Politicians & their fathers, continued

Antonio Villaraigosa

I met Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for the second time the other day, and he did something peculiar — also for the second time, thereby making it notable.

He brought up fathers.

You may recall that I’ve pondered the role of fathers in success when reflecting on Obama and McCain, or Bill Clinton and Gavin Newsom.

The theory, to remind, is that (male?) leaders often have absent fathers.

So here is what Villaraigosa did to make me think about that again:

First time

I first met him last summer, when he was still being talked about as a possible Democratic candidate for governor. He is the first Latino mayor of LA since the 19th century and a wily politician, so he was said to have a chance. On the other hand, he had a new sexy girlfriend who was not his wife and so forth, so perhaps not.

So I went into his office in City Hall. He looked tired, with bags under his eyes. I thought that his face was right out of The Godfather — in a good, soulful way — but his hands were small and soft.

He surprised me by insisting on first talking about me. I didn’t quite know how to handle that. But he wanted to know a whole lot about me — what schools, where from, etc. He said he liked the boots I was wearing. I realized that he was a people politician (in fact, I kept getting distracted by all the photos of him with famous and beautiful people), not an ideas politician.

So we started talking about what I talk about: ideas. I thought it was slow and plodding. Then I realized that he slowed down for me whenever he thought he was saying something sound-bitey, so that I might transcribe it more easily.

But then finally we found a topic that got him relaxed and enthusiastic. Ostensibly, it was his city, LA, which is so fantastic. But here’s the reason why it’s so fantastic:

People don’t care who your father is.

He said that several times. As in: In New York, you need to be from the right family, but here we only care about what you are today.

Or perhaps as in (I imagine his thought bubble): My father left my mom and me when I was young, so screw him.

He did, in fact, say that he had seen his father at most 25 times in his whole life, making it clear with a (perhaps exaggerated) gesture that he couldn’t care less about him.

Second time

I met him again a few weeks ago when my editor was visiting me and I took him around to see interesting people. This time, Villaraigosa looked much better. No bags under his eyes. He was no longer a candidate for governor, so now he was just enjoying himself as mayor (and in his private life).

Again, I got distracted by all the photos of him with famous and beautiful people — they were now on automatic slide show on a large electronic picture frame.

Again, the slow and deliberate sound bites about weighty topics. Again, name-dropping (he also knows some British politicians, and he wanted us to know that).

Then my editor and I said Thank You and left. We were already in the hallway, and Villaraigosa huddled with his handlers for the next meeting.

Suddenly, Villaraigosa ran out and after us, all but screaming:

You know what? Screw it. Let’s do a story on how great LA is. The greatest city in America.

He was beaming with excitement:

I mean, here nobody cares who your father is!

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32 thoughts on “Politicians & their fathers, continued

  1. Appreciated your perception, Andreas, of a people vs. ideas politician. On a temperament profile it might suggest Antonio Villaraigosa would test higher feeling vs. thinking. Whether he was an interesting person or not I cannot say but about the fatherless man I can speak but only in general, of course.

    Years ago at a psych conference I heard poet Robert Bly (remember all those drums?) say that when the son is fatherless (i.e. through death, emotional absence, drugs or alcohol) the son has holes within him and, when this son doesn’t fill those apertures consciously, they will fill with demons. Well, it’s certainly a discussion thought. Personally, I know more men whose holes of loss are more often packed with unacknowledged sorrow which is undifferentiated, it turns to anger then gets projected all over the place and, more often than not, on the mate or society. Oh boy.

    At that same conference of 150, with only 12 women present, the walls almost shook with maleness but I, nevertheless, had something to add. However, when my raised hand wasn’t being acknowledged I just stood up. “Being sad isn’t a sin; it’s not shameful and it’s an honest emotional response to loss,” I almost shouted. Robert Bly acknowledged my input with his head moving up and down. It was enough for me.

    We need our fathers, son or daughter. Bly needed his and I needed mine and maybe some politicians did, too.

    Kind regards,

    • Good of you to stand up and insist that the 138 lads pay attention to you.

      “unacknowledged sorrow”: Hmm. Is that what underlies male anger? I’m angry sometimes. Perhaps I have unacknowledged sorrow….

  2. What’s your name?
    Who’s your daddy?
    Is he rich
    Like me?

    –The Zombies (Rod Argent) 1968

    Not to be cynical, but could probably be rewritten in 2010 (even in LA) as:

    What’s your name?
    Are you marketable?
    And do you have the same ideology
    As me?

  3. What’s your name?
    Who’s your daddy?
    Is he rich
    Like me?

    –The Zombies (Rod Argent) 1968

    Not to be cynical, but could be rewritten for 2010 (even in LA) as:

    What’s your name?
    Are you marketable?
    And do you have the same ideology
    As me?

    • Correction: The city in which I used to wait tables—these days this “pile of stones” (as my dad referred to NYC during his final visit) won’t even let me do that anymore.

      But I agree. If I came from a broken home, I’d either be(a) dead or in prison or (b) successful by now.

  4. A few years ago while surfing through the website of Der Spiegel, I came across an image of then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder sitting at his official office desk, which had prominently displayed on it a war-time (WW 2) photo of his father in Wehrmacht military uniform.

