close
close
Skip to main content
Camilla Care

America’s strange history with children of presidents

Vaseline 1 month ago

Theodore Roosevelt was president at the dawn of the Celebrity Era and the dawn of much of the modern image of the presidency. The White House just started to be called that (instead of the Executive Mansion); Roosevelt’s renovations to the building created the West Wing. And his daughter, Alice, created one model for presidential relatives for the next century.

When her father became president, she was a gift to the Washington press corps at the age of seventeen. 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 Emperor had her christen his yacht. Her association with the royal family did not sit well with her father’s attitude as a man of the people, but he could do nothing to stop his daughter’s fame.

According to The wild child of the White HouseShelley Fraser Mickle’s new biography of the presidential daughter, Alice’s “celebrity had certainly taken him by surprise. He had not seen it coming. Whenever Alice appeared, crowds gathered to cheer her on. Dresses and gowns appeared in ‘Alice blue.’ Her face stared out of the cards on which candy bars were wrapped. Songs were written about her and her photo was featured on the covers of magazines. Mickle sees Alice as the forerunner of Jackie Kennedy, Princess Diana and other trend-setting figures beauties and influencers.

The president liked to use Alice tactically, to charm guests and diplomats. Such diplomatic tactics also went the other way: she was showered with gifts during foreign visits, gifts she called her “loot.” The Cuban government gave her a beautiful set of pearls for her wedding. The clause on foreign emoluments apparently did not apply to her.

Taking advantage of her situation seemed only normal. Alice’s father had to tell her that she was not allowed to ride the train without a ticket. (While presidents were entitled to free travel, their children were not.) But this was the moment when a presidential daughter could still hop on a train with 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 growing up 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 infant daughter and leaving her in the care of his sister while he fled to his political work and to his farm in the West.

Three years later he reappeared in her life to introduce her to a new stepmother. A group of younger siblings soon followed. Mickle talks about how this must have hurt Alice, especially her father’s unwillingness to even say her name. (She was named after her mother.)

***

Mickle’s book is an examination of how a republic treats the families of its leaders. The moniker “Princess” represents the intersection between democracy and dynasty, a line that presidential families have struggled to navigate ever since. Alice was going to have her debutante ball at the White House, and she wanted a new floor installed. She approached the chairman of the House of Representatives and asked him to make money available for this. “Alice used every trick against him and enjoyed her first taste of lobbying,” Mickle writes, “but the Speaker stood his ground and refused the money.”

She didn’t get her way that time, but her desires were voracious. “I want more,” she scribbled in her diary. “I want it all.” She spent her enormous pocket money, and she saw nothing wrong with receiving valuable gifts because of her position. Foreshadowing the practices of future generations of socialites, “She tipped off newspapers about where she would be and what she would be up to, then pocketed the money for the information.”

She also enjoyed putting herself in the spotlight and pushing boundaries. Driving around Washington in a sports car with a friend, showing up at parties with her pet snake around her shoulders, smoking in public: she sought attention (and got attention). “In a period of fifteen months,” Mickle tells us, “she attended 407 dinners, 350 balls, 300 parties and 680 teas, and made 1,706 social calls.”

Alice was determined to fish for a husband in the pond of DC’s eligible bachelors while the weather was good. She wanted one with money, and one who could one day become president herself. Her goal was to return to the White House. (Of course she never did.)

She chose Nicholas Longworth, an Ohio congressman fifteen years her senior. Their White House wedding was the social event of the season. But Longworth turned out not to be on the presidential track, and he was an unfaithful alcoholic.

Alice’s life turned into disappointments. As she grew older, she became known for her biting remarks, and the humor did not disguise her bitterness. Her marriage was unhappy; her child later in life was the product of an affair. Her daughter died of a drug overdose at the age of thirty. Her father’s presidency was always the golden moment she wanted to recapture. She remained involved in the politics of the time, joining the fight against the League of Nations and later writing newspaper columns against the presidential candidacy of her cousin Franklin. Richard Nixon was a friend for decades and he invited her to his inauguration. She remained a Washington figure, still floating in the orbit of those in power despite playing no official role.

The legacy of ‘Princess Alice’ raises questions that we still grapple with today. How Much Should Presidential Family Members Trade in Their Name? Could that even be avoided? Of course, gifts and favors will materialize for those close to power, whether they are asked for or not. Nowadays they are ferried around by motorcades and private jets, meaning there is no escaping their link to the president. I’m sure it’s easy to lose sight of what’s normal.

What We having to accept normal is in itself an important question. Now that the president’s son Hunter Biden is in the news for crossing the line to the point of a criminal indictment, we need to think more seriously about where exactly that line should be drawn. There are few laws specifically devoted to the activities of first family members. Should children be excluded from certain careers? Of running for office yourself? What about siblings? (When presidential children aren’t in the news, there are embarrassing presidential brothers in the mold of Billy Carter.) Even if an activity isn’t officially banned, the hint of shady or self-dealing will linger if a family member appears to be. cash in. Individuals can be chosen by ballot, but they have an unelected supporting cast.

If her father had not been president, Alice Roosevelt would still have made it into the society’s pages. She would have been a Park Avenue debutante. She would have been steered towards marriage with the scion of a prominent family, or perhaps with a title as a European. A future of philanthropic work and social events awaited. But she wanted more.

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