Voters this year look set to continue an odd pattern that’s prevailed in presidential politics for a quarter century. They will elect either a candidate with a famous father or with no father.
The surviving serious contenders—Barack Obama, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney—all exemplify one of these two categories. For the seventh consecutive election, the winning candidate will be either a privileged prince with an adored, powerful patriarch, or an up-from-nothing scrapper with no relationship with his biological dad.
Mitt Romney is a classic example of a candidate with a famous father. George Romney achieved distinction as an auto-company executive, three-term governor of Michigan, serious presidential candidate, and secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, enjoyed no meaningful connection with his birth father. Newton Leroy McPherson was an abusive, hard-drinking auto mechanic who abandoned his 17-year-old wife within days of young Newt’s birth. The boy later took the last name of his stepfather, Bob Gingrich, a career army officer who moved his family around the world with the demands of his service.
The young Bill Clinton experienced related challenges: His father, hard-drinking traveling salesman William Jefferson Blythe Jr., fatally crashed his car three months before the future president’s birth. The boy later endured the drinking and battering of Roger Clinton, second of his mother’s four husbands.
Barack Obama fits snugly into the no-father tradition: Barack Sr. separated from his teenage wife and infant son before the boy’s first birthday, eventually returning to Kenya where he succumbed to chronic alcoholism at age 46.
Curiously, this means that if Mr. Gingrich becomes president, three of the last five chief executives of the United States will have grown up with minimal or no contact with their alcoholic, self-destructive birth fathers. And if Mr. Romney wins, three of the last five presidents will have emerged from the shadow of charismatic, widely admired political leaders.
The latter category obviously includes George W. Bush, who still worships his father, the war hero and president, who in turn profoundly admires his father, Prescott Bush—the 6-foot 4-inch World War I artillery captain, Wall Street titan and two-term U.S. senator from Connecticut.
Other would-be presidents of recent years similarly struggled to live up to legacies of famous fathers. Al Gore grew up in Washington, D.C., as the progeny of three-term U.S. Sen. Albert Sr., while John McCain spent his early life trying to replicate the heroics of his father and grandfather, both celebrated four-star admirals in the Navy.
No recent presidents can boast paternity that seems ordinary or normal, finding middle ground between the intense expectations of a powerful, prominent parent and the disasters of badly broken families with absent birth fathers.
In one sense, these extreme backgrounds now dominate the presidential process because that process itself has become so extreme. A rising politico can no longer wait for colleagues to push or pull him toward a White House race, or dream of sudden success at some brokered convention. A serious candidacy currently requires obsessive pursuit of power over the course of several years, with expenditure of tens of millions in campaign cash.