The Tales of Two Presidential Sons

By Maier, Timothy W. | Insight on the News, March 5, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Tales of Two Presidential Sons

Maier, Timothy W., Insight on the News

The historical parallels between George W. Bush and John Quincy Adams -- both sons of U.S. chief executives -- offer lessons about what it takes to be a successful president.

President George W. Bush does not want history to repeat itself when it comes to re-electing sons of former presidents, so it should come as no surprise that the first book he chose to read in the White House is Paul C. Nagel's A Public Life, A Private Life. The book is a biography of the first fortunate son (John Quincy Adams) to succeed his father (John Adams) as president of the United States.

Nor is it surprising that Dubya's father, George H.W. Bush, also appears to have focused on the Adams legacy. He commented at a recent White House dinner, "The election of 2000, pitting the son of a president against a candidate from Tennessee, is destined to join the election of 1824, when there was the same personal dynamic, one of the closest in our nation's history -- John Quincy Adams against Andrew Jackson"

Indeed, the Bushes are as curious as other Americans about what former president Bush called the "potential historical parallel between the Adams and the Bush families."

There is much more than simply being the sons of former presidents that ties George W. Bush and John Quincy Adams together after 175 years. Adams was a 1787 Harvard graduate, while Bush earned a master's degree in business administration from Harvard in 1975. Their chief competitors, Andrew Jackson and Albert Gore, first were congressmen and then senators from Tennessee.

But their personalities are far from similar. Bush is an open and charming extrovert, whereas Adams was an introvert known as the "Iron Mask." Nagel theorizes in his book that the younger Adams suffered from depression triggered by the stranglehold his intellectual mother, Abigail Adams, had on his life. Bush is optimistic.

During the Monroe administration, Adams served as secretary of state and led the fight for the Monroe Doctrine, a warning that European meddling in this hemisphere would not be tolerated, the popularity of which sent him to the White House in 1824. While historians tend to consider his one-term presidency a failure, Adams found genuine success as one of only two former presidents to serve afterward in Congress. (The other was Andrew Johnson, who also was elected to the Senate.)

In a historical context, Adams' rebirth as a congressman won over American hearts with his relentless attacks on slavery and his staunch support of free speech. Lost in the history books was Adams' heroic role as a lawyer in successfully defending before the U.S. Supreme Court the Africans who had rebelled aboard the slave ship Amistad -- a drama which Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg captured for the big screen in 1998.

Instead, Adams often is remembered as an inflexible, ungracious and self-righteous man who became the second president to fail to win a second term, Nagel says in his book. Ironically his father, John Adams, was the first. John Quincy Adams' children, Nagel notes, characterized him as an enigma who hid his true feelings. He even characterized himself in his diary as "an unsocial savage." The younger Adams was, in any case, better known for installing the first White House pool table, or for his frequent legendary skinny-dipping in the Potomac River, than for his innovative public-works programs, abolitionist principles or role in authoring the Monroe Doctrine.

One legendary story has Adams taking his morning dip in the Potomac when Anne Royall, a news reporter, spotted the president and stood on his clothes until he gave her an exclusive interview. He obliged while remaining chest deep in the Potomac. Bush is known to prefer fishing to swimming.

His eccentric personality aside, Adams was all but bred for the presidency. According to University of Tulsa historian Andrew Burstein, author of America's Jubilee, a look back at the Jacksonian era, "John Quincy Adams was possibly the best-prepared president in history. …

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