Family Strains: Do They Really Effect Presidential Candidates?

(Photo courtesy
(Photo courtesy

by Bill Redeker, ABC News

The recent revelation that all was not well in the Giuliani household seemed to surprise many political observers. Perhaps their reaction was a little premature. A review of past presidential elections reveals that in virtually every case, embarrassing family revelations had little impact at the ballot box.

To set the stage, this is what happened over the weekend.

Presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani's 21-year-old son Andrew told The New York Times that while he supports his father, he is "too busy with golf" to be part of his campaign. Andrew, a student at Duke University, told ABC News that he does "not want to hurt" his father, but he's also not about to keep quiet.

The strain in the father-son relationship apparently is due to the former New York City mayor's decision to divorce his wife, Donna Hanover, and marry Judith Nathan. "There's obviously a little problem that exists between me and his wife," Andrew said. His father, in Los Angeles on a campaign stop, told reporters, "My wife Judith is a very loving and caring ... mother and stepmother. She has done everything she can. The responsibility is mine."

Will There Be Repercussions?

Almost immediately political pundits pounced on Andrew's revelation and said it could seriously hurt Giuliani's campaign. "It's a real first strike against the candidate, puts them in a deep dark hole right off the bat," presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told ABC News.

History may reveal a different conclusion.

Ronald Reagan's daughter Patti Davis took drugs, posed nude for Playboy Magazine and penned erotic novels. Embarrassing to her father perhaps, but it did not derail his bid for re-election.

President Bush's daughters Jenna and Barbara tried to illegally order margaritas at a Texas restaurant in June 2001. Humiliating for their father who had his own history with alcohol, but not destructive at the polls.

The list of first family follies goes on and on.

Roger Clinton accepted an invitation to North Korea. Billy Carter exploited his "first-brother" status to sell Billy Beer and arms to rogue nations. Amy Carter flunked out of Brown and was known as a spoiled brat who went on to get arrested at several anti-nuke rallies. William Henry Harrison called his son "the destruction of my hopes."

But Americans are a forgiving lot. The reality is that the sins of the children are rarely visited on their fathers come election day.

It's not difficult to understand why.

First, the election is many months down the road. Will anyone remember Andrew's remarks?

"It's too early to see if this will have an effect," said Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "Generally, comments by a child like this will be taken with lots of grains of salt."

Giuliani Family Values

Second, in a nation where more people are getting divorced than married, a lot of voters will likely be sympathetic to family discord. Who hasn't had an issue with their parents?

"This is more about divorce than politics," said Stephen Hess. Hess, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, questions whether it will make a difference. "At some point, 'family-value Republicans' will ask some questions about Giuliani's personal life but they won't need young Giuliani's comments to make a case. It doesn't tell us much about Rudy Giuliani that we don't already know."

Giuliani's three marriages have already become somewhat of an issue and been politically exploited by the wife of candidate Mitt Romney, who noted that her husband "had only one wife."

"Being related to a president [brings] more problems than opportunities," said Doug Wead, a former aide to Bush. Wead is author of "All the President's Children." His historical research found "higher than average rates of divorce and alcoholism and even premature death." He wrote, "Some presidential children seemed bent on self-destruction."

But the impact on the candidate is not necessarily lasting. Even William Henry Harrison's grandson Benjamin was elected president.

And it can cut both ways.

"One child can follow in their father's footsteps, the other may not," said Hess. "John Adams' one son, John Quincy Adams, became president of the United States. Another son was an alcoholic who knocked up a woman and committed suicide."

Andrew told ABC News that, "We are both working on our relationship. No matter what he's done, I love my father. This is something families go through every day."

"Almost all presidents have had a black sheep for a brother, sister or child," said Hess. "But we're a pretty sophisticated bunch when it comes to electing the individual, not the family."

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Posted by R. Smith, KTRE-TV