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When Truman is your grandpa: The complicated lives of presidential descendants

Clifton Truman Daniel was in first grade when he discovered something surprising about his grandpa. When the teacher asked each student to introduce themselves and share a little bit about their family, Daniel stood up, said his name, and sat back down. Then the teacher asked, “Wasn’t your grandfather president of the United States?”

Clifton Truman Daniel, age 4, with his grandfather, President Harry S. Truman. (Family photo)

This was news to Daniel, who went home that day and marched across the living room. “Mom, did you know that Grandpa Truman had been president?” he said. As Daniel recalled, his mother rolled her eyes and said, “Yes, yes. But remember something: Any little boy’s grandfather can be president. Don’t let it go to your head.”

The following year, Daniel and his parents represented the Truman family at President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 inauguration, and were invited to a private breakfast at the White House. Time passed; his father looked at his watch and announced, “We have a train to catch.” “Relax,” said the president. “You’ve got time.”

Finally, the family rushed to a waiting car, then were whisked to Union Station, where they sprinted down the train platform. “Folks, slow down, slow down,” a conductor told them. “The White House called.” And that’s when the 7-year-old boy finally got it: “Oh my God. My grandfather could stop trains.”

Now Daniel, 64, serves as the vice president of the new Society of Presidential Descendants. Nineteen other White House scions — from the sixth-great granddaughters of James Monroe to the grandson of Jimmy Carter — gathered with their guests at Manhattan’s University Club for the group’s inaugural dinner Saturday night. For many, it was the first time meeting each other and a chance to compare notes on what it means to be one of only 45 families with a president in the family tree.

“We call them the Eisenhower years, the Kennedy years, the Johnson years,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who served as emcee for the night. “Presidents matter. We run our historical timeline in the United States around presidential elections. In a celebrity culture, presidents are the top of the food chain.”

For some descendants, that’s a source of pleasure and pride. For others, it’s a burden. For most, it’s a responsibility that defines them in ways both big and small.

“I’m interested in the people who have preceded me and how they lived,” said Lynda Johnson Robb, 77, the oldest daughter of Lyndon B. Johnson, when asked about this new organization. Robb is a vice president of the group and the only child of a president so far to join; most first sons and daughters can’t wait for the day they can escape the spotlight and focus on their own lives.

“They’re real people,” she added. “They walk and talk and cry wet tears.”

Tweed Roosevelt, a great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, and Massee McKinley, a great-great grandson of Grover Cleveland and great-great nephew of William McKinley, met three years ago at a White House Historical Association event in Washington. The two men hit it off and decided there needed to be a national organization for presidential descendants — initially as a way for families to meet, and then as a forum for presidential scholarship and civic engagement. Typically, presidential families have their own associations and reunions, but there wasn’t one group dedicated to bringing together all the families.

The nonpartisan group is invitation-only but inclusive; descendants of presidential siblings also count. The pandemic postponed most of the plans until this year, and none of the best-known modern families — Kennedys, Clintons or Obamas — have joined so far. (The board has not yet extended an invitation to the Trumps.)

And, to be honest, not every descendant wants to spend time talking about their famous ancestor. But if you’re a McKinley or a Roosevelt — well, it’s usually one of the first questions people ask.

The Roosevelt name wasn’t a big deal at boarding school, but at Harvard Tweed was admonished for breaking the dress code: “Mr. Roosevelt, it’s all right for the other kids to do that, but it’s not all right for you.”

“My first thought was, well, this is not fair,” he recalled. “And that’s when I realized that the benefits I get by being a Roosevelt comes with responsibility — and one of the responsibilities is the public face you put on and that other people get pleasure out of meeting you and are interested in your relatives.” Everybody wants to touch the presidency. “So we’re sort of a surrogate for that, and this can be a problem.”

President Theodore Roosevelt and his family in 1903. (Library of Congress)

When he was young, people would tell Roosevelt they were so honored to meet him, but he quickly realized none of it was actually about him. “The myths about TR are mostly true — there’s no way I can do what he did. I wouldn’t talk about it, but it’s pretty intimidating to have such a larger-than-life ancestor.”

Now 79, his job is mostly just to listen: to the tales people know about Teddy or his distant cousin Franklin Delano, or thoughts on a favorite quote or speech. “One of the burdens is you have to listen politely and pretend you’ve never heard the story.”

And this: People would tell him their grandfather or great-grandfather was a Rough Rider — a member of the famous cavalry unit that fought alongside Theodore Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War. Tweed Roosevelt soon figured out that anyone who fought in that war was a Rough Rider, at least according to family lore.

“When I was young, I might pop that balloon,” he explained. “And then I said to myself, ‘You know, why do that? So I then switched to ‘I’m glad to hear it. That’s wonderful.’ When I got older, I realized I should pay more attention to the person I’m talking to and just make them feel good.”

Many descendants struggle to balance historical facts with popular narratives.

McKinley, 48, knew he was descended from two presidents when he was 7 or 8; his father was a history teacher. Growing up, people assumed he would be a politician or involved in government. “I’ve never seen myself as being someone that aspired to that, and so I would never really live up to that legacy,” he said. But he does feel a responsibility to make sure that Cleveland and McKinley are given their due.

The problem, of course, is that most people don’t know much about either president. So they talk about McKinley’s assassination or they talk about Mount McKinley, which becomes a discussion about Alaska and whether he’s mad they changed the name to Denali. (He’s not.)

