THE FATHER-SON dynamic is an essential human relationship. Fathers wield powerful influences on their sons into adulthood, even when their children emerge as accomplished men in their own right, like Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
When examining this key relationship, it could well be that the leading presidential contenders of the Republican and the Democratic parties are pursuing the nomination, in part, to please their fathers. In a recent New Yorker article, President Clinton is reported to have said that the only reason Gore sought the presidency was to please his father. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is quoted in a recent biography of his older brother to the effect that George W. has felt the pressure of living up to his father's example all his life.
Psychologically, why are fathers so important to sons?
It is natural for a son to turn to his father as an ideal model of how to feel, think and act like a male. To facilitate self-consolidation, a father needs to accept his son's idealization of him and help the boy realize he can grow up and embody the paternal qualities he prizes, such as physical strength or intellect. This process strengthens the son's self-confidence and sense of direction. But when the father is extraordinary or inaccessible, or a combination of both, the son's idealization can increase monumentally. This makes it harder to believe he can ever fill his father's shoes.
As they were growing up, Gore and Bush had powerful, successful but largely absent fathers, according to their respective biographers, Bob Zelnick and Bill Minutaglio. Brothers Jeb and George W. referred to their father as a "beacon." George W. believed that his father was superior to most men at whatever he did. The son's academic and work history virtually replicated his father's, but, in many instances, the son fell short of his father's accomplishments. His underachievement could well have been a reaction to the pressure he experienced trying to live up to his father's image.
By providing mentoring and guidance, fathers help their sons acquire masculine backbone by learning self-discipline, responsibility and self-reliance. But sons also need support for their autonomy, their entitlement to do things their way. When a father dominates and uses his son as a self-extension, the son is likely to have difficulty discovering exactly who he is.
For example, Gore's father, Tennessee Sen. Al Gore Sr., might have been too domineering, according to Zelnick's biography of the vice president. The senior Gore expected "obedience and good results on the farm, in school and at home, but [was] slow to offer praise when his son performed, simply issuing a new set of tasks." Apparently, Gore Jr. became so intent on being good that Eleanor Smotherman, his second-grade teacher, said, "Al Gore Jr. was so mature and advanced that I had to almost look at him to see if he was a child or a man."
While the elder Gore's attitude might have contributed to his son's self-discipline, was Gore Jr. able to sufficiently free himself from his father's control to attain his own identity? Could the need to please his dominating father partly account for his "woodenness"? Could this same dynamic have been operating while he served as vice president to Clinton, a political-father representative? Certainly, Gore is searching, quite openly, for a separate and winning political persona.
Similarly, Minutaglio reports that George W. Bush was intimidated by his father's disapproval. Barbara Bush explained her husband's disciplinary method: "The way George scolded was by silence or by saying, 'I'm disappointed in you.' And they [his sons] would almost faint."
In addition to idealizing, every boy needs to be able to compete with and de-idealize his father to become an individual. Developmentally, this normally takes place during the Oedipal phase and adolescence. The Oedipal period occurs between the ages 3 and 6, when little boys unconsciously compete with fathers for their mothers' love. The outcome of this competition will determine the individual's capacity to assert himself and take initiative without guilt, humiliation or fear of retaliation.
If the boy has not resolved his Oedipal competition, he might remain stuck in the psychological mode of pleasing father. Then, asserting himself could induce humiliating comparisons between himself and his "larger than life" father, resulting in unbearable feelings of inadequacy. Or such independent initiative could provoke debilitating guilt for competitively "attacking" the father.