Presidential Fathers: The Most Powerful Men Can Be Involved Dads
Updated: Jan 5, 2021
Guest Post by Louis Livingston
What are the possibilities for effective “daddying” when dad is one of the most powerful and busiest people in the world, namely when he is President of the United States? That’s a study worth making, as I’ve tried to do in my recently published book Presidential Wives and Children: Their Political Influence.
It’s not surprising that some Presidents were remote, uninvolved, or preoccupied fathers. But others weren’t, and there are several on that side of the ledger that I want to discuss here. Let me start with two relatively recent presidents, Dwight Eisenhower (“Ike”) and Harry Truman, and then describe Theodore Roosevelt’s even more exuberant daddying style.
Eisenhower was physically separated from his family during World War II, when he was sent to Europe to command Allied military forces and then to supervise the D-Day invasion of France on June 6, 1944. That also was the date of his son John’s graduation from West Point, and D-Day responsibilities did not prevent Ike from being emotionally committed and attentive to John’s event 3,000 miles away. Ike was so focused on John that he brought his newly commissioned son to be with him in Europe a week after the D-Day landings.
Why John decided to attend West Point tells us a lot about the Eisenhower, father-son relationship. Ike wrote about a pre-war conversation they had when John was trying to decide whether to emulate his father by going to West Point or matriculate at a non-military college. At the time, John was considering an uncle’s offer of financial support to attend a college other than West Point, preparatory to becoming a lawyer in the uncle’s law firm. Instead of leaning on John by talking up dad’s alma mater, Ike was candid and balanced about the pros and cons of an Army career.
A few days after their conversation, John decided to attend West Point and told his father, “When you talked about the satisfaction you had in an Army career, and the pride you had in being associated with men of character, my mind was made up right then.”
The workaholic Ike later wrote that such family interactions were an avenue to “save” him from “degenerating” into a one-track professional “machine.”
Truman, whose presidency immediately preceded Ike’s, also had a close, supportive relationship with his only child, daughter Margaret. She wanted to become a professional singer, a career choice that initially did not please Truman, but he encouraged her to work hard to attain whatever her goals were. He was so supportive that, when a Washington newspaper gave one of her concert performances a poor review, the aging President Truman threatened in writing to beat up the music critic.
Published correspondence between Truman and his daughter shows that their relationship was mutually affectionate and encouraging, rather than political. Margaret Truman, like John Eisenhower, went on to become a successful writer, public servant, and involved parent.
The most engaged presidential dad in American history, in my opinion, was Theodore Roosevelt. He was the father of six children (two girls and four boys), most of whom had not reached their teenage years when he became president.
Busy as the President was, Roosevelt romped with his children, read to them, wrote and illustrated charming and informative letters to them when he had to travel, and made time for them. But he also insisted that they adhere to his definitions of appropriate behavior.
“I don’t think any family has ever enjoyed the White House more than we have,” he wrote accurately to one of his sons.
All four of Roosevelt’s sons shared their father’s passionate patriotism and distinguished themselves in the World Wars, the oldest of them winning the Congressional Medal of Honor. The postwar careers of all President Theodore Roosevelt’s children continued the values and public service modeled by their father.
Most historians agree that Presidents Eisenhower, Truman, and Theodore Roosevelt were among our finest presidents, who achieved that status while being engaged and helpful fathers. Daddying (whether they used the term or not) was a key component in these Presidents’ successful, demanding professional lives.
For Further Reading:
Theodore Roosevelt's Letters to His Children by Joseph Bishop
The One Bad Thing About Father (I Can Read!) by F. N. Monjo
Letters from Father: The Truman Family's Personal Correspondence by Margaret Truman
Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters by Barack Obama
"From Founding Father to Finding Dad(dy)" article by Allan Shedlin
Louis B. Livingston graduated from Yale, majoring in History, and Harvard Law School. After practicing law in New York and Oregon for nearly 40 years, he earned a master's degree in American History from Portland State University. In addition to his book Presidential Wives and Children: Their Political Influence he has written and published numerous articles about President Theodore Roosevelt.