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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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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Absent dads

And a follow-up on parents and success: Thanks to Mary Achor’s tip in the comments, this take by Doug Wead on “absent fathers” as a good thing in the life of children:

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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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A lot about fathers

So I’m staring at the two books that have just dropped from the pile (a tall one) onto the floor, and they are titled: Faith of My Fathers (left) and Dreams from My Father (right).

“This boy is really doing his civic homework during an important election,” you may be saying. Actually, no. I’m doing research for (no surprises) my book.

You see, these two–Obama and McCain–made me think of my main characters, Hannibal and Scipio. No, it’s not because Obama is half African (I’ve explained here why I don’t think that Hannibal was “African” in that sense). No, it’s not because McCain has “something Roman about him”, as a friend of mine said, referring to McCain’s martial honor code. And it’s only a little bit because both pairs were formidable rivals and opponents.

It’s because Hannibal and Scipio, if they had written books, might well have given them the exact same titles.

Hannibal lived his life as he did, one could argue, because he inherited a “dream from his father,” Hamilcar. Hamilcar had fought the Romans in the First Punic War, and felt humiliated when Rome won, and wanted revenge. He even made Hannibal, when the boy was nine, swear an oath to keep the “faith of his father”. (100falcons has a nice write-up of it here.)

Scipio could have said the same. He had the same name as his father, Publius Cornelius Scipio, and fought in his father’s army against Hannibal, when Hannibal seemed invincible. His father and uncle later died in battle against Hannibal’s brothers, Hasdrubal and Mago. Scipio, too, was keeping the “faith of his fathers” when he rose at a precocious age to become Rome’s leader and last hope.

So, fathers clearly matter. Or perhaps only for sons? For Amy Tan, it seems to have been her mother who was the important early influencer.

Lots to ponder. Lots to ponder. The role of background in life choices, goal-setting, Success, failure….

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