Dad presidents: Raising kids in the Oval Office

US presidents vary between authoritarian figures and nappy changers, writes Olivia Kelleher

Dad presidents: Raising kids in the Oval Office

Being the leader of the USA isn’t very compatible with family life. Franklin D Roosevelt once told an aide that one of the worst things in the world was being the child of a president saying they led a “terrible life.”

Joshua Kendall in his new book First Dads Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama breaks US presidents down in to various categories of parenting.

All 43 presidents have been parents whether biologically or by adoption and they all fit into six categories. The presidents have either been the Preoccupied, Double Dealing dads, Playful Pals, Tiger Dads, the Grief Stricken or the Nurturers.

Joshua Kendall says when Franklin D Roosevelt died in 1945 most Americans felt as if they had lost their own father. Sadly his own children felt differently.

As Eleanor Roosevelt recalled in her autobio- graphy when their children wanted to have a private conversation with him they had to schedule an appointment.

Kendall says while FDR was a national leader his parenting skills left a lot to be desired.

“He would literally lean on his kids while giving a speech. His helpless needy side came out with them,” he says. Barack Obama is the first president to ever change a nappy. Kendall describes Obama as a “rare bird” as holders of the office go.

“He is a nurturing dad. He wants his daughters to do their own thing. In most cases sons and daughters end up in the family business. Chelsea Clinton has spent her whole life serving her father being involved in campaigns from a very young age.

“She was six when he was running for governor. On the otherhand Obama has always been available to his girls. Even as busy as he is, he finds time for them.”

Kendall says the vast majority of presidents have been obsessed with politics to the detriment of their family.

He stresses that while Bill and Hillary Clinton undoubtedly love their eldest daughter they are both political animals, leaving Chelsea with little choice but to fit into their world.

Looking to the potential next US president Kendall states that Donald Trump would fit in to the preoccupied and authoritarian model. “Oh he never did diapers. He outsourced the children. Interestingly the kids are a lot more polished then their dad. There is a lot of vanity with Trump. He would be very much the preoccupied dad.”


Jimmy Carter might have remained a preoccupied dad forever had not his eldest son, Jack, confronted him with a thunderbolt a few years in to his post- presidency.

One day in the mid 1980s while they were hunting together, a tearful Jack blurted out: “Daddy, I’ve been wanting to tell you for years. I think the way you treated me as a child almost ruined my life.”

Carter recalled later his reaction was “anger at this ingrate”. “So I went home and told my wife about it, and it took us a long time to realise that we were not good parents.”

For a couple of years father and son refused to see each other, preferring to communicate only through letters, which were often emotionally charged.

After much soul-searching, Carter became sympathetic to Jack’s concerns, realising that he had, in fact internalised the harsh parenting style of his own father Earl.

“When I became a father, I emulated my daddy,” he reflected in 1996. “I was a naval officer. I gave my three boys orders. If they didn’t carry my orders out, they were punished. And it was only later … when my oldest son finally made me realise that I was not a good father,” he said.

Other presidents who fit the playful description include Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, James Buchanan, Chester Arthur and George W Bush.


Reagan was often too preoccupied with his own concerns to be able to understand what his children might be experiencing.

In the decades to come Patti would rarely feel acknowledged by her father. “His presence,” she once said, “felt like absence”.

While Ron, his other child with Nancy, has fond memories of swimming and playing catch with his father, he, too felt the distance, noting that “there is something that (Dad) holds back. You get just so far.”


The hardworking George Herbert Walker Bush was constantly on the go. After settling in Texas in 1948, the budding oilman and his wife Barbara, kept shuttling back east, entrusting the care of their children to family friends for long stretches of time.

In the middle of 1959, as the couple organised the 800km move from Midland to Houston while Barbara was pregnant with their last child they farmed out their four sons for four months.

As Jeb Bush later recalled of that summer: “At least we weren’t put in a kennel”.

When this consummate networker ran for the US Senate in 1964, “there was no coffee gathering or chamber of commerce banquet too small for him to attend,” as former President George W Bush later put it.

That spring, Bush also missed George Jnr’s graduation from Andover.

“Even when we were growing up in Houston,” Jeb has stated, “Dad wasn’t at home to play catch. It was a matriarchal family. He was hardly around.”

On those rare occasions when he stayed put, Bush could be playful and entertaining.

For this reason, Jeb has also credited his father with inventing “quality time.” However, there was never much quantity.

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