Let’s face it. We never really cared that much about presidents as parents until a couple of months ago. Sure, we ogled the cute ones (Kennedy’s kids), tsk-tsked at the naughty ones (remember college girl Jenna Bush?), but we never really connected the two roles: national leader and parent. That changed when Sarah Palin came on the Election 2008 scene two months ago. Since her running mate John McCain is already in his seventies, one could see the likelihood she might end up in the Oval Office, the nation’s leader – and a mother! Which led many to scream, “But what about her children?” What kind of mother puts country first, before even her family?
Let’s turn the tables and ask: what kind of father does the same? As part of our Election 2008 coverage, Babble’s looking back at the forty-three presidents of the United States and ranking these First Dads from worst to best. We based our list on the following: how the kids turned out, anecdote, the presidency itself and this contributor’s whimsy. Smart, sassy daughters helped some otherwise blah president-dads score big. See also: our list of the wackiest presidential kids.
Now . . . let’s get judgy! – Madeline Holler
Thomas Jefferson (3rd – Democratic-Republican)
He had a kajillion kids – half of whom (the white ones) he even acknowledged! He freed some of the children he fathered with his teen slave, Sally Hemings, but never stepped up and said, “They’re mine and here’s part of my estate.” Sorry, Jefferson, nice profile on the nickel, but as a father you make us feel dirty.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (32nd – Democrat)
Great president, lousy father. His five kids had 19 marriages, 15 divorces and 29 kids. Perhaps his own odd marriage to Eleanor – and the fact that he let his mom run his life – wasn’t the best example a father could set for the kids. This family would make a riveting multi-episode project for Dr. Phil.
George Herbert Walker Bush (41st – Republican)
Where to start? Eldest son George W. was so in need of his father’s approval he took his country to war! Next in line, Jeb, all but drove the getaway car for his brother’s stolen election. And Neil, oh, Neil!, you scurrilous businessman with a history of savings and loan scandals, taxpayer bailouts and, most recently, a timely educational software business that opened its doors just in time for No Child Left Behind.
James Madison (4th – Democratic-Republican)
This guy tried to do his best, raising Dolley’s son, John Payne, from a previous marriage. But Madison was notoriously too lenient on the boy. After Madison’s death, Payne spent every last penny left to him and his mother, forcing her to sell off the valuables. Kids need limits and a strong financial education, Mr. President. “No” is love .
Andrew Jackson (7th – Democrat)
This leader could have been the 19th Century equivalent of a baby-sling wearing, man-nursing, Dr. Sears-espousing, stay-at-home dad for all we care, but he’d still get ranked with the worst. Because anyone who is prick enough to force entire communities of families down a Trail of Tears to resettle in Oklahoma – Oklahoma! – couldn’t possibly have been a good father. Jackson didn’t actually sire any biological kids, but he adopted one of his twin nephews and, ironically, an orphaned Creek Indian. He also served as guardian to a bunch of nieces and nephews. Still.
John Adams (2nd – Federalist)
Sure, he fathered a future president, but he also produced a raging alcoholic, Charles, who suffered from severely low self-esteem. His absentee father showered all available attention and approval onto John Quincy Adams instead. Congrats, John, openly playing favorites has earned you a spot with our crappy First Dads.
John Quincy Adams (6th – Democratic-Republican)
Fine, perhaps mental illness ran in the Adams family, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Which is how John Q. Adams’s son George (John Adams’s grandson) wound up committing suicide after suffering lifelong depression. John Q. inherited his namesake’s lack of fatherly devotion.
Chester A. Arthur (21st – Republican)
We’re not real impressed with Chester as a father. He sheltered his daughter. His son was a playboy who chose a life of leisure instead of serious work. We need better results from our national father-leaders! Speaking of which . . .
George W. Bush (43rd – Republican)
We’ll dismiss Jenna’s two no-contest misdemeanors (underage drinking, using a fake ID) as typical University of Texas fun. And Barbara getting clocked for driving 120 mph? Ahhh, the hubris of youth. It’s this unfeeling rejoinder from Daddy W. that is a telling look inside his not-so-fatherly mind: when Jenna asked him not to run for president, back in 1999, he told her that he and Laura needed to live their own lives. Well, sure, but . . .
