WASHINGTON — Gov. George W. Bush has borrowed the motto of the Children's Defense Fund, "Leave no child behind." With all the current political emphasis on children, it occurred to me to look back on how presidents past have addressed children. This I was able to do, thanks to Stanley and Rodelle Weintraub, whose collection of letters of presidents to children is being published this fall under the title "Dear Young Friend" (Stackpole Press).
The early presidents addressed children with the formality of the time.
George Washington wrote to his nephew, George Steptoe Washington, urging him "not only to be learned, but virtuous, clothed decently and becoming your station." He counseled his teenage step-granddaughter, Nelly, to be careful of her suitor. "Is he a man of good character, a man of sense?"
Thomas Jefferson counseled his daughter, Martha, to be more careful about her spelling.
John Quincy Adams was also concerned with style, complaining to his son, John Adams II, of receiving three letters, "all grumbling letters and all badly written." James Polk wrote his nephew, Marshall, of being "mortified" at his bad conduct record at West Point.
Abraham Lincoln introduced a more in time style of letter. His last one, to the daughter of an innkeeper, included a verse:
You are young and I am older.
You are hopeful, I am not.
Enjoy life ere it grow colder.
Pluck the roses ere they rot.
Woodrow Wilson wrote to newsboys of Trenton, N.J., how glad he was that "you youngsters are starting to take care of yourselves." Calvin Coolidge wrote his son, John, at Amherst College to make sure he kept a record of his expenses. Herbert Hoover wrote a 10-year-old boy who asked how to become president, "First," said Hoover, by being a boy and "getting joy out of life."
In 1935, Franklin Roosevelt got a letter from nine-year-old Robert F. Kennedy. He sent him some stamps and invited him to the White House "some time" to see FDR's stamp collection.
To two schoolchildren in Newport, R.I., asking for an explanation of how the government worked, President Eisenhower replied with a five-page letter that started by saying elected officials were sometimes puzzled about that.
President Kennedy insisted on seeing 1 out of every 5 youthful letters that came in, answering questions about everything from space travel to the "little people" of Ireland. On the night of the Kennedy assassination, President Johnson delayed a Cabinet meeting to write in longhand to the Kennedy children.
And finally, in May, 1975, ex-President Richard M. Nixon, in the hospital, received a get-well card from Jonathan Schorr, nearly seven.
Nixon wrote expressing appreciation and his hope for a world without war. He ended, "Perhaps you will choose to follow in your father's footsteps, and if you do, I trust I will live long enough to see you."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society