In this Presidents Day week, if we stop to think about the nation’s executives at all, it’s generally about Honest Abe and George’s apple tree. But one of the things that ties together so many of our nation’s greatest political leaders isn’t superhuman honesty — it’s the way personal tragedies seemed to lead to a greater sense of empathy.
It’s something I hadn’t thought about until about four years ago, when Washington Post reporter Lillian Cunningham launched her outstanding “Presidential” podcast. Time after time, the stories of our greatest leaders had common themes: It was the story of a child who lost a parent; a parent who lost a child.
Malcolm Gladwell noted the phenomenon among those who lost a parent, and called them “eminent orphans,” attributing their success to the fact that they’d seen the worst life could deal them.
I think it’s something more. How might personal loss have led to a deeper sense of empathy among the presidents who were truly great?
At least 13 presidents lost a parent before age 18. Eighteen presidents lost a child. Many battled serious illness. To be sure, not all of them were great — sorry, Franklin Pierce — but among them were all the greats. Just look at the top five, as ranked by a panel of historians from across the nation. Across parties and ideologies, they had tragedy — and later, empathy.
Abraham Lincoln’s mother died when he was 9. He lost a brother and a sister early. The family was poor and transient. He struggled as a child. His marriage was turbulent, as he tried to provide a steadying influence in his home while Mary Todd Lincoln struggled with illnesses still not fully understood. And through it, he watched two of his sons die.
George Washington was 11 when he lost his father, and with his property willed to Washington’s stepbrothers, he and his mother lived a more frugal life than most people suspect.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was a successful civil servant and politician before he contracted polio at age 39. The man whose life had been defined by physical vitality and boundless energy was humbled by disease; in his recovery his “steely will seemed to grow stronger,” a Miller Center of Public Affairs biography notes.
Theodore Roosevelt’s biography is a litany of personal tragedy. Plagued by asthma, his parents tried to protect him from the outside world, until he seemed to overcome it by sheer will. Off to college, his father was struck ill, and died before he could say goodbye. Roosevelt was just 19.
It only got worse for him. After college, he married his childhood sweetheart — who died in his arms hours after the birth of their first child. “My mother had died in the same day, in the same house, but a few hours previously,” he noted a few days later in his diary. “For joy or for sorrow my life has now been lived out.”
Dwight Eisenhower grew up incredibly poor in Abilene, Kansas, and at age 4, saw his infant brother die of diptheria. At age 31, he and Mamie lost their 3-year-old son to scarlet fever. He was famously quoted after as saying “There’s no tragedy in life like the death of a child. Things never get back to the way they were.”
Things did never get back the way they were for Ike — he reached greater heights than most could have imagined. Teddy’s life was not, in fact, lived out. What strikes me about these five greatest presidents is that each of them had incredibly invasive tragedies — and they were also, by so many accounts, among the most empathetic people to hold executive power in our nation’s history.
Does it mean all personal tragedies lead to empathy? Almost certainly not. But the sense of empathy among these five greats seemed to possibly be the most key ingredient in their successes.
Consider the reverse of the argument: Among the worst presidents in American history — Harding, Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson — there are stories of tragedy, but one rarely reads of empathy being among their key attributes.
Perhaps — just perhaps — we might consider empathy as a critical ingredient in presidential success.