A politician’s inner demons

Are successful politicians shaped for the better by having a faulty relationship with their Dad?

A wonderful investigation into the father issues of US Presidents suggests they were shaped for the better, in terms of being a empathetic leader, by bad experiences with their fathers.

In short, I think it’s interesting, but a stupid idea only made possible by myopically examining certain Presidents.

The fundamental flaw is not looking at good Presidents who had good fathers! It’s just chosen examples to fit a narrative. Many people have issues with their fathers, and their myriad responses cannot be categorised simply as leading to intuition and empathy. The other assumption is that those traits are essential to making a good leader. They only lead to certain types of leaders.

There’s no doubt that the assumption of father issues can arise. The article quotes example:

The list is surprisingly long. Take Ronald Reagan, who was haunted by a moment when he discovered his alcoholic father on the front porch “drunk, dead to the world,” his hair filled with snow. The 11-year-old Reagan had to drag him indoors. Or Bill Clinton, whose biological father drowned in a car crash, and who remembered standing up to his alcoholic stepfather and demanding that he never beat Clinton’s mother again. Gerald Ford’s father, an alcoholic, was found guilty of extreme cruelty to his family, and refused to pay child support when Ford’s mother left him. George W. Bush’s relationship with his father was less lurid, but infamously resentful: He spent his entire life, including his presidency, careening between attempts to live up to H.W.’s impossible expectations and efforts to garishly repudiate them. And it hardly bears recounting that President Obama built his political persona around a search for his absent dad.

The article claims it’s not cherry picking, then goes on to use a UK study that suggested not father issues, but a search for love, and the pain of loss, drives many political leaders. Maybe, but that is a much different, and wider, rubric than father-issues.

The most methodologically credible of these is actually a British study called The Fiery Chariot: A Study of British Prime Ministers and the Search for Love, which found that, in the words of a peer reviewer, “the rate of bereavement amongst prime ministers was exceptionally high,” somewhere around half of all British prime ministers. That was much higher than the estimated rate for the population as a whole, and the bereavement rates for Cabinet members also ran consistently higher than the general public.

The estimated rate of bereavement for the population as a whole might be lower than the Cabinet, but the Cabinet is OLDER than the average age of the population! In addition, their people networks are larger than most people. You’d expect more of them to have encountered bereavement.

Not withstanding the weaknesses in the argument, the article goes on to hypothesize that: 

One possibility is that kids who are immersed in traumatic personal environments early in life become hypersensitive to the feelings of those around them and develop coping mechanisms that also make them better politicians.


Another explanation may be that dysfunctional fatherhood forces children to take on an early leadership role.


Of course, there is the hunger for attention and the gaping psychological need to be loved.

and finally we get into the realm of the more likely:

…anyone who is willing to fundraise, glad-hand, and defend their smallest gaffes for months must derive some additional psychological benefit from politicking. Many of the people willing to keep going must be, in some sense, broken inside and driven to salve their emotional pain by courting the adulation of voters.

So, what the article really shows is that many, if not most, politicians probably have “issues” and that these issues are likely to be stronger than those influencing behaviour of ordinary people.

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