William Morrow/HarperCollins
ISBN: 0-688-15631-2
Is there a recipe for raising a future president, necessarily a confident and secure individual? In First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents, Bonnie Angelo provides some insights into the issue. She recounts the paths of eleven mothers of presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, “women blessed with common sense and uncommon wisdom,” and gives a composite portrait of a wife/mother/homemaker in midcentury America. Through slightly mythologized short stories the reader meets a host of real people surrounding the would-be presidents in their childhood, observes how “the high and mighty” deal with plain human problems and emotions, and witnesses clashes of culture and tradition.
         What is shared by all presidents is their recognition of a happy childhood or at least firm belief in one. Obviously, there is always revisionism and beatification of the presidents’ youth, but why do all presidents remember their childhood as idyllic? Mrs. Angelo gives an answer: their mothers. Because of their family matriarchs the future presidents were completely self-confident. Their mothers were pillars of comfort for their families, tutors, and friends who created cheerful and supportive worlds for their sons, gave them inner faith, serenity and security, and implanted beliefs and attitudes. Concentrating on mother-son relationships, Mrs. Angelo proves Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words true: Men are what their mothers made them.
         All of them were strong, self-assured, and intelligent individuals with diverse backgrounds who invested wit, knowledge, and energy in their children under the careful guard of unconditional love. These women also shared one more attribute: selfless love not expressed in words.
         A study has indicated that a father’s main concern for his sons is the choice of career, while mothers envision a future with no limits. In their view their sons are destined to excel. As Mrs. Angelo writes, “right or wrong, from her viewpoint you [the child] are always right.”
          Some of the future presidents had a hard time defining their identity as they grew up. Sara Roosevelt’s “mother knows best” principle made FDR strive for separation from his mother’s possessive love. Another matriarch, Rose Kennedy, exercised a powerful attachment to her sons. But Martha Truman, a strong woman, too, already knew how to let go of ties of affection between the mother and the son.
         These mothers encouraged their sons to stretch their horizons and ambitions, tend to spirit and mind, foster an iron will, and strive for self-improvement. They were role models and were able to turn even volunteer service into the equivalent of a career, as Dorothy Ford did. They fostered an adventurous spirit in their children, much like Dorothy Bush did. They were the directors and producers of their son’s lives, as Nelle Reagan was for her child. They instilled into their sons the ability to feel other people’s concerns, as Virginia Clinton did. They were bent on stressing accomplishments, as Lillian Carter was, the first presidential mother to have a career outside the home—at sixty-eight she joined the Peace Corps and went to India. Their vanity, apparent in Ida Eisenhower, was a strategy for their children. Competitiveness was bred into families, and the future presidents were nurtured by the drive to win. Due to their manipulativeness, Mrs. Angelo deducts, the young boys’ political skills might be attributed to their need to win their mothers’ approval, as it was in case of Rebekah Johnson.
         As Mrs. Angelo points out, all young presidents shared an interest in history. The notion of going into politics appeared to them quite naturally as a noble pursuit. Then, as mature men, they lived it and made it.
         The book may be seen as a combined family diary that reflects complex human relations in which the conflict of fathers and sons is reinterpreted as the conflict of daughters-in-law and mothers. Mothers were dominant over sons because of emotionally or physically distant fathers. Sometimes mothers were the balance between severe father and resentful sons. Most of the mothers had a powerful attachment to their fathers, and the link of influence stretched from grandfather to mother to son. Special mother-son bonds were developed and reinforced by the striking fact that six of the eleven presidential mothers gave their special sons their family name—thus they were singled out from the other children.
         The author is a shrewd observer who sees historical events through the eyes of American families from all levels of the social ladder; these women’s lives were entwined with the story of America at the end of nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, an era of enormous changes. She presents a comparative analysis of presidential families in which she tries to define who was in charge of these men’s success—genes, the environment, or God’s will.
         Mrs. Angelo’s praise of “values set in cement” and undeviating principles evokes an involuntary protest when she slips into an edifying and didactic tone. At times the narrative becomes a second-hand story painted in black-and-white and devoid of its original vivacity; the chapter about George Bush is a bit too idealized and Christmas-y, as opposed to the chapter devoted to Bill Clinton, which is too preachy in its moralistic musing.
         In First Mothers, Mrs. Angelo has presented a succession of presidential mothers’ portraits and an analysis of rapidly changing family dynamics. The author laments that the old good times when families had a sense of where they came from and small towns provided a secure community are gone. Now, when the boundaries between settlements dissolve or are swallowed by spreading city conglomerates, we are challenged to commence a new quest for our sense of identity.