America’s strange history with the children of presidents

Theodore Roosevelt was president at the beginning of the celebrity era and the beginning of much of the modern image of the presidency. The White House was just starting to be called that (rather than Executive Mansion); Roosevelt’s renovations to the building created the West Wing. And his daughter, Alice, created a model for presidential relatives in the next century.

At age 17, when his father became president, he was a gift to the Washington press corps. She was photogenic and charming, she was nicknamed “Princess Alice” in the newspapers. She was invited to Edward VII’s coronation (she did not attend) and the German Kaiser had her yacht christened. Her relationship with her royalty didn’t fit well with her father’s man-of-the-people pose, but he could do nothing to stop her daughter’s fame.

Second The Wild Child of the White House, Shelley Fraser Mickle’s new biography of the presidential daughter, Alice’s stardom had certainly surprised him. He hadn’t seen it coming. Every time Alice appeared, crowds gathered to applaud her. Dresses and gowns appeared in ‘Alice blue .’ Her face looked out from the postcards that packaged chocolate bars. Songs were written about her and her photo was featured on sheet music. Her face was centered on magazine covers Diana and other trendy beauties and influencers.

The president was happy to deploy Alice tactically, to charm guests and diplomats. These diplomatic tactics also went in the opposite direction of hers: she was showered with gifts during visits abroad, gifts that she called her “spoils.” The Cuban government presented her with a magnificent set of pearls for her wedding. Apparently the foreign emoluments clause did not apply to her.

Taking advantage of his situation seemed natural. Alice’s father had to tell her not to take the train without a ticket. (While presidents were entitled to free travel, their children were not.) But this was back when a presidential daughter could still hop on a train with her friends, rather than be accompanied by a phalanx of Secret Service agents.

Mickle’s book is part biography and part psychological study, the story of a woman raised in impossible privilege but with a life marked by tragedy. When Alice was born, her mother fell into a coma and died two days later. Theodore’s mother died the same day, a double blow. He responded by avoiding his little girl, leaving her in the care of her sister while she fled to his political work and her ranch out west.

He reappeared in her life three years later to introduce her to a new stepmother. She soon followed a group of younger siblings. Mickle makes much of the way this must have hurt Alice, particularly her father’s reluctance to even say her name. (She was named after her mother.)


Mickle’s book is a study in how a republic treats the families of its leaders. The nickname “princess” shows the tightrope between democracy and dynasty, a line that presidential families have struggled to walk ever since. Alice was going to host the debutante ball at the White House and wanted a new floor installed. She turned to the President of the Chamber asking him to allocate funds for this purpose. “Alice used every trick she had against him, enjoying her first taste of lobbying,” Mickle writes, “but the President held firm, refusing the funds.”

That time he didn’t get what he wanted, but his desires were voracious. “I want more,” she scribbled in her diary. “I want everything.” She spent her huge allowance and saw nothing wrong with receiving high-value gifts because of his position. Foreshadowing the practices of generations of socialites to come, she “informed the newspapers about where she would be and what she would be doing, then pocketed the money for the information.”

She also liked to put on a show and push boundaries. Driving around Washington with a friend in a sports car, showing up at parties with her pet snake on her shoulders, smoking in public: she sought attention (and got attention). “In a fifteen-month period,” Mickle tells us, “she attended 407 dinners, 350 dances, 300 parties and 680 teas, and made 1,706 social calls.”

Alice was determined to earn while the earnings were good, fishing for a husband from Washington’s eligible bachelor pond. She wanted one with money and one who could one day become president himself. Her goal was to return to the White House. (Of course, he never did.)

She chose Nicholas Longworth, an Ohio congressman 15 years her senior. Their White House wedding was the social event of the season. But it turned out that Longworth was not on the presidential path and was a faithless alcoholic.

Alice’s life has turned into disappointments. She became famous for her caustic comments as she grew up, and her wit did not hide her bitterness. Her marriage was unhappy; her late-life son was the product of an affair. Her daughter died of an overdose when she was 30 years old. Her father’s presidency was always the golden moment that she wanted to recapture. She continued to engage in the politics of the day, joining the fight against the League of Nations and later writing newspaper articles against her cousin Franklin’s presidential candidacy. Richard Nixon had been a friend of hers for decades and invited her to his inauguration. She remained a Washington figure, still poised in the orbit of those in power despite having no official role.

The legacy of “Princess Alice” raises questions that we are still grappling with today. How much should presidential family members negotiate with their name? Could it even be avoided? Naturally, gifts and favors will materialize for those close to power, whether sought after or not. Being transported by motorcade and private jet these days means there is no escaping their connection to the president. It’s easy, I’m sure, to lose sight of what’s normal.

What We should be accepted as normal is itself an important issue. With presidential son Hunter Biden in the news for crossing the line to the point of being criminally indicted, we should think more seriously about where exactly that line should be drawn. There are few laws specifically dedicated to the activities of early family members. Should children be excluded from particular careers? From running for office? And the brothers? (When presidential children aren’t making headlines, there are embarrassing presidential siblings in the mold of Billy Carter.) Even when an activity isn’t officially banned, the whiff of darkness or altruism will linger if a family member appears to be cashing in. Individuals can be chosen by voting, but come with an unelected supporting cast.

If her father had not been president, Alice Roosevelt would still have remained in society pages. She would have been a Park Avenue debutante. She would have been eyed for marriage to the scion of a prominent family, or perhaps a titled European. She looked forward to a future of philanthropic work and social events. But she wanted more.

White House Wild Child: How Alice Roosevelt Broke All the Rules and Won America’s Hearts, by Shelley Fraser Mickle, Imagine, 256 pages, $27.99

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *