As we discussed last month, Mother’s Day had its origins in the Civil War, but Father’s Day came much later. According to The History Channel, the nation’s first event explicitly in honor of fathers occurred on July 5, 1908 at a West Virginia church. That event commemorated 362 men who had died in explosions the previous December at the Fairmont Coal Company mines in Monongah, W. Va.
The event was not meant to become an annual one, and it did not. Father’s Day did not become a yearly celebration until a woman named Sonora Smart Dodd, one of six children who had been raised by a widower in Washington state, petitioned local churches, the YMCA and government officials to support an annual holiday. Washington state celebrated the nation’s first statewide Father’s Day on June 19, 1910.
As The History Channel explained, the idea spread … slowly. It took 14 years for President Calvin Coolidge to merely suggest other states follow Washington’s lead. And it was not until 1972, under President Richard Nixon, that Father’s Day became a national holiday. (For those keeping track, that date was nearly six decades after Mother’s Day was made a national holiday by President Woodrow Wilson.)
A florist explained the tepid reception to the History Channel this way: “Fathers haven’t the same sentimental appeal that mothers have.”
Tell that to the late former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, who clearly stood in awe of his father. He explained, “I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet, a man who came [to the United States] uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example.”
Many U.S. presidents, unfortunately, probably did or do not remember their fathers as warmly as Gov. Cuomo did. In 2012, presidential historian and biographer Douglas Brinkley and The Denver Post ranked the best and worst fathers of presidents. Among the worst was Gerald Ford’s father. Ford’s mother left the man 16 days after the future president’s birth and never received child support. Ford eventually took the name of his stepfather and only met his biological father once in his life. (President Barack Obama also reportedly met his father, Barack Obama, Sr., only one time.) Bill Clinton also shares a surname with his stepfather instead of his father. Clinton’s biological father died in a car crash before Clinton was born.
Among the most revered fathers of our presidents was Theodore Roosevelt Sr. who, Brinkley says, instilled in his son, the 26th president of the United States, “a love and respect of the outdoors.” The elder Roosevelt also supplied his son “private tutors in foreign languages, taxidermy lessons with a student of Audubon and weights after a bully beat up Teddy.”
The nation, of course, watched this past December as the nation’s 43rd president eulogized his father, who had served as the nation’s 41st commander in chief. The younger Bush recalled his dad’s first and only inaugural address, in which he gave the nation some fatherly advice. President George H.W. Bush said, “We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent, a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood and town better than he found it. What do we want the men and women who work with us to say when we are no longer there? That we were more driven to succeed than anyone around us? Or that we stopped to ask if a sick child had gotten better, and stayed a moment there to trade a word of friendship?” Prescott Bush, the father of the 41st president, also served in Washington, as a senator from Connecticut, from 1952 to 1963.
Like the two Bushes, every other U.S. president but one (James Polk) was a father or stepfather at the time of their inauguration. (The nation’s first president, George Washington, did not have biological children, but Martha Washington had children from her first marriage. A testament to his step-fatherhood, Martha’s son, John, named his own son George Washington Parke Custis.)
John Adams, the only other American besides George H.W. Bush to have served as president and fathered one, was a harsh parent. He reportedly told John Quincy Adams that he would either be president or a failure. President Theodore Roosevelt took a decidedly different path. According to author and journalist Joshua Kendall, he staged pillow fights in the White House and “used to stop working at three o’clock and go and play tag in the attic” with his children. John and Caroline Kennedy, the two children of President John F. Kennedy, were frequently photographed playing in around the White House, including in the Oval Office and with the pony named Macaroni that Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, gifted to Caroline.
The father-child ties are strong on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, too. Former Sen. Chris Dodd (namesake of the Dodd-Frank Act) visited the U.S. Capitol for the first time when his father, Thomas Dodd, was sworn in as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Former Utah Sen. Robert Bennett was an intern in his father’s Senate office. (Sen. Wallace Bennett served in the upper chamber of Congress for 23 years.) Former Sen. Evan Bayh from Indiana was in second grade when his father, Birch, came to Washington. Current Sen. Rand Paul serves a different state, but his dad, Ron Paul, served in the U.S. House, representing Texas’ 14th and 22nd districts, until 2013, and Rep. Liz Cheney represents the state of Wyoming in the U.S. House, just like her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, did.
Despite the influence political and non-political fathers have on their children, Americans are expected to spend only $16 million celebrating fathers this year, about $7 billion less than we spend on our moms. Dads are catching up, though. According to the National Retail Federation, spending on Father’s Day has grown 70 percent since 2009. The biggest drivers of the growth in Father’s Day spending? Consumers between the ages of 35 and 44.
The best present a child can give a father, though? Carry on the family dynasty, and that happens often inside the Beltway. According to a study published by three economists in The Review of Economic Studies, nepotism has been a reality of American politics throughout our collective history. The study found that 13.5 percent of senators throughout U.S. history have come from families where another member served in Congress. That figure is about eight percent for members of the U.S. House.