- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004


By Gerald W. Gawalt and Ann G. Gawalt

Black Dog & Leventhal, $17.95, 288 pages


It should not surprise anyone that men who become presidents of these United States and thereby consider themselves to know what is best for the nation and, perhaps, the entire world, also think they know what is best for their daughters. But it may surprise some persons to find that presidents, whom they have thought to be rude and uncaring or cold and heartless, often have the deepest love and affection for those same daughters. And that that love and affection are reciprocated by daughters who think their fathers are the most wonderful of men.

Gerard W. Gawalt and, fittingly, his daughter, Ann G. Gawalt, have compiled a book of letters exchanged between presidents and their daughters, letters that range from the trivial to the deeply personal, letters showing in many cases the love and respect so many daughters have for their fathers, the presidents, and letters showing unusual warmth between fathers and daughters.

At best, the book, titled “First Daughters” is a sampling of thousands of letters available not only in the Library of Congress, but also in the various presidential libraries and in private collections. Many of the letters were written either before the writers became president or after they left office. Mr. Gawalt is the curator of presidential papers in the Library of Congress which published the book.

The book contains brief — perhaps too brief – biographies of those presidents whose letters are in the book, and also their wives and daughters. Unfortunately the book is marred by mistakes which, though not taking away from its main thrust, ought not to have been made, especially by an author of Mr. Gawalt’s knowledge and background.

The most egregious error asserts that President Richard Nixon was impeached. He was not, although had he not resigned first he most assuredly would have been.

For some reason the Gawalts decided to use letters from President Reagan to his younger daughter Patricia, who took the name Patti Davis to divorce herself from her parents.

They ignored his older daughter, Maureen, though Patti was estranged from her parents during most of her father’s presidency while Maureen, who had a much closer relationship with her father, worked actively on his behalf.

The Gawalts mistakenly say Patti “was not very active” in her father’s campaigns. In fact, she took no part in them at all and during much of his presidency was highly and vocally critical of many of his policies.As if to emphasize her unhappiness with her parents she posed nude for a girlie magazine while her father was still president.

Errors aside, there is much that is interesting and delightful in the book. One ordinarily thinks of presidents in terms of their political careers, careers in which, for the most part, they fought and clawed their way to the top, earning along the way reputations, often deserved, for meanness, deviousness, dishonesty, political opportunism and a host of equally unflattering traits.

But you’d never know it from reading their letters to their daughters, letters filled with love, affection, kindness, concern and often, good advice. The daughters, in turn, see only the best sides of their fathers — at least in these letters.

In these modern and less formal times one ordinarily assumes that a loving father, regardless of his exalted position, would sign a letter “daddy” or “dad” or maybe “father.” Not necessarily so. John Adams signs off on a letter to daughter, Abigail, “I am your affectionate father John Adams.”

Well, at least he told her who he was. Others, especially in, but not limited to, the early days of the Republic had much the same formal style, signing their full names and sometimes their titles. Thomas Jefferson signed off this way in a letter to his daughter, Martha: “Yours affectionately, Th. Jefferson.”

In some cases the formality may have been dueto the fact that the busy father did not write personally, but dictated letters which may or may not have been signed by him.

More than most presidents Jefferson tended to lecture his daughters in his letters. One must remember, however, that he and other presidents were away from home much of the time and much advice that ordinarily would have been delivered in person had to be sent by mail.

In those early days, also, letters sometimes took months to reach the intended recipient. Though it may be hard to believe, the postal service was worse then than now.In fact, in some cases it was non-existent and letters were sent by friend or messenger.

When being sent overseas where the fathers, before becoming president, were often stationed, letters had to wait for a ship headed in that direction. And these were sailing ships, just a bit slower than, say, the Queen Mary. Under the circumstances, with sometimes months between letters, it is easy to understand why so many of the letter writers, both fathers and daughters, begged to be written to more often.

In modern times probably the two most generally reviled presidents have been Nixon and Lyndon Johnson — Nixon, partly because of Watergate and partly because of his well-earned reputation as a political gut-fighter, and Johnson more than anything because he often came across as a rude and ill-bred bully.

But you’d never know it from their correspondence with their daughters.Each president had two daughters and the love and devotion both had from and gave to their children belies their politial reputations. This is especially true with Johnson and his daughters. Luci Baines and Lynda Byrd.

Perhaps the wittiest and chattiest of the presidents was Theodore Roosevelt who seems also to have been the only one to illustrate his letters with drawings. He would not have made it as an artist.

Presidents, not surprisingly, are good at giving advice to anyone who will listen, including their daughters, or in George Washington’s case, children he reared as his daughters. Here’s a warning Washington wrote to his granddaughter, Eleanor Parke Custis, then l7: ‘ … be assured a sensible woman can never be happy with a fool.” Washington again to the same young lady:” … love is too dainty a food to live upon alone.”

Here is John Adams to his daughter, Abigail: “Your sex must reserve their virtue and discretion or their brothers, husbands and sons will soon lose theirs. The morals of our country are a sacred deposit and let every youth or either sex, beware that no part of the guilt of betraying it belongs to him.”

Even less famous presidents were not loathe to give advice. In one letter to his daughter, Fanny, Rutherford B. Hayes warned: “You must curb your rebellious spirit” and a little later in the same letter pleads, “make us all happy by your Considerate and discreet conduct.”

The book includes the letters of 21 presidents. Others had no daughters or didn’t write much or perhaps no letters were available. Neither of the last two presidents, William J. Clinton or George W. Bush, is included although both are fathers of daughters. Maybe next time, if by then letters haven’t been totally superceded by phone calls and e-mail.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was an adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

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