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The First Kids Often Finish Last

Children of presidents must live in Dad's shadow.

August 02, 2004|Doug Wead | Doug Wead is author of "All the President's Children" (Atria Books, Simon & Schuster, 2003).

Shortly after his father won the presidential election in 1988, I sat with George W. Bush in his office on 14th Street in Washington, D.C.

I was an advisor to the incoming administration, and he was talking about who was going to work in the White House and who would work on the Inaugural Committee. In the middle of this conversation, he sighed and asked rhetorically, "What's gonna happen to me?"

"Do you want me to do a memo on what happens to presidential children?" I asked.

"Sure," he said. And so began a study that would last 15 years.

Children of presidents have led armies, written bestselling books, run universities, served in the Cabinet. Eight went to Congress, seven have been ambassadors and now two have become presidents. But they have also suffered higher-than-average rates of divorce, alcoholism, suicide and premature death. I interviewed 19 of the 27 living children and they all agreed: The disadvantages outweigh the advantages.

There is practically a curse on namesakes. John Adams II, William Henry Harrison Jr. and Andrew Johnson Jr. all died as young alcoholics. Others died from apparent accidents, including Andrew Jackson Jr., shot while hunting. Calvin Coolidge Jr. died after developing a blister on the White House tennis courts. He was 16 years old.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday August 09, 2004 Home Edition California Part B Page 11 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Presidents' children -- In Doug Wead's Aug. 2 commentary about the pressures on presidential offspring, it was incorrectly stated that Jeb Bush was governor of Florida at the time of a 1997 conversation the writer had with George W. Bush. Jeb Bush, only gearing up to run for the office, was not yet governor.

I was 11 years into my study when John F. Kennedy Jr. disappeared over the Atlantic. Chills went down my spine. His early death is more than a coincidence of history, I thought.

There is enormous stress on these young people. From the time they are little children, people come up and ask, "When are you going to run for president?" Most people believe that the trauma for these kids is the limelight, the pressures of living in the fishbowl. Actually, most of them told me the White House was the best part of the deal.

The real trauma for the children is the loss of a personal identity, and it is an ongoing struggle for the rest of their lives. No matter what they do or say or accomplish, they will always be known as the children of presidents. Unless, of course, they become president themselves.

This is the crisis that the Kerry and Bush daughters will face in the coming weeks. The more they immerse themselves in their fathers' campaigns, the deeper the identification. Pundits fill the airwaves discussing how the Kerry and Bush children affect the campaign; no one seems to care how the campaign will affect the children.

In 1997, I called then-Texas Gov. Bush to ask whether he was going run for president. National polls showed him ahead. "I'm not going to do it," he said.

"Why not?" I asked. When would the planets ever again be so aligned? His brother was governor of Florida, there were early primaries in big states where name recognition was everything. "Because of the girls," he answered. "They would be in college and it would ruin their lives."

"Did it ruin your life?" I asked.

"No," he said after a pause. "It made my life."

My study showed that presidential daughters may be in a tougher position than the sons. The role of today's woman is a moving target, and the Bush and Kerry daughters must meet everyone's expectations. They must care about serious issues but not be bores, they must be career oriented without being elitist or arrogant, they must be fashionable and trendy without being snobs. They must "act natural" and "be themselves" but must not make any mistakes.

I suspect that first daughter Jenna Bush set the right tone a few weeks ago. While waiting on the tarmac at a Detroit airport, she stuck out her tongue to the world. The cameras clicked and the traveling press corps laughed with delight. They understood that to get through this, the Bush daughters would have to stay calm and not take it all too seriously. Like a rabbit caught in a snare, the more they fight it, the tighter the grip on them. If it has been a burden to many children before them, they can take heart from the president. After all, it made his life. Maybe it will make theirs as well.

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