the lines of, say, Winston Churchill's — Jennie Randolph, no saint but a fairly negligent absentee? Would that have made Nixon Churchillian? Suppose, at the other extreme, that Nixon had been dealt the hand (a straight flush) of little Franklin Roosevelt. Suppose Nixon had grown up — not in his bleakly struggling Whittier, California, with the gas station and the saint and the angry, punitive Dad — but as a darling of the Hudson River gentry, doted upon as an only child by an aging gentleman father and by a mother who loved Franklin and indulged him and obsessed upon him, and controlled his life and income to an almost embarrassing degree, even after he had become the most important man in the world.

On the other hand, what if Nixon had spent most of early childhood in a daycare center? Would that have made any difference in what he became? Would he have been better socialized? Less furtive? Would he have interacted more candidly with his peers? Would his smile have been agreeably synchronized with his words, rather than weirdly contradicting them? Would he have become president? Would his presidency have ended in the shambles of Watergate?

If Jack Kennedy had been sent to daycare, would he have chased so many women when he grew up? More, perhaps? Would it have made any difference either way? Actually, all those nannies amounted to the daycare of the wealthy. In any case, the parental influences seemed perversely symmetrical: it was from his father that John Kennedy learned the womanizing, and from his mother that he somehow acquired his curious aversion to being touched.

We will have to sort these matters out all over again when we start having women presidents. Will it be fathers who primarily form women presidents? Will the fathers be saints or — like, say, Jackie Kennedy's dad — feckless rogues?

Meantime, happy mother's day to Barbara Bush, who wins both ways. Her son is president and her husband is no lout.