Earlier in the week, porn star Ron Jeremey praised Mitt Romney’s strong family values. A few weeks ago, Chris Matthews was upset that all Republicans do is trash Obama even though he’s a good husband and father. Politicians often parade their families when running for the office, but there isn’t any connection between being a good President and being a good husband and father. If anything, the opposite may be true, as you could look at previous Presidents and come to the conclusion that men who treat their families badly are needed in the White House.
With one exception, since the days of Calvin Coolidge, the good presidents have had lousy home lives. There’s no indication that President Coolidge cheated on his wife. And six months after he left office, the country’s economy collapsed. Herbert Hoover was another loyal husband, and godawful President.
FDR cheated on his wife every chance he had. And he is generally considered one of our finest Presidents. Harry Truman is the one possible exception to the rule, as a beloved President generally considered to be a loyal husband.
Eisenhower had his mistress Kay Summersby. And he was a fine President. JFK’s womanizing is legendary. But he’s well-regarded as a President. LBJ was different in many ways from his predecessor, growing up dirt poor in Texas. But he followed in Jack Kennedy’s footsteps in Civil Rights, poverty reform and adultery. And he’s also considered a good President, even if his reputation has been diminished by Vietnam.
Richard Nixon did not cheat on his wife. And he is widely considered one of the worst Presidents the country had ever had. Gerald Ford also did not cheat on his wife. And he’s widely considered an unimpressive Commander-in-Chief. Jimmy Carter was another good family man, and poorly regarded President.
Ronald Reagan was the first divorced President, and his daughter wrote a book about the problems in their family life. But he was a respected Commander-in-Chief, often topping polls of the best Presidents. George HW Bush was another respected President with a mistress. He carried on an affair with Jennifer Fitzgerald for decades. Bill Clinton continued the JFK/ LBJ tradition of serial womanizing. And he’s generally considered s a good President.
Unlike his father, George W Bush did not cheat on his wife. And he’s widely considered an awful President. If Obama loses reelection, he will likely be considered a poor President. And would thus continue the tradition.
I suspect that this is a giant coincidence, like the outcome of Washington Redskins games predicting presidential elections. If things had gone differently in a few elections, some family men would have had the opportunity to be good Presidents. Had George Romney won the 1968 Republican primary, he would almost certainly be remembered more fondly than Nixon. If Gerald Ford had done two points better in Ohio and Wisconsin, he would have been elected to a full term, providing an opportunity to establish a presidential legacy. Had Mario Cuomo sought the presidency in 1992, he would likely have been in the White House instead of Bill Clinton. And if Jeb Bush had done a little better in his first campaign for Governor, it would probably have been him in the White House rather than his less adroit brother.
On the flip side, there are a few cheaters who would have been atrocious Presidents. If John Edwards done a little better in the Iowa caucus, the 2004 Democratic nomination would have been his. And I think he would have won the election a Massachusetts liberal lost by two percentage points in Ohio. And then he would have probably been a national embarrassment, paving the way for a McCain landslide (which I would have liked, but that’s a different story). Ted Kennedy’s another adulterer who would likely have been a poor President, due to his pre-1990s comeback temperament.
The point isn’t that good family men will be guaranteed to be poor Presidents, but that there’s no suggestion whatsoever of a positive link between the two. So critics don’t have to be nice to a President just because his wife and kids like him. And anyone insisting that candidates be role models would be making their decision based on an attribute that won’t matter in the White House.