Candidates turn to mother

Maternal support, cradle to stump

Election 2008

May 10, 2008|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

C-SPAN is interviewing Roberta McCain, John's mother.

Is it true, she is asked, that she threatened to wash her son's mouth out with soap after hearing that he called his captors bad names - four-letter words - while a POW in Vietnam?

The smile fades from her face. Her demeanor, for a second, is icier than her pale blue suit. Hands that had been folded primly on her lap ball into exasperated fists.

"And I'm still ashamed of him," she says, vexed as if he had just mouthed off, as if he's not 72 years old, as if somehow he hadn't made up for it by becoming a U.S. senator or the presumptive Republican nominee for president. "I don't ever think that's proper language."

Oh, Mom!

Before every president led this country, he was led - by his mother. From Mary Washington to Barbara Bush, a long line of singular women molded and scolded our future leaders.

And these days McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, though all grown up, are turning to their mothers, hoping the maternal aura will translate to an electoral edge. They're working mom into stump speeches, dragging her on the campaign trail and, at the expense of apple pie and Chevrolet, featuring her unconditional devotion in TV ads.

"It's definitely been a year for mom," says Evan Tracy, the head of Campaign Media Analysis Group. "When you have that mother figure, it goes to your biography, who you are, how you're raised and your roots."

More cynically, John G. Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, says: "If your mother doesn't like you, you're in big trouble."

By and large, America's presidents were and are "mama's boys," says Doug Wead, author of The Raising of a President.

"They worshiped their mothers and attributed their success to their mothers," he says. "A child who perceives himself to be the favorite of the mother is empowered for life."

A surprisingly large number of commanders in chief grew up in female-dominated households, thanks to fathers who died early or simply weren't around because of work or bad behavior. The mothers filled the void by nurturing their boys - perhaps a bit extra - and instilling in them a belief that they could achieve great things.

"That feeling, that little edge is what made the difference," Wead says. "It's hard to believe, but I don't know any other explanation to give."

After studying one first family after another, historian Harold I. Gullan, who wrote Faith of Our Mothers, also subscribes to the theory that these mothers almost believed their sons into successful lives.

"The one thing that so many of these women have in common is wanting their sons to be special," says Gullan. "A lot of the presidents were first sons, and an inordinate amount of affection was inflicted upon them."

These mothers instilled crucial traits in their sons, and many remained influential even into their sons' adulthood.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's imperious mother, Sara, had "a will of iron," Gullan says. She exerted her influence to bolster his career - even stepping in to keep him from divorcing Eleanor.

Bill Clinton's mother, Virginia Kelley, urged him to get past the dysfunction in his home and make something of himself.

And it was Miss Lillian, Jimmy Carter's mother, who gave her son what will likely become his legacy: his commitment to civil and human rights.

Woodrow Wilson, who proclaimed the first Mother's Day in 1914, was deeply attached to his mother, Janet, and acknowldged that his good instincts "entered my heart through her apron-strings."

While researching his book, Gullan was struck by how many presidential matriarchs wished that their sons had pursued religion instead of politics.

A devout sorority, the presidential mothers.

At William McKinley's inauguration, one of his brothers asked their mother, Nancy Alison McKinley, whether she was proud. Gullan says she answered with something like, "Yes, but it would have been nicer if he were a Methodist bishop."

The profiles of John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are hopelessly incomplete without considering the women who brought them into the world and their own extraordinary stories.

Clinton's mother, Dorothy Rodham, who had an incredibly harsh childhood, did her best to instill self-confidence in her daughter despite a father often described in biographies as a tyrant and a tightwad.

Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, lived an idealist's life - a white woman from Kansas who married a Kenyan and then an Indonesian but ended up raising her children largely alone. Long after her marriages had failed, she moved back to Indonesia to work with the poor. She died of ovarian cancer in 1995 at age 53.

And Roberta McCain raised her three children alone while her husband, a Navy admiral, was away on near-constant military business. An agile and alert 96, she's a fixture in her son's campaign, star of his Mother's Day fundraising video and his preferred way of reminding voters that, in his family, 72 is just getting started.

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