We’ve heard a lot about the death of Paul Ryan’s father: He had a fatal heart attack when the future GOP vice presidential candidate was only 16. Biographical sketches cite the event as a formative early trauma that helped turn Ryan into a “man in a hurry.” With the Republican National Convention days away, we will soon hear Ryan’s origin story—and the role his father’s death played in it—repeated and echoed many more times. The strange thing, though, is that Paul Ryan is hardly alone—American politics is overflowing with stories of absent fathers, alcoholic fathers, neglectful fathers, and untimely deceased ones. Indeed, one of the more interesting questions raised by Ryan’s biography is: Why do so many of our politicians have daddy issues?
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.
This isn’t just cherry-picking either. It’s a representative window into the emotional makeup of our political class. While there are few academic studies on the subject of political daddy issues, the ones that do exist suggest an outsized percentage of prominent politicians have absent or dysfunctional fathers. 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. What could be going on here? Is this simply politics imitating Shakespeare, or is there some causal reason that so many people with father issues make it to the upper reaches of public office?
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. Quoting psychology literature, the best biography of Reagan notes that children of alcoholics become perceptive enough that they can “walk into a room, and without even consciously realizing it, figure out just what the level of tension is, who is fighting with whom, and whether it is safe or dangerous.” The same instinct may have fed Reagan’s desire to comfort the nation on the model of FDR’s fireside chats. Bush on the Couch, a psychoanalysis of the 43rd president, traces George W.’s folksy jester behavior to the period right after his sister Robin died, when he felt it was his responsibility to keep his family cheerful.
Another explanation may be that dysfunctional fatherhood forces children to take on an early leadership role. Bill Clinton was characteristically explicit about this dynamic, musing that in the process of standing up to Roger Clinton, their roles seemed to reverse and “I was the father.” David Maraniss’ biography of Clinton notes that the children of alcoholics often assume a role known as the “Family Hero,” who takes on adult responsibilities and becomes “a vessel of ambition and the repository of hope” for the family by excelling in the outside world. Moreover, one academic study suggests, “a boy whose father has died forms a grandiose idea of him; and, he calls strongly upon himself to replace the parent who has been thus idealized.” President Obama openly discusses this type of motivation in Dreams From My Father; and Obama on the Couch, the sequel to the Bush psychoanalysis, ascribes Obama’s academic drive to a feeling that he was a vessel for his father’s wasted potential and his mother’s hopes and ambitions.
Of course, there is the hunger for attention and the gaping psychological need to be loved. It’s often been observed that electoral politics is so demanding and unpleasant that no normal person would endure the indignities required to become a successful politician. In that sense, 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.
In any case, the phenomenon is real, and it can most likely be explained by a combination of all three of these hypotheses. So what does all this tell us about Paul Ryan? According to Justin A. Frank, the psychiatrist who wrote the Bush and Obama on the Couch books, the death seems to have prodded Ryan to become more determined, self-reliant, and industrious. “When there’s a sudden death like that, [children] can become extremely, very responsible. They step up to the plate,” says Frank.* According to Frank, Ryan also exhibits an “anti-gratitude” that is very common in some of these children, especially Republicans. “The anti-gratitude has to do with an unconscious hatred of the part of the self that needs other people,” says Frank. “Somehow you degrade unconsciously the part of you that needs help, and then you project that onto other people and say they don’t need help.” While Ryan benefited from his large family and government support, Frank says Ryan’s reaction recalls George W. Bush’s feeling that nobody helped him get through the death of his sister.
More concretely, this analysis suggests that Ryan’s experience mirrors that of a great many other politicians. His story is moving, but similar tales can be found throughout Congress, the executive branch, and the history books. And it’s worth noting that, compared with the violent traumas experienced by many of our presidents, the death of Ryan’s father was relatively peaceful, and probably left fewer psychological scars than the toxic childhoods of Clinton or Ford. Indeed, Ryan’s daddy issues seem to play a comparatively smaller role in his biography than those of many presidents. Given the destructive power with which some of those psychodramas may have played out in the White House, that is probably a good thing.
Correction, Aug. 23, 2012: This article originally described Justin A. Frank as a psychologist. He is a psychiatrist. (Return to the corrected sentence.)