President Hayes was a nurturing father, author says
Rutherford B. Hayes might have lived in the 1800s, but his nurturing style of parenting was more like that of 21st-century dads, according to an author on the subject.
Hayes also shares the distinction of being a good father with fellow presidents Barack Obama, Harry Truman and Gerald Ford, according to “First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama” by Joshua Kendall.
“I was just so moved by Hayes being so sensitive to the needs of the children rather than sticking them into a cookie cutter that they all needed to be lawyers or into politics,” Kendall said.
Until recent years, fathers tended to be more hands-off with children, Kendall said. Hayes was ahead of his time in that he was very involved with his sons and daughter and encouraged their interests.
As Father’s Day approaches on June 18, Kendall reflected during a phone interview with the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums on Hayes and other presidential fathers studied in his book.
“I think that fathering provides a window into character,” Kendall said. “I guess one of the definitions of character is what people do when no one is looking, when the press isn’t there.
“It just kind of tells you what kind of man he was and how the president kind of relates to other people, how he listens to people. It just gives you a lot of information about the president as a decision maker, as well.”
In Hayes’ case, his ability to relate to his own children helped him in his roles of leadership, from serving as a Civil War officer to president.
“What I also found so sweet about Hayes was how nurturing he was to the soldiers,” Kendall said. “It was just so moving how he really enjoyed tending to them.
“We try to think of generals as very tough. There was really this sweet side where he treated his men like his sons.”
The chapter in Kendall’s book on nurturing presidential fathers focuses heavily on Hayes.
“President Hayes isn’t one of the better-known, one of the super-star presidents, such as Lincoln, Washington or Jefferson,” Kendall said. “Part of the book one of my goals was to bring out chunks of American history that aren’t as well known.”
In his research, Kendall found that Hayes, who was president from 1877 to 1881, and Obama had several similarities in their backgrounds, personalities and parenting and leadership styles. Both were raised mostly by women and attended Harvard University law school.
“They’re both connectors,” Kendall said. “Hayes and Obama really felt the same challenge of trying to bring the nation together.”
Hayes, who did not win the popular vote, became president after a highly contested election. It was 12 years after the Civil War, and tensions were still high between the North and South.
In Obama’s case, the nation was divided over partisan politics, Kendall said.
Hayes and his wife, First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes, had eight children, five of whom survived to adulthood. Each made different educational and career choices, and Hayes was supportive and caring in helping them with those pursuits.
Eldest son Birchard, who was never interested in politics, became a successful attorney in Toledo.
Unlike Birchard, scholarship was not the strong suit of second son Webb, who was the founder of the Hayes Presidential Library & Museums. Webb, who preferred adventure, attended Cornell University but ultimately dropped out. Hayes noted Webb’s lack of scholarship in his diary but focused on Webb’s strengths and supported him in other endeavors.
Webb became Hayes’ confidential secretary in the White House and later had a distinguished military career that included being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Webb also had an interest in history and opened the Hayes Presidential Library & Museums, the first presidential library in the United States, in 1916.
With all of his children, Hayes praised and valued their strengths and gave them constant encouragement.
Being a nurturer, a tiger dad who is tough on his children, a preoccupied father or any of the other types of presidential dads described in “First Dads” doesn’t guarantee success or failure as president, Kendall said.
For example, Lyndon Johnson was what Kendall considers a preoccupied dad, yet he accomplished “an amazing amount of legislation,” including the Voting Rights Act, Medicaid and Medicare.
“He was kind of a bully and arm-twister,” Kendall said of Johnson. “He wasn’t the greatest parent. He was really effective in getting things done.”
Each style has strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes different styles are needed in the White House at different times, Kendall said.
Josh Kendall has written several historical books and is an award-winning journalist who has written for several publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and New York Times.