Why presidents' kids struggle with careers

Jenna Bush Hager landed a plum job with 'Today,' but presidential offspring often falter in their efforts to establish meaningful livelihoods.

By , Staff writer

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    In this July 23 file photo, Jenna Bush Hager poses for a portrait in New York. NBC's "Today" show has hired Hager as a correspondent.
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Wish Jenna Bush Hager well in her new job on TV news. Decoder believes she is going to need all the help she can get. That's not a comment on Ms. Hager's fitness to be a "Today" show contributor. She seems a personable young woman and that might come across well on-screen.

No, we're talking about the difficult relationship between presidential children and employment. Many find it hard to establish an identity and make their own way in the world outside the White House.

"Do they have trouble with careers? The answer to that is ‘absolutely,' " says Doug Wead, a presidential historian and former special adviser to President George H.W. Bush.

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Finding a job, per se, isn't the problem, says Mr. Wead, who is the author of "All The Presidents' Children," a history of US first families. Someone is usually willing to offer them a position or a deal in an attempt to trade on their celebrity.

But "first kids" face enormous pressure to live up to their names. Media attention means they can't just endure typical 20-something travails in peace. Remember Ron Reagan Jr.?

Well, today he's dropped the "Jr.," and is a successful cable pundit and talk show host. But before that he got expelled from prep school and dropped out of college before joining the Joffrey Ballet.

"They have a hard time finding the thing it is they really want to do, and the way they want to do it," says Wead.

Ironically, the first son ever to be born to a US president remains one of the most successful. John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, was an effective secretary of State and was elected president in his own right.

But his oldest son? Hmmm. George Washington Adams was an alcoholic and a womanizer and probably a suicide at age 28.

Marshall Polk, stepson of President James Polk, was thrown out of Georgetown and West Point and ended his days in jail. Ulysses S. Grant Jr. dragged his father into a business deal that went bust, and they lost everything. Chester Arthur Jr. was a disreputable playboy. And so on.

Generally, entering business is a bad idea for presidential kids, says author Wead. Too many sharks and investigative reporters. Media jobs are OK – Anna Roosevelt, daughter of FDR, landed a good gig hosting a show on ABC Radio. (It got canceled after one year, due to lack of sponsorship.)

"The safest jobs for presidential children are either going into politics, which is kind of a family business, or education, which is another area where they can really shine," says Wead.

There have been two Bush presidents, as well as two Adamses. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, son of President John Tyler, was president of the College of William and Mary for 31 years. Helen Taft Manning, daughter of President William Howard Taft, was the longtime dean of Bryn Mawr College in Pennyslvania.

And remember, Jenna Bush Hager actually has two jobs. Her other position is reading coordinator for a Baltimore school. Which career will she choose?

Sounds like a good plot for a reality show to me.

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