First Children: Growing Up In The Halls of Power

“Children of men in public life, somewhat like the children of preachers, learn early in life that people expect them to be adults before they are even adolescents.”– Lynda Bird

 

Freedom of expression, privacy, gay marriage, and religious fundamentalism all get a workout in Christopher Shinn’s play Now or Later. What holds all of these strands together in a dramatically riveting way is Shinn’s acute, human, and recognizable conflict between a politically ascendant father and his deeply ambivalent college-aged son. The candidate, John, Sr., is a fictional Democrat who is about to win the 2008 election for President of the United States. His son, John, Jr., has done something that may mar the success of the president- elect, and this sets in motion not only a rigorous debate of competing political and moral ideals but a psychological drama that deftly illustrates the dilemma faced by the children of powerful, successful men and women.

John, Jr. shares his contentious relationship with his father and his father’s career with his historical counterparts dating back to the country’s founding, the main causes being long absences and feelings of abandonment. John Adams’ two younger sons led troubled lives, struggling with alcoholism and debt. Although his eldest son, John Quincy, became president, his sons struggled, too — one was a likely suicide and another was a Harvard dropout. Robert Todd Lincoln failed the Harvard entrance exam 15 times before finally passing. Alice Roosevelt so vexed her father, Theodore, that he complained, “I can manage Alice or I can manage the country, but I cannot do both.” Alice for her part famously quipped: “My father wants to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding, and the baby at every christening.” More seriously, her brother Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. explained his own dilemma: “Don’t

you think that it handicaps a boy to be the son of a man like my father, and especially to have the same name? Don’t you know there can never be another Theodore Roosevelt?” Eleanor Wilson, who was 23 years old when her father became president once said, “He was no longer my father. These people, strangers, who had chosen him to be their leader, had claimed him. He belonged to them. I had no part in it. I felt deserted and alone.”

Until the modern era, the children of presidents were in a new kind of class. Growing up in the halls of power, they were the closest things to princes in American society, yet they usually could not and would not inherit their fathers’ power. Presidential children in more recent times face different kinds of challenges, living in an age when their every action can be recorded and commented on ad nauseum. As John, Jr. explains in the play, his predecessors had “...no viral spread of this whole kind of insubstantial, like — amorphous, gossipy personal stuff that can disproportionately impact the discourse — some stupid thing that starts on a blog and a week later is on the front pages.” Presidential families have always lived in a fishbowl, but now the fishbowl

is visible to the whole world. In the case of John, Jr. in Now or Later, a rash action could derail his father’s presidency before it begins. While he argues eloquently for his right to self-expression, he ultimately has to try to consider his father’s point of view as legitimate. And then, just like that, we are back at the beginning because as John Quincy Adams once said, “The first and deepest of all my wishes is to give satisfaction to my parents.”

Shinn offers an epigraph in his script: “be bloody, or be nothing.” It’s from Hamlet. The Prince of Denmark, of course, is the quintessential son struggling with a successful, now-absent father whose power and status he does not inherit. He is, in a way, a prototype for the ambivalent state in which many presidential children find themselves. Power and parenting, through the ages, change only on the surface.

- Lisa Timmel

First Children: Chelsea Clinton, Robert T. Lincoln, Barbara and Jenna Bush, and Alice Roosevelt

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