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Biden brings up 'Dad' a lot. Trump, not so much

James Rainey, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — To the long list of traits dividing the two leading candidates for president of the United States, add this: what they've said — or not said — about their dads.

President Joe Biden has used his time in the White House to talk repeatedly about the profound influence of his father. Former President Donald Trump spoke much less during his time in Washington about his dad, and typically in admiring but less sentimental terms.

On this Father's Day, the Biden administration is likely to issue a proclamation recognizing dads in general, and presidential father Joseph Robinette Biden Sr. in particular.

The younger Biden has repeatedly invoked his father — crediting Biden Sr., for example, for planting the seeds of his loathing of antisemitism, inspiring his support of paid family medical leave and firing his determination to put an end to human trafficking.

Trump credited Fred Trump Sr. as a tough patriarch but powerful influence in his life: instilling a belief in hard work and the conviction that private business gets a job done much better than government ever can.

Those views are recorded in the American Presidency Project, a comprehensive digital archive of documents and communications based at UC Santa Barbara. The database includes a search engine that makes it easy to find all manner of esoterica, including what all 46 presidents said about their dads.

The history of presidential fathers is wildly divergent, including doting dads, such as Prescott Bush, father of George H.W. Bush, and scoundrels, like Roger Clinton, the stepfather who drank excessively and beat his wife, Virginia, regularly, to the point that future President Bill Clinton demanded that he stop.

Biden has cited "my dad" or "my father" on more than 200 occasions since taking office in 2021, rarely going a week without mentioning Biden Sr., and name-checking his dad for such things as his resolve to support Israel and his pride in his Irish roots, the archive shows.

Trump invoked "my father" 21 times during his four years as president, including the time he boasted how his father's negotiating prowess set the template for his own haggling with Boeing to get a "great deal" on a replacement for Air Force One, the UCSB archive shows. (The Air Force expressed concern about getting all the state-of-the-art features it demanded, given the cut-rate price, Bloomberg reported.)

Trump never uttered "father" or "dad" in his inaugural address, and his father never made it into his State of the Union addresses.

At his inauguration, Biden recounted his dad's financial struggles and and cited him in all his State of the Union addresses. "I know a lot of you always kid me for always quoting my dad," Biden said at his 2023 address before launching into yet another story about his father.

In the fine tradition of presidential image making, neither the current nor former occupant used his time in the White House to delve into the darker or more complex shadings of their relationships with their fathers.

Trump worked with his father when the family's real estate company faced a pair of lawsuits alleging it denied apartments to Black tenants. The Trumps rejected the charges. They settled one case by allowing a Black family to move into the family's Cincinnati housing complex. The other case ended in another settlement, in which the family did not admit wrongdoing but pledged to rent to tenants of all races.

Before his time in the Oval Office, Trump acknowledged it was not easy being the son of a relentless businessman. "That's why I'm so screwed up, because I had a father that pushed me pretty hard," he wrote in his 2007 book, "Think Big."

Biden's father hopscotched through a variety of jobs in a career of busts and booms. A man who favored ascots, skeet shooting and jumping horses, Biden Sr. at times lived a more patrician lifestyle than his son's folksy, working-man tales might suggest.

In his memoir, "Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics," Biden acknowledged discovering a polo mallet, riding breeches and other markers of a privileged life in his father's closet. He also described a certain distance from the man he idolized. "I never asked him much about his life," Biden wrote, "and he didn't offer."

During World War II, when the future president was a toddler, the elder Biden worked for a defense contracting firm. A profile in the New Yorker described how the U.S. government cited the company for extracting excess profits (which were limited during the war effort) and forced a return of some of the money. Biden Sr. was an employee, though he was close to the company's owner. He faced no charges of wrongdoing.

Profiles of Trump have recounted a childhood of considerable privilege, bankrolled by his father's real estate holdings. But the abundance came at a price.

