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Book Review of First Mothers The Women Who Shaped the (American) Presidents

Updated on February 28, 2014

First Mothers The Women Who Shaped the Presidents

Mothers of American Presidents

I love biographies, but I don't usually read biographies by or about recent politicians. If the politician has written his or her own biography, it's surely biased. If a politician has chosen a biographer, then the material is still closely filtered and biased. But, when I heard about First Mothers the Women Who Shaped the Presidents, Harper Publishing, 2006 edition by Bonnie Angelo, who had been a reporter for Time magazine assigned to cover the White House and the presidential families, I was inclined to be interested. I still didn't buy the book. Earlier this summer while at a history convention in Omaha Nebraska, I was stunned to learn that former president Gerald Ford had been born in Nebraska under the name Leslie Lynch King Jr and had lived in Omaha for a scant 19 days. When I asked the gal who had told me remnants of Gerald Ford's mother's escape from an abusive marriage, and how Gerald's name had been changed, I realized that I really needed to read First Mothers. So I read, then reread the fascinating stories of 12 of the presidents mothers and the influences that they had on their famous sons. Interestingly, the 13th chapter in the book is devoted to those presidents who had very distant relationships with their mothers.

Bonnie Angelo has written about the mothers in an objective style. She makes no bones about Sara Roosevelt's possessive relationship over every aspect of her son Franklin Delano Roosevelt's life and her need to control her daughter-in-law Eleanor Roosevelt and their children. She held FDR's inheritance over their heads. Sara spent considerable time in the Queen's bedroom in the White House and loved nothing better than to play hostess while Eleanor traveled. Other presidential mothers led lives of extreme poverty and found their solace in religion such as Martha Truman. I hadn't realized that while Truman is credited with ending World War II by dropping the atom bomb, his mother was a staunch pacifist. When asked what she thought about the atom bomb, she was quoted as saying, "They never should have invented it." Of course the press tried to muzzle her comments. Some mothers always wanted their sons to be president, while others were proud of, but had never encouraged their sons to be public figures. Ida Eisenhower never wanted her son Ike to be a military man. Barbara Bush encouraged George W to find a way to become his own man before entering politics.

Rose Kennedy, the daughter of Honey Fitz already loved politics when she married Joseph Kennedy over her father's objections. It wasn't long until she discovered Joe's "women" and in particular his affair with Gloria Swanson the Hollywood film star. The author notes, that it wasn't surprising that the Kennedy sons had followed their father's lifestyle. It's fun to read that Rose Kennedy kept a card file up to date on each of her children. Each card contained information on their last immunizations, what time their lessons were scheduled and what tests they needed to prepare for at school. Rose undoubtedly suffered great joys and losses as a mother.

First Mothers Who Shaped the Presidents

Most Interesting Mothers

It's always a mistake to judge people in history by current values, but the segment I enjoyed the most was about Lillian Carter mother of Jimmy Carter, who most modern women can identify with. Unlike many of the previous first mothers, Lillian was a trained nurse who worked outside the home. She describes herself as a "tom girl" who wasn't interested in traditional southern women's pursuits. She spent hours of her time treating the poor black families in Plains Georgia when they couldn't afford medical attention, or had been refused medical treatment by doctors who refused to treat black patients. She shunned the Plains Georgia Baptist Church when she discovered that they were interested in sending missionaries to Africa, but not in helping their black neighbors. Lillian stated that she enjoyed her boys more than her daughters, which was a sentiment expressed by other mothers of presidents. One wonders what their daughters felt about statements like that. Lillian reinvented herself a number of times, such as joining the Peace Corps at age 68 to serve two years in India. What other people thought of her was not important. She was an active worker for LBJ's civil rights programs. While this doesn't seem so strange today, one has to remember the political and social climate of Georgia in the 1960s. Lillian easily wins my vote as the most interesting of the presidential mothers.

The mother who I was most surprised by was Virginia Clinton. The book contains the most candid look at Bill Clinton's family that I have ever read. While trying to balance Virginia's good characteristics of trying to care for her sons by being a nurse/anesthetist, Angelo paints Virginia as addicted to gamboling, addicted to alcohol, having poor judgement in choosing men, and of passing along her system of only thinking about the positive to the point of absolute denial. Virginia was frequently quoted as, "I was not one for rules." Bill Clinton's biological father is described as what would be called a sex addict today. Virginia lived long enough to see Bill elected, but not long enough to see that her son had not had much regard for rules either.

While each reader will draw their own conclusions of which mothers had the most influence on their sons, few of our American presidents have given much credit to their fathers. Also, explored in the book is the relationship between presidents and their brothers. Those readers interested in mother-son relationships, American presidents and/or American politics and history will love this book.


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    • mactavers profile image

      mactavers 6 years ago

      Thank you for your well written and spot-on comment about being a mother. It's the most rewarding but toughest job I've ever had, and the worries and hopes for your children never seem to diminish as time passes.

    • profile image

      omardon 6 years ago

      Mothers seem to get "the best of times; the worst of

      times." If a child gets to be president, she gets the credit; if he gets the death penalty, ditto. Fathers have this selection process too -- their children prosper

      from their personal faults and strengths, but we think of

      them as less personal, less devoted. Personal experience finds this not to be true; but history can

      always tease out a tale to fit a result. Most parents, strong, weak or somewhere in between, usually want their

      chldren to succeed == but not necessarily to be happy or

      charming. or contented. Mastery of life doesn't always

      follow a lovely yellow=brick road. Even the mothers of

      future presidents knew that.....