Everything a Father Should Be
The January after he was first elected to Congress, Rep. William Lacy Clay was sworn in — for the second time in his life.
Thirty-two years earlier, the Missouri Democrat had watched from the House floor as his father, former Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay Sr., was sworn in.
“When he raised his hand to take the oath of office, I raised mine, too — at the age of 12 years old,” he said.
Clay is one of 26 current Members of Congress to follow his or her father’s footsteps into the Capitol.
Only one Member, Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.), was preceded by his mother, former Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.).
Growing up around Congress had its perks — children of Members often had free rein of their fathers’ offices, the Capitol grounds and, sometimes, the White House.
Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) got to spend snow days at the Capitol with his father, former Rep. Del Latta (R-Ohio), who would put him to work.
“It didn’t make any difference to me,” he said. “I just liked being there.”
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and his five brothers and sisters would cram into the office of his father, the late Rep. Nick Begich (D-Alaska). They would interrupt meetings and even play in the House gym.
“Did I understand the historical moments? No,” he said. “But did I know as a kid I had a great playground? Yes.”
The late Rep. Stewart Udall’s (D-Ariz.) prominent role in the House landed his son, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a chance to attend young Lucy Johnson’s birthday party at the Johnson White House.
“It was very lively, and I asked the first lady — Lady Bird Johnson — to rock and roll with me,” Udall said. “She accepted. It was a hoot!”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) got a chance to visit the Capitol early on, thanks to her father, the late Rep. Thomas D’Alesandro (D-Md.).
“My brothers kept saying, ‘Nancy, look at the Capitol!’ and I asked in reply, ‘Is it a capital A, B, or C?’” she said in an email.
Despite the fun and inspiring childhoods they enjoyed, most legacy Members didn’t plan on entering politics — and their fathers weren’t always encouraging.
“My dad would never have said this was what he wanted me to do,” Latta said. When he started law school in Ohio, “my dad’s parting words to me that day were, ‘Stay there.’”
Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) said his father, the late Rep. Walter Jones (D-N.C.), never encouraged him to get into politics. Nor did former Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.) encourage his son, Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.).
“He thought it would be better to spend time with my family, and I had a good law practice,” Bilirakis said.
Rep. Dan Boren’s (D-Okla.) father, former Rep. David Boren (D-Okla.), who followed his own father into Congress, too, warned his son against running for election.
“He said it’s a really tough life,” Boren said.
Sen. Jon Kyl’s (R-Ariz.) father, the late Rep. John Henry Kyl (R-Iowa), said the same.
“When I called him and told him I was going to run for the House of Representatives, he said ‘Why?’” Kyl said. “He didn’t think that was a very good idea … he said, ‘You’ve got a great job, why would you want to do that?’ and I said, ‘Well, for the same reason you did.’”
Still, growing up in a political family can help ease the decision to enter politics.
Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.) was won over watching his own father, former Rep. John Duncan Sr. (R-Tenn.).
“The politics just slowly gets into your blood,” Duncan said. “If you’d asked me back in middle school if I would end up in politics, I probably would have told you no.”
Rep. Rush Holt’s (D-N.J.) father, the late Sen. Rush D. Holt (D-W.Va.), helped him see the brighter side of politics.
“I heard countless testimonies from people who appreciated what my father had done for them,” he said.
Still, some fathers were proud to see their kids follow their path.
“While I was still in the middle of my first campaign for Congress, a tough battle, my father said to me, ‘Just remember — I don’t need a ticket to your swearing-in because former Members can go right to the floor,’” Pelosi said. “I pointed out to him that I hadn’t even won my election yet! But I think that was a sign that my father felt great pride.”
Encouraging them to run isn’t the only way Congressional fathers helped out their children. They also landed them page jobs and internships or helped them campaign.