Trump's parents shipped their incorrigible second son off to military school 90 minutes outside New York City just after his 13th birthday. A childhood friend recalled to Politico how Trump told him his dad instructed him "to be a 'king,' to be a 'killer.'" An instructor at the school told a biographer that the elder Trump had been "really tough" on young Donald.

Announcing his presidential candidacy in 2015, Trump professed his love of his father. "I learned so much," Trump said at Trump Tower. "He was a great negotiator. I learned so much just sitting at his feet playing with blocks listening to him negotiate with subcontractors."

The future president said he defied his father in at least one sense. "He used to say, 'Donald, don't go into Manhattan. That's the big leagues. We don't know anything about that. Don't do it,'" Trump said during his campaign kickoff. "I said, 'I gotta go into Manhattan. I gotta build those big buildings. I gotta do it, Dad. I've gotta do it.'"

 

"I was never intimidated by my father, the way most people were," Trump wrote in his memoir, "The Art of the Deal." "I stood up to him, and he respected that. We had a relationship that was almost businesslike."

Fred Trump Sr. died in 1999 at age 93. Mary Anne MacLeod Trump, the future president's mother, died the following year at 88.

In early 2019, he told the Conservative Political Action Congress that his father had taught him, "Nobody ever got rich by sitting behind their desk." Trump added: "He'd say: 'You've got to be on this site. You've got to be with the contractors. You've got to see if they're ripping you off. You've got to collect every nail that's dropped, every piece of wood.'"

Trump said his father's advice paid off in his 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton, in which he won while spending a little more than half what the Democrat did.

"My father would say, 'If you could do it for less and win, that's a good thing, not a bad thing,'" Trump said at a 2019 Minneapolis rally. "If you can build a building for less money than the guy across the street, and if it's a nicer building and you can rent for less ... that's like a good thing."

When Joe Biden Sr. died in 2002 at 86, his son eulogized him as "a dreamer burdened with reality."

The president's frequent invocations of his father brim with affection, recalling that his dad called him "Joey" and "honey."

Just one week after Biden took the Oval Office, he mentioned his father in a document from the White House, in an official statement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

"I first learned about the horrors of the Holocaust listening to my father at the dinner table," Biden said. "The passion he felt that we should have done more to prevent the Nazi campaign of systematic mass murder has stayed with me my entire life."

Biden said he had taken his children to visit the Nazis' Dachau death camp in Germany and intended to take each of his grandchildren so they will "understand in their bones what can happen when people turn their heads and fail to act."

It was one of a dozen occasions as president that Biden invoked his father to explain his loathing of antisemitism or his support of Israel.

The president also cited his father as the one who taught him to abhor the abuse of power. He told Congress in a statement that advice was the source of his determination to "eliminate all forms of gender-based violence in the United States and around the world," which he called "a central part of my life's work."

Biden is more likely to name one of his dad's business setbacks, rather than his successes, as providing a key life lesson. He told a crowd in his hometown of Scranton, Pa., about the time his father lost his job and had to make "the longest walk a parent can make," to tell his children the news. "That's a hard thing for a proud man or woman to do. But so many had to do it," Biden said.

Biden Sr. subsequently left his wife and kids at his own father's home to move to Delaware for a new job as a car salesman, returning to Scranton to see his family on weekends.

Biden said his father told him, "Joey, a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It's about your dignity. It's about respect. It's about being able to look your kid in the eye and say, 'Honey, it's going to be OK.'"

On his first Memorial Day as president, Biden quoted what he said was his father's core philosophy: "That we're all entitled to dignity ... and respect, decency, and honor.... They're not empty words, but the vital, beating heart of our nation."

Like the Biden White House, the Trump administration issued proclamations paying tribute to dads every Father's Day.

"More and more, scientific studies show that fathers who actively invest in their children improve their lives emotionally, physically, academically, and economically," said one line in Trump's 2019 declaration.

Unlike Biden's Father's Day statements, which tucked in recollections about Biden Sr., the Trump declarations spoke of dads more generally. None mentioned Fred Trump Sr. by name.


©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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