    The father had died in action when Schröder was only a baby, so Schröder never knew him. He also never knew, until a handful of years ago, where his father had been buried.

    According to Spiegel’s article, the then sixty-year old Schröder always had this photo of his thirty-year-old father on the Chancellor’s desk, despite the father having died when only 32, and therefore only old enough to be his sixty-year old son’s son.

    Assuming an Alice-In-Wonderland world, how would the sixty-year old Schröder have greeted his thirty-year-old father if he had suddenly encountered him in the flesh? Would he have called him “Vater” (“Father”)?

    Schröder is a good non-American example of a fatherless boy achieving the de facto highest office in his land. He has also been married four times. Interesting.

    • Great example, Phil. Thank you.

      Isn’t it amazing how many examples we seem to be coming up with? I don’t know how to analyze the numbers, but it seems to suggest a statistical possibility: absent father > political power (plus “unacknowledged sorrow”, see Mary Jane above)

  5. All that follows is excerpted from Susan Elia MacNeal’s blog entry “Mr. Churchill’s Father”:


    Winston Churchill had a complicated relationship with his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough.

    Sir Winston wrote … “famous men are usually the product of an unhappy childhood. The stern compression of circumstances, the twinges of adversity, the spur of slights and taunts in early years, are needed to evoke that ruthless fixity of purpose and tenacious mother-wit without which great actions are seldom accomplished.”

    “Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong; and a boy deprived of a father’s care often develops, if he escapes the perils of youth, an independence and vigour of thought which may restore in after life the heavy loss of early days.”

    • A hopeful quote, Jim M. I admired Sir Winston who suffered with what he called his “Black Dog” which referenced his depression. Some say he would pull down the shade and not come forth for days on end.

      Then there was his other side – elevated tall enough to touch the stars. Yes, it seems a bipolar situation.

    • Thanks for pointing us to her blog, Jim M. Another great example.

      (Does anybody happen to know what the best Churchill biography is? There are many, and I’d like to hit the bull’s eye.)

    • Have a look at The Making of Modern Britain–From Queen Victoria to VE Day by Andrew Marr (Macmillan). It isn’t a biography of WC, but he was a constant presence during those years and you get a very good sense of (1) his real impact and (2) how he was viewed at the time. It was an eye opener for me (and also a wonderful book).

    • On my list.

      BTW, you have a good batting record here on the HB: My wife and I loooooved Michael Wood’s “in Search of the Trojan War”. Will post on it anon.


    • I recommend you make Churchill’s My Early Life your starting point for understanding Churchill. I know no endpoint. 

      Interestingly, when Churchill was a young man his father told him that he was in danger of becoming a “social wastrel”.  But, recounts Churchill, his Headmaster predicted “I should be able to make my way all right,” despite all the evidence to the contrary — he was an erratic student..

      Serendipitously, on the same page as he tells of receiving this grudging vote of confidence, Churchill makes this observation: 

      “Certainly the prolonged education indispensable to the progress of Society is not natural to mankind. A boy would like to follow his father in pursuit of food or prey.”

      This “Food or Prey Principle,” though fairly obvious, makes a good starting point for understanding evolutionary psychology, and illustrates how widely Churchill’s thoughts range in this funny and uncharacteristically modest book. 

    • Cheri, you’re picking up on Mary Jane’s point above, right?

      She really made me think: Perhaps it’s a new way of understanding anger (which men seem to have no difficulty sharing).

    • Is anger really shared? Or is it a unilateral expression of emotion in which other people are forced to take part. “Sharing” implies a cooperative problem solving environment.

    • I am not a licensed psychologist (just an amateur).

      Men are more comfortable than women with anger (shouting, harumpphing, swearing, quipping, etc.)

      Women are comfortable than men with sadness ( crying, sulking, complaining, etc.)

      If men would share their sadness and disappointment more often, perhaps actually crying, and women would share their anger, perhaps expressing rage out loud, lots of depression and anxiety would go away.

      As Lucy Van Pelt might say, The Psychologist is In 5 cents

    • Cheri, you’re right, men ARE more comfortable than women with anger (shouting, harumpphing, swearing, quipping, etc.):

    • Thanks Gentlemen.

      Mel Brooks is one of my favorites and the scene in Blazing Saddles recalls many rich memories that I cannot retell here (to protect the innocent).

      Hadn’t seen the anger scene in your provided clip, Thomas, but I have seen this kind of anger first hand. Quite impressive. And it feels good to see bad guys get creamed.

      Sorry Andreas. (Just my libertarian self coming out, plus I said a bad word in class tonight and stunned my classmates…oh well.)

    • Fortunately I’ve never seen that sort of thing first hand. It’s from a movie called Billy Jack dated 1971. In my opinion it’s stood the test of time, and perhaps it’s unfortunate that it still is relevant.

    • Repetition speaks volumes. I look for it when interviewing people, when comparing book recommendations by readers of the hannibal blog, and especailly when observing my own thoughts and ideas…. (the good ones will repeat themselves, the bad ones won’t, hence no need for notebooks.)

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