Fathers, sons, and the presidency

TO look back through the years is to see presidents in rebellion against their fathers and presidents in thrall to them, presidents trying to be bigger and better than the fathers who let them down (Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan) as well as presidents living out the destinies that their fathers scripted for them (John F. Kennedy, William Howard Taft). It’s to behold the inevitably fraught father-son dynamic playing out on the gaudiest stages, with the most profound consequences.

Did Clinton’s unappeasable needs come from the enormous hole that his father left? Did Obama develop his aloofness early, as a shield against the kind of disappointment that his father caused him?

The particular imprints of fathers on sons have been conspicuous in the leading characters from the most recent presidential elections. Paul Ryan was just 16 when he discovered his father dead of a heart attack. He grew up fast, and became zealous about physical fitness. Mitt Romney was trying to complete his own father’s failed quest for the presidency, and at the start of debates where he was allowed notepaper, he’d scrawl “Dad” on the blank sheet.

Al Gore, too, was attending to the unfinished business of his father, who had made it to the Senate but never the White House. And John McCain, the son and grandson of four-star admirals in the Navy, was trying to do those generations of men proud.