First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama


First Dads offers a fascinating glimpse at the personal lives, parenting styles, and historical legacies of our nation’s presidents. Written in an accessible, engaging style with good flow and pacing, the text should appeal to anyone with an interest in parenting and appetite for history or celebrity.

Kendall doesn’t offer up much by way of parenting advice, aside from confirming the old Goldilocks theory: not too permissive and not too authoritarian, but just right, has proven best for America’s “first kids” too. A novel conclusion rocked one of my core beliefs though. I’ve always thought everyone should strive to be the best parent they can be, and that those who manage and attend to children well will naturally excel in other areas too. But Kendall says the best dads haven’t made for the most effective presidents. It’s a new lens through which to consider our attempts to “have it all.”

In this respect and others, I wonder whether Kendall can possibly offer the right take on the vast number of presidencies and historical events he covers. His presentation of the likelihood of George Washington having an illegitimate son, for example, differs with Thomas Fleming’s extensive research on the subject. (Kendall basically says, “Could have been true,” while Fleming writes in The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers that it almost certainly didn’t happen.) Generalizations about the effectiveness of the Obama administration also may be premature.

That said, First Dads is well worth reading, even if just for interesting factoids like the following:

As Grant’s volunteer aide-de-camp, Fred would live and eat in his father’s tent for most of the war. On many a night, father and son would sleep side by side.

Decades later, the White House staff was still telling stories about how “there was never a morning in the year that the whole five did not go and pile in to the bed with President and Mrs. [Teddy] Roosevelt.”

Play was as essential to the President as to his offspring. That Christmas, between lunch and dinner, Roosevelt squeezed in several hours of single stick—a form of fencing—with two friends from his Rough Rider days . . . whom he dubbed his “playmates.”

Like TR, [Hayes, a] Republican, who easily identified with the concerns of children, would also insist that it was the President’s duty to help protect America’s little guys from its big guys.


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