Clinton, Newsom and their fathers


On Monday I found myself standing on a chair, peering over the baying pack of television crews to see Bill Clinton endorse Gavin Newsom for governor of California. For some odd reason (the PR handlers explained it to me, but it was too stupid to reproduce here) they chose the space between shelves in the library of a community college in Los Angeles for the occasion. My cheek was pressed into the sign 808.8, which seems to be children’s literature in the Dewey Decimal system. Go figure.

I have met Newsom several times before, and have experienced Clinton twice at conferences (TED and Google’s Zeitgeist). As I was observing these two men, I could not help but think of their fathers, as I will explain in a minute.

First, though, the reason my thoughts went that way: their (arguably endearing) vanity.

Bill Clinton, who was allegedly there to endorse (ie, make look good) Newsom, spoke for 22 minutes, mainly about green technology and so forth, before letting Newsom get in about 11 minutes of thanking and campaigning. This is par for the course. I remember somebody asking Clinton a purely rhetorical question at Zeitgeist, and Clinton dissecting the question into three parts, then delivering an exegesis worthy of a State of the Union on each. The man, God bless him, cannot help himself. He must hold forth.

So does Newsom. He admires Clinton and spent a good part of my first conversation with him, three years ago, talking about the political and rhetorical lessons he has drawn from Clinton.

Here is how that meeting, with my editor and myself and Newsom at a San Francisco cafe, went: Newsom came in and started talking about baseball. Realizing that neither my editor nor I seemed to have a clue about that sport, he switched effortlessly to … cricket. (The EconomistBrits…) Seeing that we knew nothing about that sport either and were geeky, wonky boffins, Newsom made another seamless transition and settled into … geeky, wonky politics arcana. He seemed liberated, as were we.

His eyes, I remember noticing, had bright circles of brown, yellow and green. He blushes very easily (as Clinton does). When there are women in the room, as there were when I met Newsom again a few months ago at the offices of Twitter, he preens very self-consciously, as if we were all at a high-school prom. The women notice this and like it.

In any case, both are very gifted and intelligent. Newsom, like many dyslexic people, has learned to overcompensate for his reading difficulties with other mental disciplines and is quick on his proverbial feet. He oozes Clintonian charm.

Their fathers made them

On to their fathers. Some of you may recall that, as part of my book research, I have been pondering the role of parents in the early stages of a young man’s (or woman’s) personality development. Obama and McCain both defined themselves against the (mostly abstract) idea of their fathers. Doug Wead, a presidential historian, has even put forth various theses that absenteeism by fathers somehow makes their sons more presidential.

Well, that’s what I was pondering as the 808.8 was jabbing into my cheek.

Clinton never knew his father, who died before Clinton was born. Clinton instead took the name of his stepfather, whom he recalls as an abusive drunk.

Newsom’s father separated from, and then divorced, Gavin’s mother when Gavin was a boy. His father was around, but the roles were apparently strained.

The quack psychologist in me would hypothesize that these father gaps left both men chronically insecure, permanently eager to win over and impress other people and to stay in their favor. In short, their fathers made them politicians.

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The Economist: Text guys trying video

Anything to do with video has long been controversial at The Economist. We dabbled in something called Economist TV a decade ago, and that failed miserably. We’ve been having video clips on our site, and that works better but was always a bit fiddly to link to/share. But now we have a YouTube channel.

Some of it works, some of it less so. But one thing that always seems to work is KAL, our cartoonist, talking about his work. Here he is on Bill Clinton:

And here he is on Ronald Reagan:

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More on parents and success

Thanks to Freda Zietlow for pointing me to this piece in the Wall Street Journal on the dysfunctional families of future presidents.

As you guys already know, in one chapter of my book I’m looking into the subtle and unsubtle ways that parents influence the future success and failure of their children. Hamilcar played a huge role in the life of his son Hannibal (my main character), and not just while Hamilcar was alive.

Now, the Journal‘s Sue Shellenbarger has this to say about US presidents and their parents:

The families that have produced U.S. presidents … show a striking tendency to be deeply flawed. The childhoods of past presidents have been marked to an unusual degree by absent fathers, mothers so overinvolved that they could easily have been the original helicopter parents, and in some cases outright dysfunction…

Childhood events that would destroy most children seem somehow to spark greatness in leaders-to-be, says Doug Wead, author of two books on presidents’ families. As two candidates with highly unusual family backgrounds vie for the presidency, Mr. Wead even sees Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama — to different degrees and in starkly different ways — fitting a pattern he describes as “Mama’s boys with absent fathers who were perceived by the sons as high achievers,” he says….

Some presidents’ families have been famously dysfunctional. Thomas Lincoln abandoned 9-year-old Abraham and his sister, 12, for several months in their frontier cabin right after the death of their mother, while he went to find a new wife, says Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author most recently of “Team of Rivals,” a book about Lincoln. When Thomas finally returned with their new stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston, the couple found them “wild — ragged and dirty,” seeming barely human, the stepmother later wrote…

In another notably troubled family, Bill Clinton’s father died before Bill was born; his stepfather was a womanizer and an alcoholic who beat his mother, Virginia, according to biographer David Maraniss. Although Virginia, a warm, nurturing woman, made her son the adored centerpiece of the family, President Clinton said later that he often pined for his birth father…

Even the McCain family, with its tradition of distinguished military service, fits the pattern of an absent father and an overinvolved mother who fills the gap, Mr. Wead says. Sen. McCain’s father was a respected four-star Navy admiral and commander of Pacific forces in the Vietnam war, but he was mostly absent from home during Sen. McCain’s childhood. Sen. McCain reflects pride in his father and was taught to regard his long absences “not as a deprivation, but as an honor.”…

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Congratulations, Matthew Bishop

My friend and colleague at The Economist, Matthew Bishop, just published his new book, Philanthrocapitalism, with his co-author, Michael Green. Congratulations, guys!

Matthew and I are lucky to share Dan Mandel as our agent. Congratulations, Dan!

(Doubly so for getting Bill Clinton to hold it up at the podium of the Clinton Global Initiative and recommending it to the audience: “This is about many of you.” Beats blurbs!)

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