Call it the father factor. To a remarkable degree, the top-tier presidential hopefuls for 2008, Democrats and Republicans alike, had fathers who played powerful roles in shaping their lives, their values, and even their approaches to politics. Most, in fact, are children of strict authority figures or patriarchs who instilled in their sons and daughters the classic American values of self-discipline, perseverance, and the work ethic. They also taught them not to quit despite adversity. The result is a brood of candidates who are fighting one of the most prolonged, never-say-die nominating contests in history.
"My family had our share of struggles during my childhood," Democrat John Edwards told U.S. News. "But my father never lost faith. It's a lesson that has served me well during challenging times in my life." Republican John McCain had a similar observation. "My father imbued me with [devotion to] duty, honor, country," McCain said. "He literally devoted his life to service in the Navy.... For a long time I lived under my father's shadow."
Republican Mitt Romney's dad served as governor of Michigan and ran for president in 1968. One benefit of his experience was a series of practical lessons. "He said, 'Don't get involved in politics until your kids are raised and you have become financially independent,'" Romney told U.S. News last week. George Romney also had a favorite saying: "There is nothing as vulnerable as entrenched success"—a warning against complacency that his son now applies to all aspects of his campaign.
Democrat Barack Obama's story is different: His father left the family when "Barry" was 2. "The most profound lesson I got from my father," Obama said in an interview, "was to try to be a good father myself. I saw the effect of his absence not only on me but on my siblings."
Most of the candidates seem to have spent much of their lives trying to live up to their dads' expectations or redeem their earlier struggles. To understand their character and the way they would govern, there is no better place to look than at what they learned from their fathers.
Aside from George W. Bush and John Quincy Adams, who followed their fathers into the White House, few candidates in U.S. history have had such a close family connection with politics as Willard "Mitt" Romney. His father, George, was popular as governor of Michigan in the '60s and ran for president unsuccessfully in 1968. One need only glance at photos of father and son, both with chiseled features and clean-cut good looks, to see the bloodline.
George taught his four children to always "make good choices" based on the simple virtues of honesty, humility, and commitment to family. But he also instilled in Mitt a desire to take the lead and aim for the top in whatever he did; George was president of American Motors before he ran for governor.
Romney said one of the things he learned from his father was a devotion to the Mormon faith, which he described in a speech in Texas last week. George, like any good Mormon patriarch, forbade profanity and would not allow the drinking of alcohol, tea, or coffee. He required his children to attend church every Sunday and take turns leading the nightly prayer over dinner. Although the family was affluent, he assigned extensive chores to his children. That included hours of yardwork on summer weekends.
Some conservative Christians consider Mormonism a cult, and the question of faith has emerged as a serious obstacle to a Romney presidency for Mitt in a way that it never did with his father. In an interview with U.S. News, Romney said he wasn't sure why that was, but he sees all the attention as providing an opportunity to describe his broader views on religion's role in America. Last week, he explained that his faith is based on common values of family and "a commitment to Christian principles that are shared by most Americans."
Mitt did learn some important lessons from his father about how not to run for president. In one of the most embarrassing moments in political history, George Romney dropped out after admitting that the military brass and the State Department had "brainwashed" him into supporting the Vietnam War, a position he then recanted, opening himself to charges of flip-flopping.
It is that same charge that plagues the son now as he tries to explain his shift regarding abortion and gay rights, on both of which he has moved to the right. His critics say he did it out of opportunism, to curry favor with Republican conservatives. Like his father in dealing with Vietnam, Mitt Romney says it was a genuine change of heart.
There were other lessons. "I got a master's thesis by a fellow who worked in my dad's campaign," Romney told U.S. News last June. "His master's thesis was 'Why George Romney lost,' and it was the best analysis I had seen—20 reasons. By the way, one of them was not the Mormon Church or the Mormon faith."
As for Romney's own take on what his father did wrong in his campaign, he says there were "a number of things. You know, Dad had two offices, the headquarters in Michigan and the headquarters in Washington. A disaster, all right? You don't do that…. In some respects, [he was] a reluctant candidate. My dad wasn't sure he was in—back and forth, on, off. He got thrust in before he was ready. By winning his re-election as governor by a huge landslide, people expected him to be an expert on Vietnam, which he wasn't at that time."
George's experience taught young Mitt the importance of preparation and the need to study a course of action before pursuing it. He is today one of the most methodical and disciplined of candidates.
"My grandfather was a naval aviator, my father a submariner," John McCain wrote in his 1999 autobiography, Faith of My Fathers. Both were four-star admirals. "They were my first heroes, and earning their respect has been the most lasting ambition of my life. They have been dead many years now, yet I still aspire to live my life according to the terms of their approval. They were not men of spotless virtue, but they were honest, brave, and loyal all their lives."
As a boy, young John was unhappy that his father was away so much in the Navy. The boy had trouble containing his temper and toeing the line of order and discipline so prized in his family. One of his parents' techniques, administered mostly by his dad when he was home, was to dunk him, fully clothed, into a bathtub of cold water when he had a tantrum. It "cured" him, he reported later.
Their temperaments were different: His father was taciturn and self-contained, John boisterous and unruly. But as they grew older, John became more like his dad in his devotion to the Navy, his integrity, and his concept of honor. John came to admire these lines from "Requiem," a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson: "Under the wide and starry sky / Dig the grave and let me lie: / Glad did I live and gladly die, / And I laid me down with a will." McCain later wrote: "I thought the poem the perfect motto for all who lived a life according to their own lights, and a moving tribute to the lives of strong-willed, valorous men like my grandfather and father. I read it as an exhortation to 'be your own man.' "
McCain added: "The sanctity of personal honor was the only lesson my father felt necessary to impart to me, and he faithfully saw to my instruction, frequently using my grandfather as his model. All my life, he had implored me not to lie, cheat, or steal; to be fair with friend and stranger alike; to respect my superiors and my subordinates; to know my duty and devote myself to its accomplishment without hesitation or complaint."
