Nowadays with two out of every five children born out of wedlock and most of these raised by single mothers, this fact has become of crucial significance. What recently drove this home for me was reading two biographies, one of Barack Obama and the other of Mitt
David Maraniss’ book “Barack Obama: The Story” and Michael Kranish and Scott Helman’s “The Real Romney” could scarcely have depicted more different childhoods and more different parents. At the end, I was left with no doubt about why these men have grown into such different adults.
Let us begin with Obama’s father. By now almost everyone has heard that Barack senior was Kenyan and by all accounts intellectually gifted. Far fewer are aware of how emotionally damaged the man was. Expected by many to become an important personage, he never achieved this status; largely because of his imperfections.
If we start with his son’s arrival in the world, Barack senior’s story includes marrying the future president’s mother, but he was little more than a sperm donor. After not telling Stanley Ann Dunham that he already had a wife and children in Kenya, he managed to live with her for but one month after the birth of their son.
In no sense was he ever paternal. Yes, he ran away from Hawaii to go to school in Harvard, but this pattern of running away existed before, and after, Barack II’s arrival. In some ways this was lucky for his American son because when he did stay with his wives (there were several), he frequently beat them.
On top of this Obama senior was a raging alcoholic with a penchant for getting into fatal automobile accidents. The one that eventually took his own life was but one of a series that never induced him to become more careful. Arrogant and overbearing, he was going to do things his way.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, had a father who was present and supportive. George Romney was a self made man and a dedicated family man. Having dropped out of college to marry his wife, they remained married and available to their children.
George was a hard-driving executive who rose to become the CEO of American Motors and a three-time governor of Michigan. Nonetheless, he always made time for his children; especially the youngest one, Mitt. Furthermore, he listened to what his son said and respected his contributions.
George also encouraged Mitt to live up to his potential. Besides financial support, he supplied something even more valuable; he bequeathed his son a strong sense of self. Right from the beginning, the young Mitt emulated his father’s sense of responsibility and leadership.
Young Barack, in contrast, was left adrift. Often uncertain about who he was or where he belonged, his early life featured unfocused explorations. The wonder is that he found an identity he could sustain.
Obama wrote a book entitled “Dreams from My Father,” but in truth he obtained almost nothing from his father except perhaps his intelligence and a hole in his soul. He had to learn how to be a man with very little guidance from a successful and committed adult male.
Barack junior today presents an appearance of preternatural stability. Nothing seems to faze him. But this is analogous to what has been called precocious independence. Children who lack dependable attachment figures frequently develop a façade of self-sufficiency. This does not, however, signal an absence of inner turmoil.
For Mitt, however, the inner stability is real and presidential. It is a precious legacy given to him by a father who was reliably there.
Melvyn L. Fein. Ph.D. is professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University.