Friday, August 31, 2012

Sons of famous fathers

Warning: With this one I'm going to pick up my "recovering therapist" hat and put it back on. That could lead to bullsh*t. But who knows? ;-)

As I watched some of the attempts to "humanize" Romney last night at the RNC convention, what struck me is that he is likely dealing with the "sons of famous fathers" syndrome.

I've spent a bit of time thinking about this one because it is a syndrome that has pretty well defined my own father. Certainly my grandfather was not famous on the level of George Romney. But he left a powerful legacy my father has spent his life trying to live up to.

Having watched that play out in my own family, I appreciated the movie "A Few Good Men" on a level that many people did not. Beyond the specifics of the story, it is a tale of the struggles of Daniel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) about living in the shadow of a famous father. Adding another layer to the movie is that it was directed by Rob Reiner, son of Carl Reiner. It was that struggle that attracted Reiner to the story in the first place.
"In all my films," said Mr. Reiner, who had struggled for years to move out of the shadow of his own father, the writer and director Carl Reiner, "I've got to find something I can hook up with, connect with. Kaffee is in the same business as his father; I'm in the same business as mine. Everywhere I went when I started out, it was 'Carl Reiner this,' 'Carl Reiner that.' He's the nicest man in the world, incredibly sweet-natured, but it was frightening to be compared to him."
Listen to how this article describes the various iterations of that struggle.
The son said that it took years for him to distance himself from his father. "When I was a little kid, I wanted so badly to be like him I once said to him I want to change my name. And he said, 'To what?' And I said, 'To Carl.'...

Mr. Reiner's comedic instincts were evident in his very first movie, "This Is Spinal Tap," a satirical film about a fictitious rock band made up of sniveling English lunks. The 1984 film was critically acclaimed, but he now says it may have been too derivative of some of his father's television routines with Sid Caesar. Mr. Reiner considers his breakthrough to be "Stand by Me," a critically well-received movie about boyhood friendships that opened two years later.

"It was a rite-of-passage film," he said. "It was closer to my personality than anything I had done up to then, and it's something my father never would have come near. When I was making it, I kept thinking, 'Boy, I hope this works, because if it doesn't I'll be in serious trouble.' The audience would have been rejecting me when I was taking my first departure from my father, venturing into a new area."
I'm not going to try to get into Mitt Romney's head and figure out exactly how this dynamic is playing out in his own life. But its clear to me that it is the central feature of his personal identity. And it is certainly one area where his own life is mirroring that of George W. Bush. I would suggest that both of those men sought the presidency mostly in an attempt to prove to themselves that they are worthy of their father's legacy. Neither of them have reached the stage Reiner describes where they try to differentiate themselves from it.

I'll simply add that on a smaller scale this is something Barack Obama, Jr. had to deal with. It is the crux of the message in his book "Dreams From My Father." When it comes to this struggle, the difference between the two men running for president this year is that Obama had settled that struggle by the time he was 35 years old. In other words, he no longer lives in his father's shadow.

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