Ronald Reagan (40th – Republican)
The Gipper had two wives and four kids who survived into adulthood, including conservative radio host Michael Reagan and the wild-and-liberal Patti Davis. What gets Reagan ranked with the worst is this small but very telling detail: he and Nancy never once attended a performance by their rather accomplished ballet dancer son, Ron. How sad is that?
Benjamin Harrison (23rd – Republican)
We don’t know a whole lot about him as a dad. But as an uncle, he’s a skank – he married the niece of his first wife. Sprung from this dubious coupling was a daughter, Elizabeth, who led anything but a conventional Gilded Age life. She married at the spinstery age of 24, after having earned lots of degrees, and started an investment newsletter for women: “Cues on the News.” So why the bad ranking for Daddy Ben? He died when she was four. It’s hard to give him credit.
James Monroe (5th – Democratic-Republican)
Two daughters, one of whom was a total snob who reminded everybody of her wealth and importance. She managed to alienate all of France and Washington, D.C., without reprimand of her father, whom she was supposedly representing. What’s with the lack of discipline for these children of the early fathers of this nation?
A mixed bag, these dads, with lots of children who died early, became alcoholics and weren’t good with money. Harrison had to step in to take care of his grandkids to cover for his sorry-ass son.
As parents, these three were hampered by tragedy. Taylor lost a bunch of his kids to malaria (including one daughter who married Confederate President Jefferson Davis). McKinley had frail children and a frail wife, all of whom died young (his wife shortly after McKinley was assassinated). All three children of Franklin Pierce died young, including one who was killed in a train wreck – that Pierce himself witnessed.
Millard Fillmore (13th – Whig)
Fillmore had two kids but no grandkids. His son’s friend Grover Cleveland once described Millard Jr. as “odd in many ways” – which may mean that he was gay, but may also mean that he was just, you know, weird. We’ll call it a draw.
James A. Garfield (20th – Republican)
Garfield raised decent kids but here’s his standout info: he was totally obsessed with masturbation. He distributed tracts about its harms. And he condemned himself for his own self-lusting ways, even attributing the act to his own preoccupation with gay sex.
Grover Cleveland (22nd and 24th – Democart)
Born in a different century, this guy would have been booked on one of Maury Povich’s “DNA Testing/Help! I Married My Son’s Sister” episodes for sure. Prior to becoming president, Cleveland was fingered as a possible father to the illegitimate son of widow Maria Crofts Halpin – as was his best friend and law partner, Oscar Folsom – but only Cleveland stepped up to pay child support. Now things take a turn for the Woody Allen: at 49, while serving his first term in office, Cleveland married a 21-year-old Francis Folsom, whose upbringing he had supervised as the executor of her father’s estate. And guess who the girl’s father was? Oscar Folsom! Namesake and likely the real father of little Oscar Folsom Cleveland. By the way, Francis and Grover had five children, including daughter Baby Ruth, who is widely – and falsely – believed to have inspired the candy bar.
Lyndon B. Johnson (36th – Democrat)
On the one hand, his kids could probably really swear well since Dad was a heavy user of salty language. We like that. On the other hand, it’s possible he fathered a love child, which makes us feel defensive for Lady Bird. On good dad/bad dad, Johnson’s 50/50. Are we being too stingy?
Herbert Hoover (31st – Republican)
He had two successful sons. Fine. But he seems to have dedicated even more hours to his dam, Stanford University (he claims to have been the first student enrolled there), and his wife. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
Rutherford B. Hayes (19th – Republican)
Hayes practiced attachment parenting by taking his kids along to encampments six months at a time. Bonus points for starting a kid-friendly White House tradition: the Easter egg roll.
William Howard Taft (27th – Republican)
Calvin Coolidge (30th – Republican)
Coolidge appropriately sunk into a deep and debilitating depression after his son died from a blister on his toe. Wouldn’t you?
Dwight D. Eisenhower (34th – Republican)
Ike and Mamie’s only son to survive to adulthood (the other died at age three) turned out an awful lot like Dad (minus the elected offices). Career military, eventually an ambassador to Belgium under Nixon (his daughter’s eventual father-in-law . . . small world!).
George Washington (1st – Federalist)
While he and Martha didn’t have children of their own, he did help raise her son from a first marriage. Sadly, said stepson ripped him off at the end of his life. We’ll overlook that in favor of the big picture: as father of this nation, warts and all, we’re saying he did just fine.
