Fathers, Sons, and the Presidential Election

November 15, 2012

Now that President Obama has been re-elected, the Monday morning quarterbacking has begun. What went right in each campaign? What went wrong? Who is next to run in 2016?

Now that President Obama has been re-elected, the Monday morning quarterbacking has begun. What went right in each campaign? What went wrong? Who is next to run in 2016?

There were obvious policy differences and principles in the 2 campaigns. However, for me as a psychiatrist, the most interesting difference turned out to be in the candidates’ relationships with their fathers, a difference that led me to reflect on the role of fathers in today’s America.

During the campaign, the most unexpected and poignant moment for me was finding out how Mr Romney began the first Presidential debate.

As in earlier GOP debates, Mr Romney settled in and wrote “Dad” on a piece of paper in front of him. Writing this was reported to be a reminder of admiration for his deceased father, a rags-to-riches story and a Presidential candidate himself many years back. In addition, it was a reminder of what could go wrong. His father, George Romney, was criticized for his brashness and the poor infrastructure of his unsuccessful campaign. His son, Mitt Romney, as we came to know, was much more cautious, though quite forceful in “winning” that first debate.

Without examining him, I suppose you could do an unethical psychoanalytic analysis of the Oedipal implications of this relationship, even with the very little personal information Mr Romney shared publicly. Dr Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist, did just that on Fox News when he suggested that Vice President Biden’s “bizarre laughter” during the Vice Presidential debate might imply a larger mental health issue. Though he made the disclaimer that he did not personally evaluate Mr Biden, he said, “You have to put dementia on the differential diagnosis.”1 To many psychiatrists, this kind of statement seems a breach of the American Psychiatric Association’s “Goldwater Rule,” which dates back to when Barry Goldwater ran for President and was subject to wildly unprofessional psychological analyses. That tarnished our profession and led to the ethical principle not to comment on a public figure without a personal evaluation (and, of course, even if you have indeed examined a public figure, you should only comment on them publicly if you have obtained their permission to breach confidentiality). So I’ll leave any possible interpretations to the reader’s private thoughts.

For President Obama, I don’t recall much mention of his father in his second campaign. However, I do remember the first campaign in which his father of the same name, Barack Hussein Obama (Sr), was the source of much speculation.

This much we seem to know. Obama Sr, a “Black” African from Kenya, had met the President’s mother, a “White” American, while both were studying in Hawaii. They married and had 1 child. After 2 years, he left and eventually returned to Kenya, his home, only to visit his son briefly when he was 10 years old. He later heard that his father died in an accident, right after the President turned the voting age of 21.

After hearing of Mr Romney’s note, and the obvious difference with President Obama regarding fathers, I was compelled to read the President’s first book, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.2 Written well before his Presidential path, the book is prescient, revealing, and even eerie. Here are just a few excerpts; please take into account the risk of taking quotes out of context.

From the Introduction: “It is to my family, though-my mother, my grandparents, my siblings, stretched across oceans and continents-that I owe the deepest gratitude and to whom I dedicate this book.”2(xvii) Is it not ambiguous as to whether he includes his father in any way in this dedication? 

He quotes his maternal grandfather: “Now there’s something you can learn from your dad. Confidence. The secret to a man’s success.”2(p8) Following being with his mother’s second husband, Lolo, in Indonesia, this grandfather was to become the most prominent person in his teenage years. 

In a letter from his father after his last visit: “Like water finding its level, you will arrive at a career that suits you.”2(p76) Could he have imagined his son would find the “suitable level” of President of the United States, as many American parents hope for? 

Before his first speech at Occidental: “I started to remember . . . the power of my father’s words to transform . . . With the right words everything could change-South Africa, the lives of ghettos and kids just a few miles away, my own tenuous place in the world.”2(p106) And what a speaker of the “right words” he became. 

While homeless after he first came to New York to transfer from Occidental to Columbia: “Where were the fathers, the uncles and grandfathers, who could help explain this gash in our hearts”?2(p118) Much later, I was to have this same question when interviewing the over-represented numbers of young African-American males in prison. 

On his mother, shortly before his planned trip to Kenya to see his father again, only to be thwarted by his sudden death: “She saw my father as everyone hopes at least one person might see him; she had tried to help the child who never knew him see him the same way.”2(p127)

And so it went. One can see in retrospect the beginning steps that led to a Presidency and re-election, an inner journey that included maternally influenced, positive introjections of his externally absent father.

