There are countless books on U.S. presidents. In recent decades the wives of presidents have also received generous treatment in print. But little has been written on the mothers who raised these powerful men until now. Bonnie Angelo, a Time Magazine political writer, has just published "The First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents"(William Morrow, $27), a 421-page volume that traces the parenting that propelled 20th Century commander-in-chiefs. Angelo begins her book with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and traces the development of modern presidents up to William Jefferson Clinton.
In conducting her research Angelo discovered that it was the mothers, not the fathers, who had the greatest impact on these emerging world leaders. Angelo visits Richmond on Thursday, May 3, as a featured speaker for the Junior League of Richmond's 56th Annual Book and Author Dinner. She recently spoke to Style about presidential moms.
Style: FDR's mother was obviously the central influence in his life. She seemed to take a more active role in his life than most mothers do in the lives of their sons. Did the way Sara raise FDR have an impact on his world view?
Bonnie Angelo: "Active" is a nice way to say domineering. I actually I think there are several presidents whose mothers didn't say, 'I want you to do this or that,' but they had an influence on their thinking and on their politics. Sara Delano Roosevelt took him to Europe regularly when he was a child. He had 12 crossings by the time he was 14. Therefore, from childhood he was interested in Europe and their issues. This was a time when America was isolationist. Therefore, when World War II started to take shape, Roosevelt understood that the United States needed to help, but he couldn't push the country any faster than the country was willing to go. I think the fact that his instincts to help Churchill came from his early frequent exposure to Europe and having European guests at their house in Hyde Park.
Style: One of Martha Truman's early recollections was of Union raiders invading her family's Missouri farm, burning the barn and making off with silverware and other valuables. After her son became president, she swore that she would never sleep in the Lincoln bedroom. Did this early negative confrontation with Union forces shape her into a headstrong Democrat?
Angelo: The Trumans had lived in the part of Missouri that was filled with Southern sympathizers. It was Republicans who ran the war. It made her anti-Union, which meant anti-Republican. Truman, in his memoirs talked about how to treat the vanquished. He said that what happened to his family was one of the things that made him know that you should never occupy a territory with troops and that you should try to rebuild them. And that was accomplished with the Marshall Plan. I think that was quite significant. It would have been very easy for the United States just to do what they did in the First World War, and bring them to their knees.
Style: Nixon was raised a Quaker, but for most of his later life, he did not regularly attend any specific church. The Society of Friends stresses strong individualism and pacifism. Can you identify any specific impact that the Society of Friends had on his ideals?
Angelo: No, I cannot. I thought about that for a long time. He just seemed not be a churchgoer. I honestly cannot think of any specific impact the Society of Friends had on him, except it's not a dogmatic faith. He always had what I call 'carry-in religion' in the White House. Ministers of one church or another were asked to come there. They had the church services on Sunday morning, and there were people who felt that was cutting very close to a mixture of church and state. They were one of the most popular things and people asked to be invited to them. But I don't think that he ever went out to a church the whole time he was in the White House.
Style: Nellie Reagan was an amateur actress who encouraged Ronald to act in a play when he was 5 years old. Was her move towards encouraging him to perform on stage a pivotal moment that shaped his aspirations?
Angelo: He was one of these men who would have never been president had it not been for his mother. She made him know that being in the public eye was great fun. She always helped him with high-school plays; she helped develop his speech capabilities which were such a remarkable part of his presidency. That performance aspect led in a long looping aspect into his political career. She also helped to shape his philosophy of government. Ronald Reagan was always opposed to public-assistance programs. Reagan thought that people should be helping each other in their own communities. He would have gotten that from her, because she was someone who actively helped people who needed help. She took the biblical injunction very seriously. She visited prisoners in jail. She visited the sick in hospitals. In his mind he projected that that's the way it should be.
Jimmy Carter is another one who would not have been president if it had not been for his mother. Lillian Carter was down in Georgia in Ku Klux Klan land. He received from her a sense of racial justice. I love the story where she cheered Jackie Robinson. In 1947 she and her husband were in Dodgers Stadium the day Robinson broke the color barrier. She said that she was the only person in her section who stood up and applauded. For a Southern lady to do that in 1947 says a lot.
Style: In the chapter of President Clinton's mother you ask, "How would Virginia have dealt with the Monica Lewinsky scandal?" Later you write, "Virginia's reaction ... would almost certainly have been to defend him, no matter what, and blame it all on other people." Do you still believe this today?
Angelo: She would have defended Bill Clinton if she had walked into Bill's office [when he was with Lewinsky]. She said women threw themselves at him. I wanted to make the point she was very different from the other mothers. She did not have their fundamentals. She had a tendency to always blame others when something went wrong. When she was sued for malpractice in administering anesthetics, she sued. She said herself that she never disciplined her son. Those things contributed to the character of a man who felt he could do whatever he wanted
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