At the end of the day, being a descendant means giving people the opportunity to talk about what it means for them to be an American. And to see presidents in their full humanity — something the new organization hopes to emphasize. Said McKinley, “We try to bring together people from both parties and discuss all the presidencies: the good, the bad, the ugly.”

The good: Patricia Taft loves being the great-granddaughter of William Howard Taft, and comes from a family full of Ohio politicians.

“Growing up a Taft, I I just always felt like I could be like an ambassador for the presidency or the United States,” she said.

She reeled off some Taft trivia: “He was the first president to do anything that was lifestyle-oriented in public: He was the first to golf publicly, which is a little random but no one did that before him. He was the first to throw out the pitch at the baseball game. He was the first president also to have his funeral broadcast on the radio.”

Just for the record: The story about Taft getting stuck in a bathtub? There’s no evidence it’s true, and “let’s be honest, I also feel like Taft has gotten a bad rap.”

Patricia, 36, wanted to be at the dinner Saturday but missed it because of another descendant: Her newborn daughter, whom she named Herron after Taft’s wife, Helen Herron Taft.

The bad: For the first 15 years of his life, Ulysses Grant Dietz avoided his first name. The great-great-grandson of the Civil War general was given the ancestral moniker but called Grant by his parents because the president had become an object of ridicule, thanks to the rise of the pro-Confederacy mythology known as the Lost Cause. “In order to make Robert E. Lee a hero, Ulysses Grant had to become a villain,” said Dietz.

As a teenager, he decided to reclaim his real first name. “When it became known to people that I was descended from Ulysses, the first thing they would do was make fun of him: He was a drunk. He was a butcher. He was a bad president. He was a stupid student. None of which were true, actually,” said Dietz, 66. “But as a result, I didn’t really put myself out there.”

In his 30s, Dietz was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Interior Department for neglecting Grant’s Tomb in New York City. That led to a restoration — and Dietz’s own deep dive into Grant scholarship, resulting in a mission to give the 18th president a fair hearing: “I want to set the record straight because most of what’s been published is false.”

“I think what’s happened in the last five years has made it very clear that the Civil War never really ended, it was just scabbed over,” he said, adding, “As appalled as I am over the last five years, I am also grateful that we’ve all been forced to look at it.”

And the complicated: Harry S. Truman died when Clifton Truman Daniel was 15, and their relationship was not that different from any other grandfather and grandson. The Trumans didn’t have Secret Service protection until after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and then the agents played chicken with the grandkids in the pool and secretly taught them to play billiards. “It was like having a bunch of heavily armed uncles,” remembered Daniel. But one trip to Key West involved a limousine, a plane ride, a private jet and another limousine. At one point, Daniel turned to his father: “Dad, are we getting richer?” “No,” his father replied. “We’re just traveling with your grandfather.”

It wasn’t until after his grandfather died that he began to learn more about the man and the president. “The only difference between me and any other kid learning about the Truman administration was that I could go home and fact-check,” he said. Daniel’s mother, the president’s only child, was both fiercely protective of her father and tired of being in the public eye. “We came out of a restaurant one night in New York, my father and my mother and I, and another patron touched my mother on the shoulder and said, ‘Excuse me, aren’t you Margaret Truman?’ And my mother smiled and said, ‘No,’ and walked off. I thought my father was going to get himself killed because he said, ‘No, no, no, she’s just kidding. She really is Margaret.’ ”

That’s how Daniel ended up on the board of the Truman Library Institute. “It’s your turn,” his mother told him.

He embraced his pedigree, working for the Harry S Truman College in Chicago, lecturing on his grandfather and ultimately playing Truman in the one-man show originated by James Whitmore.

During questions after the show, Daniel is often asked about his grandfather’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. It was not something the two talked about when he was a kid, but Daniel is pretty sure he would have heard the same answer Truman said publicly: He felt he had to do it to prevent a ground war in Japan.

Daniel has been contacted by Japanese reporters on anniversaries of the bombing. One of those interviews led to a meeting with survivors — which, in turn, led to his family traveling to memorial ceremonies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Survivors recorded testimony for the Truman Library; he spent five years talking to New York students about nuclear threats.

“We all have this shared sense of preserving our ancestors’ legacy, but you can also do that in your own way,” said Daniel of the descendants. “I went to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and worked with disarmament activists, which I think my grandfather would have approved of. He understood the danger of those weapons. And I managed to do it without maligning my grandfather, which is the job.”

The descendants gather for a photo. (Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)

As the descendants gathered in the private club’s ballroom, they pinned on name tags that included their relationship to the president in their family tree, and later posed on risers for photos.

That college student up there? Emory Whitman Gatchell, 20, a sixth-great granddaughter of James Monroe. When the history major shared her ties with the Founding Father to a friend, he shot back, “Oh, so your money is slave money.” She said, “No, no, no — that’s a big misinterpretation. James Monroe died poor.” It’s part of a conversation she’ll be having, one way or another, for the rest of her life.

With Roosevelt as president of the organization, Saturday’s dinner was full of references to his great-grandfather: In June, the descendants will gather at Teddy’s Long Island home, Sagamore Hill — the first of biennial scholarly presidential weekends all over the country. Nearby Long Island University is the group’s administrative headquarters, and a book about TR and J.P. Morgan was one of three finalists for the group’s first presidential leadership book award.

The evening closed with — what else? — a choral rendition of “Hail to the Chief” (yes, there are lyrics) and “God Bless America.” There was, under all the family history and drama, a deep well of patriotism and hope in this room. The past is prologue, but also the present — their present.

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