While his father rose to command U.S. forces in the Vietnam region, the future presidential candidate was serving as a lieutenant commander in the Navy. He was shot down over Hanoi in October 1967. When his captors learned from American news reports that he was the son of an admiral, he got improved medical attention for his wounds, which included two broken arms, a shattered knee, and a broken shoulder. But McCain rejected an offer to return home early, saying he would wait his turn behind other prisoners who had been in captivity longer. This angered his tormentors, and he was tortured viciously as a result. In all, he was a POW for 5½ years. He still feels waiting his turn was the right thing to do.
At one point, his father sent B-52s to bomb Hanoi in an escalation of the war ordered by President Richard Nixon, even though his son could easily have been killed in the raids. McCain not only understood his father's decision, he admired it. "It was his job," Senator McCain told U.S. News.
A decade before Rudy was born, during the Depression, his dad, Harold, was arrested for armed robbery, convicted, and served time in Sing Sing, the New York state prison. Giuliani never learned the specifics until after his father died. It was his uncle, also called Rudy, who told him the details.
But Giuliani does have other memories of his father. In an interview broadcast November 15, he told abc's Charles Gibson, "My mother was sort of the reason for the intellectual side of my development. She's given me a great fascination with history, with reading, with learning from books. My dad was a very, very strong person. He was a boxer in the early part of his life. He probably taught me the other side of my personality." Giuliani added that his combativeness in particular came from his father: "His job, he felt, was to toughen me up—and not be afraid." In an E-mail response to questions from U.S. News last week, Giuliani said, "I admire his courage the most. I wasn't raised to be a critic of my parents. I was raised to think of my parents as perfect."
In his 2002 memoir, Leadership, Rudy Giuliani indicates that his father straightened out his life after Sing Sing and used boxing to teach life lessons to his son, in particular to stay unflappable. The Republican told U.S. News: "The most important life lesson is to remain calm in an emergency. He taught me that when I was young. He often said that if you are ever in an emergency situation, be the calmest person in the room."
Giuliani said his mother eventually became concerned that he was getting into trouble. As family lore has it, that was after he beat up a neighborhood bully when he was 5 years old. His mother feared that the boxing lessons were making him into "an animal, making me a bum." He added that sometimes his mother "would try to get my father to spank me, and he would avoid it."
But his father had another side as well. Giuliani attended a boys' Roman Catholic high school in Brooklyn, where he formed an opera club. "I became an opera fan surreptitiously," he recalled. "My father started taking me to the opera…. And then I started doing it myself. I would not tell my friends. After all, I was going to school in Brooklyn, tough kid…. I finally I told one of the brothers, Brother Kevin, about my interest in opera. And he said, 'You've got to get over the embarrassment of this.' So I started the opera club. I think we started with Carmen. By the time I was finished, I think I had about a dozen members."
He went on to law school and became a tough prosecutor of big shots in organized crime, in the drug trade, and on Wall Street. He then served two terms as mayor of New York, where he earned a national reputation for the kind of toughness and fearless leadership that his father would no doubt have admired.
John Edwards reminds audiences of his father, Wallace, a millworker in the South, every chance he gets. He sees it as an opportunity to show that he has never forgotten his humble roots in South Carolina and North Carolina, and that he understands the lives of those who struggle every day to make ends meet.
His parents had to borrow $50 from a bank to pay the hospital bills when John was born in 1953. His father worked for 85 cents an hour at a textile mill, doing basic tasks such as folding sheets (a job his mother also performed), and family dinners sometimes consisted of pinto beans and cornbread. Wallace became a supervisor, but he and his wife, Bobbie, never forgot the hard times, and they conveyed their work ethic—and their optimism—to their children.
From his father, John Edwards developed a keen class consciousness that pervades his campaign today. He talks about ridding Washington of special interests that disdain the concerns of everyday Americans—like his father—and about giving each American the respect his father didn't get because he lacked a college degree. Edwards told U.S. News that his father taught him many important lessons about life—including the importance of toughness: "He told me, 'You don't start a fight, but you don't walk away from one. If somebody hits you, you make sure they come back without a hand.'" The family lived in a rough neighborhood, and in a 2003 interview with the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., Edwards said his father and an older cousin taught him how to fight bullies. "You wait until they get close to you, and then you hit them as hard as you can right in the nose. And they were right; it worked."
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.
The couple married, and Barack was their first child. But when the elder Obama returned to Africa in 1963, when Barack was 2, mother and child stayed behind in Hawaii. Eventually, the parents were divorced; both remarried. His father took to heavy drinking and died in a car accident many years ago.
"As a child I knew him only through the stories that my mother and grandparents told," Barack recalled in his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father. He was a terrible driver, had a rich baritone voice and a British accent. He could be uncompromising and judgmental, and he was very self-assured. His grandfather once told him, "There's something you can learn from your dad. Confidence. The secret to a man's success." Obama still believes it.
Obama says his father's neglect gave him an "insight into a lot of what kids go through around the country...especially in the African-American community" where so many fathers have left their families and young men grapple with the problems that paternal irresponsibility has helped precipitate. But through all their difficulties and distance, one thing Obama did learn from his father was a respect for achievement: a belief that "you don't settle for second best," the candidate says.