Of 'Lucky' Presidents and Strong Moms

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Doting mom: George W. Bush greets his mother, Barbara Bush

At noon on the day that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in Janury 1981, the Iranian hostage crisis ended.

With similarly eerie timing — luck running this time in the opposite direction — the American economic expansion seems to have run into what is at best a serious patch of weeds, just at the moment that George W. Bush is repopulating Washington with Republicans.

Some presidents are lucky, some are not. Clinton and Reagan had astonishing luck. They sailed through on the metaphysics of a sunbeam — something to do with temperament, and maybe with their mother's uncomplicated love.

Just guessing, I'd say George W. Bush ought to be a lucky president, Barbara's naughty, once-reckless, ingratiating boy. We shall see. You could argue his victory in the 2000 election either way, I suppose: as great luck (bitter Democratic version — the brother just happens to be governor of Florida, the legislature just happens to be Republican, and so on) or as doomy premonition (a fractured government, with a 50-50 Congress, forming up in a blizzardy winter; the market southbound; the pre-Christmas stores almost empty of customers; and the word "layoffs" beginning to recur in the headlines).

Where does luck come from? There's the kind that comes from design — you make your own. There's the kind that comes from birth. That would be the Democratic reading on Bush — the old joke about being born on third base and thinking you've hit a triple, a joke I first heard about his father in 1988. (Of course, Al Gore was born on third as well).

I have been fascinated for years, and half-persuaded, by the theory that luck in leaders emanates from their mother's love — or that a tendency toward ill luck arises from the shadow of their mother's lovelessness. The theory is simple-minded, and the evidence merely anecdotal. Still...

Most obvious example: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His mother doted upon him — and persisted in regarding him as a something of a child even when he became the most powerful figure in the word. Franklin was raised as mother's darling and prince of the realm. It has been plausibly argued that the entire New Deal and concept of alldaddy big government had its roots in the noblesse oblige of the Hudson River gentry to which Franklin was born to be benevolent paternalist lord. If one of the little people in the village needed help, of course the lord extended his hand.

Douglas MacArthur's vast self-confidence — his impression that he was a god — arose no doubt from his mother's slavishly single-minded devotion to him. She even moved to the town at West Point, just at the gates of the Military Academy, when Doug was a cadet. MacArthur possessed brilliance, no doubt, but also the luck that got him ashore at Inchon, despite its radical tides and sea walls and unsuitability for landing, an invasion that dramatically reversed the early disaster of the Korean war.

The converse case might be argued in the case, say, of Richard Nixon, a gifted but shadowed and almost defiantly unlucky man. You could argue it with Lyndon Johnson, the great flapping bird of ill omen, all crudity and genius and self-willed doom, shadowed by his mother's vexed unreliability and disapproval.

Young Bill Clinton, Virginia Kelley's golden boy, got the master bedroom in the house while his mother and stepfather slept in lesser quarters. She gave him a narcissistically masterful survivor's temperament. It worked.

How much of history is made by the leader's temperament? Roosevelt, arguably, got America through the two darkest passages (depression, world war) on the power of his temperament. The same may be said of Churchill, who got Britain through on will and character.

But of course the theory breaks down with Churchill, who had a lousy and negligent mother.

I confess that this is a primitive way of forecasting. But how else do we ever approach the uncertain future except with ignorance and superstition and hunches?

So let us hold before us the warm, funny, frank and wholly admirable image of Barbara Bush, and hope that she has produced, in her first son, a lucky man.