There are three well known leadership styles — democratic, laissez-faire and autocratic. Leaders who are small-D democrats have the final say, but they involve others in the decision-making process. In contrast, laissez-faire leaders let subordinates take action, and autocratic leaders rarely consult others.
These categories obviously apply to the way American presidents have conducted the nation's business. They also apply to way they have behaved as parents. For most presidents, who they are in the West Wing is pretty much who they are as family men.
I count some of our best-known presidents among the small-D democrats in leadership style: George Washington, James Monroe, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford and
The buck stopped with President Truman, but he also wanted to hear all sides of an issue. "Pooled brains on important subjects," he said, were much better "than trying to have one head do the work." As a father too he was anything but autocratic. In 1946, when first daughter Margaret Truman decided to become a singer after finishing college, her mother, Bess, pushed back. Truman heard them out, then sided with Margaret: "If she wants to be a warbler," he wrote to his mother, "and has the talent and will to do the hard work necessary to accomplish her purpose, I don't suppose I should kick."
The 20th president, James Garfield, was a
At home, Garfield had similar instincts about enfranchisement. When he was a congressman, he supported President Rutherford B. Hayes' many vetoes; Garfield even wanted to call the family dog Veto. But when Abram, then 8, the youngest of his five children, protested, he backtracked. "You are quite right," Garfield told his son, "the whole family ought to be heard on the subject. … Each man, woman and child [will] have a vote."
Republican Ulysses S. Grant and Democrat Franklin Roosevelt both adhered to the laissez-faire style. Grant did not know how to set any limits with his four children. When his 13-year-old son Jesse wanted to withdraw from prep school, Grant immediately caved, sending a telegram, "Come home at once." As his wife, Julia, put it, "The General had no idea of the government of children. He … allowed them to do pretty much as they pleased." This penchant carried over to Grant's administration; he proved incapable of disciplining aides who then embroiled him in ruinous scandals in his second term.
But laissez-faire leadership isn't necessarily problematic. As a family disciplinarian, FDR was "the world's worst," his son Elliott later wrote. But Roosevelt's 12 years in office were a stunning success because his capable deputies made good use of the latitude he gave them.
There are a few cases in which the family man and the president diverged in style. Dwight Eisenhower was an authoritarian dad. Of his father's parenting, the twentysomething John explained to a reporter in the early 1940s, "When he told me to do something, I did it!" But as president, Eisenhower's biographers agree he relied on consensus-building. He once said he counted the "power of persuasion" as "one of the fundamentals of democracy."
As with Ike, Jimmy Carter's military background also seeped into his parenting. Though as President Carter put a premium on peaceful negotiations — consider the Camp David Accords — as a father, the former naval officer insisted on taking charge. "I gave my three boys orders," Carter admitted in 1996. "If they didn't carry my orders out, they were punished."
This year’s presidential contest appears to pit a democratic type against an autocrat. If elected,
On the other hand, presumptive Republican nominee
It is impossible to know in advance how effectively presidents will tackle the challenges of their times. What is predictable is the style in which they will do it. There are exceptions, but for the most part, what you see in the parent is what you get in the president.
Joshua Kendall is the author of the recently published "First Dads: Parenting and Politics From George Washington to Barack Obama."
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