Clearly, President Obama has been determined to be an involved and present father for his children. Also clearly, there is no rule of thumb for the presence or absence of a father for a son who becomes President. The last Democrat to become President, President Clinton, was similar to President Obama in having an absent father, whereas the second President Bush obviously had a present father, another Republican President in his own right.

Interestingly, our country’s image of a President is not that of a father, but an uncle, as in “Uncle Sam.” In Judaism, we have traditionally emphasized fathers in our 3 “patriarchs,” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In my own life, I’ve done my best to stay involved in my son’s life and to avoid the perceived mistakes of my own father. I advised my son to do the same with his own son and me.

I react with some embarrassed pride whenever someone asks him, “Where is Your Father”? I wonder, in retrospect-without revealing how I voted-whether it was possible that Romney’s gesture toward his father, and the mutual admiration he displayed with his own sons, was starting to sway me toward voting for him, instead of my more natural liberal and cross-cultural tendencies?

As the social and cultural distinctions between men and women in the US continue to blur, and advanced medical technologies offer new ways to procreate, what, if any, is the crucial role of men versus women in society and in families? Could elephants provide a clue? During a recent game preserve in South Africa, it was noticeable how the adolescent male elephants often strayed from the family when the father was not around. My wife Rusti thought that one of them could be depressed. In the DVD, “Oh Father, Where Art Thou?”3, 6 bull elephant fathers were removed because the herd was thought to be growing too large. Soon after the father figures were removed, the adolescent males became more violent, both physically and sexually (and even incestuously). When a couple of the fathers returned, the adolescents calmed down.

In humans, perhaps because of the traditional role of the male as the “breadwinner” in our society, thereby away from home a lot, there wasn’t much research on the importance of fathers for their sons (and daughters) until the 1970s. Before that, besides making a living, fathers were considered role models for their sons to be strong, tough, and powerful. Perhaps a byproduct of the feminist movement and the changing role of women in America, studies of fathers began to escalate dramatically. One such study, presented at the 2000 annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Society and American Academy of Pediatrics Conference,4 took a unique approach. It interviewed 6-year-old, lower class children deemed at “high risk.” Although not all of them had biological fathers, 75% identified at least 1 supportive male. Having that male in their lives improved self-esteem, but did not necessarily improve behavior or learning ability.

In her blog, The Long Reach of Childhood, Psychology Today blogger Ditta Oliker, PhD, provided a summary of research over this recent generation.5 Her own study suggests a positive finding on the father’s influence on the moral reasoning of an adolescent son. If that had anything to do with my own son becoming a Rabbi, I can gratefully rest in peace. Other recent studies indicate that a positive male role model correlates with positive gender-role characteristics, more emotional security, and better social connections.

More research is needed on the influence of father on sons (and fathers on daughters), not only in the traditional marriage, but also in other kinds of families (eg, 2 female or 2 male parents).

Perhaps the statement of author Taro Gold in the introduction to The Tao of Dad points to the ideal: “If we are lucky, we can count multiple dads in our lives-grandfathers, uncles, brothers, stepdads, teachers, coaches, mentors, and even friends-any role models we can look up to.”6(p5)

 

References:

1. Pardon the interruption? Examining Biden’s debate demeanor (video). Fox News. October 14, 2012. http://video.foxnews.com/v/1899535244001/pardon-the-interruption-examining-bidens-debate-demeanor. Accessed November 13, 2012.
2. Obama B. Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. New York: Three Rivers Press; 2004.
3. Oh Father, Where Art Thou? Social breakdown and Fatherlessness in African-American Communities. 2007 (Film).
4. University of Maryland Medical Center. UM researchers find further evidence to support the importance of fathers (News Release). May 13, 2000. http://www.umm.edu/news/releases/fathers2.htm. Accessed November 13, 2012.
5. Oliker DM. The importance of fathers: is father's day real? Psychol Today. June 23, 2011. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-long-reach-childhood/201106/the-importance-fathers. Accessed November 13, 2012.
6. Gold T. The Tao of Dad: The Wisdom of Fathers Near and Far. Kansas City, MO: Lionstead Press, Inc./Andrews McMeel Publishing; 2006.