Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley lists the best and worst first fathers
What kind of dad really makes a kid feel like he could be president of the United States? And who doesn’t?
Brinkley, a biographer of Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Theodore Roosevelt and Walter Cronkite, spoke with The Washington Post about his favorite, and least favorite, first dads.
- Theodore Roosevelt Sr.
“He’s in a league of his own,” Brinkley says. The elder Roosevelt took Young Teddy to the Amazon, instilling in him a love and respect of the outdoors. He got his son private tutors in foreign languages, taxidermy lessons with a student of Audubon and weights after a bully beat up Teddy.
- Prescott Bush
George H.W. Bush’s dad was a patrician and a senator from Connecticut. “He didn’t just teach his son politics, he taught him how to be a true gentleman,” Brinkley says. “He was not an absentee dad.”
- John Adams
The United States’ second president, like George H.W. Bush, would be a father to a president himself, John Quincy Adams. “One of the things a good father can do is pass down a brand name that matters. And John Adams gave his son a brand that carried integrity — and a deep sense of public responsibility.”
- Leslie Lynch King Sr.
Brinkley doesn’t hesitate when choosing the worst dad to a modern president. Hands down, Gerald Ford’s father. The heavy-drinking King was abusive, and Ford’s mother left him 16 days after Ford’s birth. After a divorce, Ford’s biological father refused to pay child support. Ford, given the last name of his stepfather, is believed to have met his biological father only once. “His father gave him away.”
2: Roger M. Clinton Sr.
Roger Clinton was “an absentee father” to Bill Clinton, Brinkley said. Bill Clinton has recounted how his heavy-drinking stepfather beat his mother and how, as a young man, he once threatened Roger Clinton if he touched his mom like that again. Clinton’s biological father was William Jefferson Blythe Jr., an Arkansas salesman who died in a car crash before his son’s birth in 1946. Blythe had been married three times before he met Clinton’s mother, Virginia, a fact she said she learned from a 1993 Father’s Day article in The Washington Post.
- Barack Obama Sr.
The 44th president has memory of seeing his father only once. The elder Obama married Stanley Ann Dunham six months before his son’s birth in 1961. He told his new wife he had been married but was divorced — a lie. They separated shortly after the younger Obama’s birth, and his father did not contest a 1964 divorce. His mother’s second husband, Lolo Soetoro, would try to beat her, Brinkley said.
The big caveat
It’s important to note that presidents’ relationships with their own children often have transcended their own tough beginnings. Historians note that Ford, Clinton and Obama all have had close relationships with their children.