Daddy Issues

Whatever happened to Leslie King, Jr?

He grew up to be president of the United States, but we know him as Gerald R. Ford, Jr.  Mr. Ford’s mother left his father (who was said to be abusive) 16 days after little Leslie’s birth.  Two years later, she married Gerald Ford, Sr. and though the future president was never formally adopted, he changed his name to reflect the shift in family.

I got to thinking about this when I saw a reference to Newton MacPherson, now known as Newt Gingrich.  Mr. Gingrich’s mother wed at 16 just long enough to get pregnant, left her husband and married Robert Gingrich, who adopted Newt, a few years later.

Mr. Gingrich is trying to usher Barack Obama into unemployment.  Mr. Obama, we all know, grew up a black kid in a white family, his African father leaving shortly after Mr. Obama’s birth.  His name, including the middle name Hussain, stayed the same, but he later wrote of the pain and dislocation caused by the absence of Barack senior.

What is it about men abandoned by their fathers being driven to seek higher office?  (Mr. Ford, it should be noted, was never elected to the presidency or vice presidency, but the drive was clearly there.)  Maybe I’m overstating the case.  Mr. Gingrich has not been elected president (nor is he likely to be), but his drive too, is obvious.  The statistical universe is limited to 44, Messrs. Ford and Obama are but two.

Still, Mr. Obama governs in the political shadow of Bill Clinton, born William Blythe III.  Unlike the other birth fathers, William Blythe, Jr. died in an automobile accident.  Mr. Clinton’s stepfather – Roger Clinton – was an abusive alcoholic.  That father figure is similar to what we know of Jack Reagan, who battled the bottle, had trouble keeping a job and was sire to Ronald Reagan, whose political shadow looms over Mr. Gingrich (and every other American Republican).

So that’s four of 44 and starting to look statistically significant.  Who else in recent memory?  John Kennedy’s father has been compared, with justice, to some of the more gruesome characters from Greek mythology; Richard Nixon’s father was said to be tyrannical skinflint who drove his sons hard.  That’s six for forty-four.  I have no idea what it was like coming up for Millard Fillmore and Rutherford B. Hayes.

They say people get the government they deserve and that government is a reflection of our nation’s psyche at any given moment.  So what does it say about us that so many of the men who are so driven to be the nation’s father figure have fraught histories with fathers – or father figures – of their own?

Clearly, it’s not about politics, since the ideological range runs from Ronald Reagan to Newt (MacPherson) Gingrich to Gerald (King) Ford to Bill (Blythe) Clinton to Barack Obama.  The gamut also runs from Mr. Reagan, who failed to recognize his own children (long before the Alzheimer’s set in) to doting family men like Messrs. Ford and Obama.

I remember reading that one factor bringing together our founding fathers (no pun intended) was that colonial America offered few outlets for people of exceptional ability.  Academia and commerce were embryonic; the military was a vestige of an empire whose locus was elsewhere.  Even the opportunities offered by colonial government were limited, but the concentration of talent in that one realm likely had as much to do with the birth of the nation as any of Britain’s foolish blunders.

Two hundred and thirty-five years on, we seem to be a nation led by men with something to prove to absent fathers.  A sobering thought as we head into the primaries.

© Mark Floegel, 2011

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