Mothers, Presidents, and Politicians

"Mothers all want their sons to grow up to be president, but they don't want them to become politicians in the process." So said John F. Kennedy, whose mother, Rose, was as formidable a figure in the Kennedy family as her husband, Joe. According to Mercedes Lynch Maloney and Anne Maloney, authors of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: Mothers, Sons, and Leadership, Rose hummed "Hail to the Chief" in the nursery instead of a traditional lullaby. When JFK was running for the Senate, Rose hosted real tea parties, prompting Henry Cabot Lodge to say those "damn tea parties" cost him the election.

Polls from the time bear out JFK's maxim about the unpopularity of politicians. In 1962 only 23% told Gallup interviewers that if they had a son, they would like to see him go into politics as a life's work. In 1943, when the question was first asked by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), just 17% gave that response.

What is it about politics that makes it so distasteful? The long-standing association of politics and corruption is one reason.

The history of this question is interesting because it provides a window into what is one of the most significant social changes of our lifetimes, and that is women's advancement in the academic, economic and electoral spheres. When NORC first asked the question in 1943, and when Gallup picked it up in 1945, the question was asked only about sons. Politics wasn't considered to be an appropriate vocation for women then. A majority of men and women disapproved of the idea of a women earning money if she had a husband capable of supporting her. In 1949, for the first time, 50% said they would vote for a woman if she seemed qualified for the job, but almost as many, 47%, said they would not. When the pollsters finally asked about politics as a career for daughters in 1991, the responses were similar to those for sons.

Even today a political calling isn't very popular. In March 2010, when the Pew Research Center asked people whether they would like to see a son or daughter pursue a career in politics, 36% said they would, but a solid majority, 55%, said they would not.

A study done in 2008 by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox for the Brookings Governance Program examined the attitudes of professional men and women about running for political office. The men were almost twice as likely as the women in the study to have displayed interest, but neither group found politics very appealing. Only a quarter of professional men and 13% of the professional women had considered it.

What is it about politics that makes it so distasteful? The long-standing association of politics and corruption is one reason. When Pew asked people in March to say in their own words what was wrong with elected officials today, respondents said that they were influenced by special interest money, that they cared only about their political careers and that they were out of touch with the views of ordinary Americans.

Even though Americans don't like politics, polls show that mothers (and fathers) believe their children can grow up to be president. Sixty percent gave that response the last time the question was asked. For those who make it to the top, mothers are often a powerful influence. Think of Jimmy Carter's mum Miss Lillian, of Barbara Bush, of Virginia Clinton Kelly--all of them as formidable in their own ways as Rose Kennedy and Sara Roosevelt before them. These mothers doted on their sons.

Strong maternal support may explain why so many politicians put their mothers up on a pedestal and invoke them so often to such great effect. Abraham Lincoln called his mother an angel, and Richard Nixon called his a saint. Barack Obama's relationship with his mother is more complicated. When her marriages failed, she turned to parents and friends to help raise him and his sister and lived abroad without him. Still, President Obama has invoked her memory, most recently when he signed the health care reform bill into law "on behalf of my mother." We'll never know if Obama's mother was as ambitious for her children as Rose Kennedy and Sara Roosevelt seemed to be for theirs. But we can be sure that she would be proud of the politician and president he became.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Giorgio Tomassetti/Creative Commons

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About the Author


  • Karlyn Bowman compiles and analyzes American public opinion using available polling data on a variety of subjects, including the economy, taxes, the state of workers in America, environment and global warming, attitudes about homosexuality and gay marriage, NAFTA and free trade, the war in Iraq, and women's attitudes. In addition, Ms. Bowman has studied and spoken about the evolution of American politics because of key demographic and geographic changes. She has often lectured on the role of think tanks in the United States and writes a weekly column for
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