there a recipe for raising a future president, necessarily a confident
and secure individual? In First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped
, 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 Emersons 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 fathers 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 Roosevelts mother knows best principle
made FDR strive for separation from his mothers 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 sons lives,
as Nelle Reagan was for her child. They instilled into their sons
the ability to feel other peoples 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
homeat 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
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 namethus 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 womens
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 mens
successgenes, the environment, or Gods will.
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.