In January 2009, we’ll have a new crew of presidential children in the White House. Though it’s an unelected office, the position of Presidential Child has always been a tricky one. Some have executed their involuntary duties with grace, while others have scandalized the nation. – Liza Featherstone
After James Madison’s death, his stepson John, a gambler, thief and alcoholic, betrayed his mother by trying to sell off his father’s personal effects.
No, not Chelsea Clinton, who’s never been much of a country girl, despite being the daughter of the Bubba-in-Chief. The winner here is blueblood John Adams II, son of John Quincy Adams, who married his first cousin Mary Catherine Hellen in the White House in 1828.
Letty Tyler Semple, the stunningly beautiful daughter of John Tyler, was still grieving her mother when the president married Julia Gardiner, a young New York socialite and department store model. All Julia’s efforts to befriend Letty were rebuffed. Two decades later, Letty would accuse Julia of seducing her own husband, James A. Semple.
Most Unjustly Criticized
Robert Lincoln was a university student in the early years of the Civil War, drawing fire from some contemporaries. One editorialist fumed: “Is an education more necessary in his case than with the sons of other people? Verily, he who has done so much to call the youth of the nation to arms should let his own son set the example.” Robert Lincoln: his generation’s Private Ryan. Such polemics weren’t fair to the young Lincoln, who was eager to fight. His parents, who’d already lost one child to typhoid, were understandably eager to spare their eldest. Robert did eventually prevail, serving in the Union Army right after he graduated from Harvard.
Best Use of the White House
Irwin McDowell Garfield, according to Doug Wead’s 2004 book All the Presidents’ Children (a great source for gossip and insight on this subject), used to ride down the White House staircases on his bicycle.
Alice Roosevelt, daughter of Teddy, had a pillow with her personal motto emblazoned in needlepoint: “If you can’t say something good about someone, come sit by me.” The president, exhausted by his daughter’s many Oval Office interruptions, once said, “I can run the country or attend to Alice. I cannot possibly do both.” She chewed gum, appeared in public with a pet snake, smoked, gambled at the racetrack, shot at telegraph poles from a train and played poker. When the Roosevelts moved out of the White House in 1909, Alice buried a voodoo doll of Nelly Taft, the incoming first lady, in the White House lawn. A congressman’s wife described Alice at a White House party a couple years later, holding “the very scant skirt quite high, and when the band played, kicked about and moved her body sinuously like a shining leopard cat.”
Teddy Roosevelt Jr.’s dad remains to this day a cultural icon of bygone real-manhood – hunter, military hero, symbol of the can-do Progressive era – that present-day presidents and candidates still pathetically attempt to emulate. A more neurotic boy might have had a breakdown living in such a shadow, but Teddy, Jr. opted instead to surpass Dad with his own military career – winning every possible award and honor that a soldier serving in the ground forces could attain. Dad’s image did have some downsides for Junior. Once, while the boy was in boarding school, he took a drubbing in a football game from some young men who said they “wanted to see if he is made of as good stuff as his father.” A newspaper headline describing the incident read: “Teddy Jr. Pummelled for Being President’s Son.”
Though easy to mock, two women in particular seem to have been the most principled political activists of the White House children. Amy Carter, a child during her father’s presidency, grew up to attend Brown University, where she lived in a student co-op full of acidheads, and hung out with aging countercultural icon Abby Hoffman. Yet she was also serious about opposing injustice. She was arrested for protesting apartheid and CIA recruitment on campus.
Patti Davis dropped Reagan’s last name because she so disagreed with his politics: she was pro-choice, pro-gay rights and opposed to nuclear weapons. (Davis’s rebellion did go beyond the political: she also posed as a Playboy model, experimented with drugs, and wrote a book about her dysfunctional family.)
Sadly, there is too much competition here to name a winner. Other than death from childhood diseases – which, of course, used to be common throughout the population – the biggest danger to presidential children seems to have been alcoholism, to which Doug Wead – a former aide to George W. Bush – found that they succumb at much higher rates than the general population. According to America’s Royalty (another good source on presidential families), Martin Van Buren once wrote to his son John – a notorious partyer who eventually died of kidney failure in 1810 – “What you may regard as an innocent and harmless indulgence may take you years to overcome in the public estimation . . . I was told you were twice carried drunk from the race course.” Looking at the long list of casualties, one can’t help feel a pang of empathy for presidential-son W.’s own struggle with booze.
What a crew, right? But don’t expect so much dysfunction and mayhem from America’s next First Children. In recent years, presidential kids seem psychologically healthier, partly because their parents have been more careful to shield them from media scrutiny. Contemporary White House parents may also – mirroring trends among other well-educated parents – be more sensitive about letting the kids find their own way, compared to past presidents who obsessed about kids’ impact on their own legacy. Poor George Washington Adams, son of John Quincy Adams, was driven to alcohol (and eventually, most historians think, suicide) by his father’s relentless bullying; among other conflicts, the poor fellow wanted to study literature and poetry at Harvard, and Dad dismissed this pursuit as too trivial and girly for a presidential son. It’s hard to imagine Boomer parents like the Clintons or the Bushes pressuring their kids in this manner – not surprisingly, their kids are turning out better. Chelsea Clinton positively glowed on the campaign trail for mom this year, while both Jenna and Barbara – apparently past their DUI years – seem to be leading happy lives filled with worthy public service. All this bodes well for 2009’s incoming presidential children.