Presidential History

How To Be the President's Kid

From Alice Roosevelt to Hunter Biden, we've never been sure how to reconcile American democracy with American dynasties.


Theodore Roosevelt was president at the start of the Celebrity Age, and at the start of much of the modern image of the presidency. The White House was just beginning to be called that (rather than the Executive Mansion); Roosevelt's renovations on the building created the West Wing. And his daughter, Alice, created one model for presidential relatives over the next century.

Aged 17 when her father became president, she was a gift to the Washington press corps. Photogenic and charming, she was nicknamed "Princess Alice" in the papers. She was invited to Edward VII's coronation (she did not attend), and the German kaiser had her christen his yacht. Her hobnobbing with royalty didn't sit well with her father's man-of-the-people pose, but he could do nothing to stop his daughter's fame.

According to White House Wild Child, Shelley Fraser Mickle's new biography of the presidential daughter, Alice's "celebrity had certainly surprised him. He hadn't seen it coming. Whenever Alice appeared, crowds gathered to cheer her. Dresses and gowns appeared in 'Alice blue.' Her face gazed out from cards packaging candy bars. Songs were written about her, and her picture was featured on their sheet music. Her face was centered on magazine covers." Mickle sees in Alice the forerunner of Jackie Kennedy, Princess Diana, and other trendsetting beauties and influencers.

The president was happy to deploy Alice tactically, to charm guests and diplomats. Such diplomatic tactics went the other way too: She was showered with gifts on foreign visits, gifts she referred to as her "loot." The Cuban government gave her a magnificent set of pearls for her wedding. The Foreign Emoluments Clause apparently didn't apply to her.

Taking advantage of her situation seemed only natural. Alice's father had to tell her not to ride the train without a ticket. (While presidents were entitled to free travel, their kids were not.) But this was when a presidential daughter might still jump on a train with friends, rather than be accompanied by a phalanx of Secret Service agents.

Mickle's book is part biography and part psychological study, the story of a woman growing up in impossible privilege but with a life marked by tragedy. At Alice's birth, her mother slid into a coma and died two days later. Theodore's mother died the same day, a double blow. He responded by avoiding his baby daughter, leaving her in his sister's care while he fled into his political work and to his ranch out west.

He reappeared in her life three years later to introduce her to a new stepmother. A clutch of younger siblings soon followed. Mickle makes much of how this must have damaged Alice, particularly her father's reluctance even to speak her name. (She had been named for her mother.)


Mickle's book is a study in how a republic treats its leaders' families. The nickname "princess" shows the knife-edge between democracy and dynasty, a line that presidential families have struggled to walk ever since. Alice would have her debutante ball in the White House, and she wanted a new floor installed. She approached the speaker of the House, asking him to appropriate funds for this purpose. "Alice used her every ploy on him, enjoying her first taste of lobbying," Mickle writes, "but the Speaker held firm, refusing the funds."

She didn't get her way that time, but her desires were voracious. "I want more," she scribbled in her diary. "I want everything." She spent through her enormous allowance, and she saw nothing wrong with receiving high-value presents by dint of her position. Foreshadowing the practices of generations of socialites to come, "She tipped off newspapers about where she'd be and what she'd be up to, then pocketed the cash for the info."

She also enjoyed making a spectacle of herself and pushing boundaries. Driving around Washington with a girlfriend in a sports car, showing up at parties with her pet snake around her shoulders, smoking in public: She was attention seeking (and attention getting). "In one fifteen-month period," Mickle tells us, "she went to 407 dinners, 350 balls, 300 parties, and 680 teas, and she made 1,706 social calls."

Alice was determined to get while the getting was good, fishing for a husband in the pond of D.C.'s eligible bachelors. She wanted one with money, and one who could be president himself one day. Her goal was getting back to the White House. (Of course, she never did.)

She picked Nicholas Longworth, an Ohio congressman 15 years her senior. Their White House wedding was the social event of the season. But Longworth turned out not to be on the presidential track, and he was an unfaithful alcoholic.

Alice's life turned to disappointments. She became renowned for her caustic comments as she got older, and the wit did not disguise her bitterness. Her marriage was unhappy; her late-in-life child was the product of an affair. Her daughter died of a drug overdose in her 30s. Her father's presidency was always the golden moment she wanted to recapture. She continued to engage with the politics of the day, joining the fight against the League of Nations and later writing newspaper columns against her cousin Franklin's presidential candidacy. Richard Nixon was a friend for decades, and he invited her to his inauguration. She remained a Washington figure, still hovering in the orbit of those in power despite having no official role.

The legacy of "Princess Alice" raises questions we still grapple with today. How much should presidential family members trade on their name? Could that even be avoided? Of course, gifts and favors will materialize for those close to power, whether they're sought or not. Being whisked around by motorcade and private jet these days means there's no escaping their link to the president. It's easy, I'm sure, to lose sight of what's normal.

What we should accept as normal is itself an important question. With presidential son Hunter Biden in the news for crossing the line to the point of criminal indictment, we should think more seriously about where exactly that line should be drawn. There are few laws specifically dedicated to the activities of first family members. Should children be barred from particular careers? From running for office themselves? What about siblings? (When presidential kids aren't in the news, there are embarrassing presidential brothers in the Billy Carter mold.) Even when an activity isn't officially forbidden, the tang of shadiness or self-dealing will linger if a family member seems to be cashing in. Individuals may be chosen by the ballot, but they come with an unelected supporting cast.

Had her father not been president, Alice Roosevelt still would have made the society pages. She would have been a Park Avenue debutante. She would have been steered toward marriage with the scion of a prominent family, or perhaps a titled European. A future of philanthropic work and society events would await. But she would have wanted more.

White House Wild Child: How Alice Roosevelt Broke All the Rules and Won the Heart of America, by Shelley Fraser Mickle, Imagine, 256 pages, $27.99