Boren’s father helped him find a page job in Sen. Robert Byrd’s office in the summer of 1988. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) also served as pages. And Rep. Gus Bilirakis landed three different D.C. internships — including one in the Reagan White House — with the help of his father. Latta’s father, like many others, even helped him go door-to-door, campaigning for early political jobs.
Their fathers’ name recognition and political clout also helped some struggling Members — but that name recognition’s not everything.
“He said that he could help me get elected but he could not help me keep the seat,” Clay said.
It can even be a double-edged sword. Former Sen. Connie Mack III (R-Fla.) warned his son, Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.) of the potential difficulty.
“He said, ‘Look, Connie. You’re going to get half my supporters and all of my enemies.”
Preparation for the Path Ahead
Once elected, Congressional fathers were a valuable resource. Dingell said he learned plenty just growing up with his dad, the late Rep. John Dingell Sr. (D-Mich.).
“Living with him was an education all by itself,” he said. “Everything I needed to know.”
Boren, who just announced he would not run for re-election, still seeks his father’s advice and counsel on the big issues he faces.
“He said he probably would have done the same thing if he was in my shoes,” Boren said.
Pryor’s father, former Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.), also gave him some good advice, he said, but it was hard advice to follow.
“When I was packing up the moving van and driving out the driveway, he said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t get on the Ethics Committee,’” Pryor said. “He served there for 12 years.” Mark has now served on the same committee for six years.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), daughter of the late Rep. Edward Roybal (D-Calif.), said that when she was a freshman, no one offered to help her, presuming she already knew what to do.
“I had to stop and ask, ‘How do I vote? I don’t know, either,’” she said. “The assumption is that you just automatically know things. But it’s like if your father is a surgeon, just because you grew up with him doesn’t automatically mean you know how to be a surgeon.”
Not All Fun and Games
Having a Congressional father often made for some tougher childhoods.
For those who didn’t live in the District, Dad was often halfway across the country — and for those who did, he often worked far later than they would have liked.
“Starting in 1961, Dad was gone,” Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas) said of his father, the late Rep. Henry Gonzalez (D-Texas). “He couldn’t be in San Antonio during the week because his workplace was in D.C., and we couldn’t move to D.C. because finances didn’t allow it.”
It’s also tough to be constantly in the Washington “fishbowl,” as Roybal-Allard calls it.
“An elected official’s family has to develop a thick skin,” Gonzalez said. “Politics is rough-and-tumble, and you’re in the public eye. That parent is your mom or dad, so it can get very personal and very hurtful, especially for small children.”
Political parents also invite constant comparisons for their children.
“There’s always going to be a comparison by the electorate,” Gonzalez said. “Sometimes it’s not kind. ‘Your father would never have done this.’ How many times you will hear that!”
With such a tendency to compare, distinguishing yourself takes on substantial importance.
“My father taught me something I try to teach my boys,” Dingell said. “As I told my son Christopher, I said, ‘Son, you be a first-class Christopher and not a second-rate John. You be yourself, not me.’”
Comparisons, however, aren’t always thorns in the sides of legacy Members.
“There will always naturally be comparisons or people will have fond memories of him or his service,” Pryor said of his father. “I think sometimes people do compare us, and that’s OK with me. I see that as a compliment.”
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, daughter of former Rep. Arch Moore (R-W.Va.), agrees.
“I used to say, ‘Oh, I’m forging my own path, rejecting the following-the-footsteps kind of thing,’ but naturally, that’s an assumption,” the West Virginia Republican said. “I think he left pretty big footprints, and I’m trying to follow in his footsteps — but carving my own path at the same time.”
No matter the hours, the sacrifices or the job description, in the end, the former Members were all fathers first.
“I don’t know that, as a kid, you recognize the difference,” Mack said. “It’s just your dad. He’s the guy that shows up at your Little League baseball game and helps you with your homework and does all those types of things. He’s a shoulder to cry on when you’ve got problems. … He’s my hero, he’s my dad, he’s everything I think a man should be, a father should be and a husband should be.”