Except for political junkies, most people can tell you precisely one thing about George W. Bush: His father used to be president. No wonder he’s in major-league denial when asked about matching Poppy’s achievements. “These are the kind of psychological analyses that I’m not really thrilled about talking about,” he told the New York Times, revealing, in a classic Freudian protestation, more than he realized.
But it would be impossible for anyone in Bush’s shoes not to bear an especially heavy Oedipal burden. The life of the only son of a president to become president–John Quincy Adams–illustrates why. W. has followed in his father’s footsteps by attending Phillips Academy and Yale, getting into the oil business, running for Congress, and now, seeking the presidency. “JQA” (as he was called to distinguish him from Dad) had the more daunting task of succeeding his father–the nation’s first vice president and second president, and an eminent political theorist–as one of the great statesmen of the early republic. If W. were to learn even a little about JQA’s unhappy plight, he might well realize the virtues of psychological self-analysis.
The senior John Adams was a leader in the American Revolution and wrote the influential tracts Thoughts on Government and Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. He saw no reason his eldest son, born in 1767, shouldn’t attain equal greatness. Adams set a rigorous course of study for young John, assigning him, for example, to read Thucydides’ History ofthe Peloponnesian War in the original Greek, at age 10. Morally stern, Adams also admonished his son to make “a good account” of himself, and continued to hector him well into his adulthood. “You come into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre,” Adams wrote to the 27-year-old JQA in 1794. “If you do not rise to the head not only of your profession but of your country, it will be owing to your own Laziness, Slovenliness and Obstinacy.”
JQA didn’t need his father’s entreaties to work hard. He had internalized them fully, and his copious diary entries reveal neurotically high ambitions and an obsessional level of self-reproach for not meeting them. “Indolence, indolence, I fear, will be my ruin,” he wrote at age 20, voicing a refrain he repeated throughout his hard-working life. At that same young age, he awoke one morning with a hangover after a night spent caroling with friends, during which, he recorded, “the bottle went round with an unusual rapidity.” Yet for all his self-flagellation, JQA learned self-control early. It took George W. Bush 39 years and many more hangovers before he learned the same. Of course, JQA’s paternally instilled perfectionism sparked a lifelong case of clinical depression. W.’s growing-up experiences sparked a born-again Christianity that has led him to believe all Jews are bound for hell.
J QA benefited as well as suffered from his father’s position. Where George Herbert Walker Bush furnished his son with contacts in politics and in the oil business, John Adams extended to his son equally rare opportunities. As a boy, JQA accompanied Adams on a diplomatic mission to Paris and, through that experience, won the assignment, at age 14, to be secretary and interpreter on another assignment in St. Petersburg. These jobs primed JQA for his later diplomatic career. And, just as the intellectually undistinguished George W. doubtless got into Yale as a “legacy,” JQA, though he had mastered Thucydides, surely wasn’t penalized for his father’s name when he was admitted to Harvard.
For JQA’s earliest intellectual triumphs, too, Adams senior was at least inadvertently responsible. At age 24, JQA wrote his first major work of political philosophy, in the manner of many works then, under a classical pseudonym, “Publicola.” A rejoinder to Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, “Letters From Publicola” emphasized the role of passion, not reason, in governing men’s political behavior. Its conservative tone and polished style–compared admiringly to Edmund Burke–led many to assume that John Adams had authored it. The case of mistaken identity fed its popularity and launched JQA’s career as a political essayist. The episode stands as yet another eerie precursor to George W.’s life: As a much-overlooked New York Times story noted last spring, W. became the GOP front-runner largely because many people who told pollsters they favored Bush were “actually thinking of the father”; the confusion triggered a virtuous cycle of high poll numbers, improved fund-raising, and endorsements that has lifted W. above the pack.
Naturally, JQA came both to revere and to recoil from the magnitude of his father’s accomplishments. In a 1793 address, JQA vowed that while “the copious treasures” of fame and achievement “have already been gathered by the hands of genius,” he and his generation would still stay true to “the precious memory of the sages.” Though he was ostensibly paying tribute to the Constitution, it was not hard to hear the deep filiopietism beneath the surface.
On the other hand, JQA struggled to stake out his own terrain as a lawyer or, his ultimate fantasy, a poet. Naturally awed by his father’s achievements, he swore he didn’t want a career in politics (again, not unlike the way W. pursued business after failing to get elected to Congress at age 31). Yet no sooner had Adams undertaken his pursuits as an attorney than his father, recently elected as the nation’s first vice president, informed him that George Washington had named the young man minister to the Netherlands. The news dashed JQA’s hopes for independence from Dad. “I wish I could have been consulted before it was irrevocably made,” he said of the appointment. “I rather wish it had not been made at all.” The senior Adams, meanwhile, took the occasion to chide his son to start paying attention to how he dressed.
When John Adams became president in 1797, he appointed his son to the even more prestigious post of minister to Prussia. In both diplomatic missions, JQA received laudatory reviews, and he was marked as an important leader in his own right. It could only have served as a painful reminder of his father’s still-greater fame, then, when, after losing the election of 1800 to Thomas Jefferson, Adams recalled his son so as not to give his rival the satisfaction of deciding whether JQA should continue in his post.
Following his career as a diplomat, John Quincy went on to ascend ever higher in politics. He served as a Massachusetts state senator and a U.S. senator, and then, during James Monroe’s presidency, as secretary of state, where he was largely responsible for formulating the principles behind the Monroe Doctrine. Ensconced in what was then clearly the No. 2 position in government, JQA was the presumptive front-runner in the 1824 presidential race, though it was Andrew Jackson who won a plurality (yet not the necessary majority) of electoral votes. Adams won the presidency only because Henry Clay backed him in the run-off in the House of Representatives, but Adams never lived down (false) rumors that he and Clay had cut a “Corrupt Bargain.” He unwisely fed the rumors and harmed his own reputation by naming Clay his secretary of state.
Despite Adams’ relatively unremarkable presidency, however, he rebounded as no other ex-president ever has. He ran for Congress from Massachusetts and, revitalized, served for 18 years–notably helping to overturn the shameful “gag rule” that forbade the reading of anti-slavery petitions on the floor of the House. It takes little imagination to speculate that JQA felt liberated to enjoy this second career only because on July 4, 1826, midway through JQA’s presidency, his venerated old man passed away.
The tragedy of JQA’s life is that, for all his spectacular achievements, he was doomed to feel inadequate next to his larger-than-life father. W. should only have such problems.