Like Father, Like Candidate

How lessons learned around the family table are influencing the way would-be presidents are running.


"My father imbued me with 'duty, honor, country.' He literally devoted his life to service in the Navy." —John McCain

By + More

In E-mail responses to U.S. News, he recalled another lesson of his father's:"Hard work brings dignity and pride. And the man sweeping out the mill is every bit as valuable as the man who owns that mill." Asked what he admired most about his father, Edwards said, "His work ethic and his dedication to his family. I have never seen anyone work as hard as my father. And I know his motivation was providing a better life for his family. And I learned to never lose faith." This has been a pivotal trait for Edwards as he tenaciously pursues his campaign despite stalling in the polls.


Hugh Rodham was a tight-fisted small- business man who "was always strict with his kids," Democrat Hillary Clinton wrote in her 2003 memoir, Living History. The family lived in the affluent Park Ridge section of suburban Chicago, but she tells how, if she or her brothers forgot to screw the cap back on a toothpaste tube, her father would throw it out the bathroom window and order them to go outside, sometimes in the snow, to find it. "That was his way of reminding us not to waste anything," she wrote.

Hugh Rodham also was a conservative Republican and wasn't shy about pushing his views on his children. "We all accommodated his pronouncements, mostly about Communists, shady businessmen, or crooked politicians, the three lowest forms of life in his eyes," Clinton recalled. "In our family's spirited, sometimes heated, discussions around the kitchen table, usually about politics or sports, I learned that more than one opinion could live under the same roof." She worked for GOP nominee Barry Goldwater in his 1964 presidential campaign.

"He was a tough taskmaster, but we knew he cared about us," she added of her father. He drilled his daughter in fourth-grade math when she fell behind, and taught her to play baseball, football, and basketball. "He never said any career was off limits to me because I was a girl, which was very important," Clinton told U.S. News. "He always encouraged and pushed me to be my best." His letters offered her "tender love and advice" during her bouts with self-doubt while she was at Wellesley College. There were difficult times as their views on politics and society diverged and she became more liberal, but she says of him: "I was thankful for the life, opportunities, and dreams he passed along to me."

Hugh Rodham suffered a massive stroke five days after his 82nd birthday in 1993. "I believe that when our hearts are raw with grief," she wrote in Living History, "we are more vulnerable to hurt, but also more open to new perceptions." She found herself newly aware of the need to "remold society by redefining what it means to be a human being in the twentieth century, moving into a new millennium"—ideas she talked about in a speech in Austin the day before his death. "We need a new politics of meaning," she added. "We need a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring." These are themes she talks about in her campaign, and some of her friends trace their genesis to the deep reflections prompted by her father's death.


Barack Obama never knew his father well, although he was named after him. To this day, his dad is a gauzy figure, an ephemeral collection of stories and pictures, vague images and impressions passed along by other family members. He is a mythical vessel into which Obama once poured his expectations and dreams—as many voters are doing with him. "That my father looked nothing like the people around me—that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk—barely registered in my mind," Obama wrote in his memoirs.

The father, a brilliant young university student from the Luo tribe in Kenya, was born on the shores of Lake Victoria in a poor village called Alego, where Obama's grandfather was a farmer and elder of the tribe. "My father grew up herding his father's goats and attending the local school, set up by the British colonial administration," Obama recalled. He won a scholarship to study in Nairobi and in 1959 arrived at the University of Hawaii as the institution's first African student. He studied "econometrics" and excelled. He met "an awkward, shy American girl, only 18," from Kansas named Ann Dunham, and they fell in love.