Ulysses S. Grant (18th – Republican)
All four Grant kids turned out well – lots of military service and even a real estate developer all the way out west in California. His only daughter Nellie was his fave but she went ahead and pissed him off and married the son of an opera singer (then divorced him). Such independence means Daddy did something right.
Woodrow Wilson (28th – Democrat)
Before the Beatles’ White Album, Deepak Chopra, and hot, sweaty Bikram Yoga studios on every corner, Wilson’s daughter Margaret, a career woman and women’s advocate, went east to live in India when Gandhi was advocating peaceful resistance. She stayed unmarried and independent until her death in India when she was 57.
Warren G. Harding (29th – Republican)
Not a successful president, but a role-model for philanderers everywhere. This non-deadbeat made child-care payments to his mistress until his death in 1923. Harding fun fact: the “G.” stands for Gamaliel. (Think that’ll make a baby name comeback?)
John F. Kennedy (35th – Democrat)
Awkward. JFK’s kids were very, very young when he died. So how could we possibly say anything bad? Anyway, all those home movies from the beach looked fun. And surely letting John-John play under the desk in the Oval Office wasn’t just a photo op.
Richard Nixon (37th – Republican)
Awful, awful president. But as a father, he seems to have done alright. His daughters circled the wagons during the most humiliating parts of his failed presidential career and thereafter. Not every father earns that kind of loyalty.
Gerald Ford (38th – Republican)
Ford had a wacky early start in childhood with an abusive father, whom his mother left, taking little Gerry with her. His own kids are notable for their lack of drama, service to country and notable success.We think it takes a lot to break the cycle and all that.
Jimmy Carter (39th – Democrat)
Jimmy is father to four kids – three sons and Amy. We love that he enrolled Amy in D.C. public schools back in the day, and that Carter let her be a kid in the White House. We think it’s telling that she is also engaged in activism like her father but keeps a low profile. Fun Amy fact: she has a nine-year-old son. Think she’s a Babble reader?
Harry Truman (33rd – Democrat)
Total helicopter dad. His only child, a daughter and trained singer, performed at Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall to mixed reviews, including a very negative one in the Washington Post stating she couldn’t sing very well. What did Harry do? He gave the critic hell, of course, sending a letter with this threat: “I have just read your lousy review . . . I have never met you, but if I do, you’ll need a new nose.” Not very presidential. But oh, so fatherly.
Bill Clinton (42nd – Democrat)
Yes, yes, cigars and all that. So how in the world did Bill Clinton make it onto the best dads list? Chelsea. Good kid, great student, successful career-woman and maybe, just maybe, a future POTUS. During her mother’s presidential bid, she proved, just like Dad, she’s a natural campaigner.
Abraham Lincoln (16th – Republican)
Abe was way ahead of his time in terms of being an involved father and a Mr. Mom to his two youngest sons, Willie and Tad. The father and sons talked, sang, danced and recited poetry (so 1860s!). Lincoln even watched the kids when Mary Todd Lincoln was out doing her thing. Once a visitor caught the two boys pinning the lanky prez to the floor of the Oval Office. Sadly, Willie became ill after riding his pony in bad weather and eventually succumbed to typhoid fever. Even sadder, a few years later Tad was watching Aladdin and the Magic Lamp while Mom and Dad were having date night at the Ford Theater.
Theodore Roosevelt (26th – Republican)
You gotta love a father who is totally into his smarty pants daughter. In Teddy’s case: Alice, the only child from his first marriage. He unschooled her, let her hang out with boys and she pretty much ran her own life. She gave her rough-rider dad presidential advice – and he listened to it! She had affairs and wanted to become an “honorary homosexual.” Late in life, in an interview on 60 Minutes, she proudly proclaimed herself a hedonist. When you say “maverick,” we say “Alice.”
The dirt on the others:
James K. Polk (11th – Democrat) didn’t have children.
James Buchanan (15th – Democrat) had no kids, and was probably one of at least two gay U.S. presidents. He lived with William Rufus De Vane King, who would become Franklin Pierce’s vice president. Buchanan and King were known, derisively, as a committed couple. When King was appointed ambassador to France, he wrote to Buchanan: “I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation.” Awww. We nominate King for our Top 10 Sweetest Vice Presidents list.
Andrew Johnson (17th – War Union) had no kids (good thing; he was pretty dumb).