When Sasha and Malia Obama prepared to leave the White House in January 2017, they received a letter from their predecessors, Barbara Bush and Jenna Bush-Hager.
“You are about to join another rarified club, one of former first children – a position you didn’t seek and one with no guidelines,” the Bush sisters wrote. “You will be writing the story of your lives, beyond the shadow of your famous parents, yet you will always carry with you the experiences of the past eight years.”
The young Obama women left the White House as civilians, bound to their new club of presidential descendants by the shared experience of living history and a legacy to uphold that few others understand. The White House is America’s House – an office, a museum, but also a home. American Presidents are world leaders, but also “Daddy” and “Grandpa” to the first families who know and love them.
This week in Washington, some of their fellow presidential descendants have gathered for the White House Historical Association’s first Presidential Sites Summit, a gathering of leaders from more than 100 presidential sites around the country – birthplaces, homes, museums and libraries. But the summit has also convened over 40 presidential descendants, from James Monroe to George W. Bush.
The historic gathering has included entertainment at the Lincoln Memorial, panel discussions, and on Wednesday evening, a visit to the White House for a reception hosted by President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump.
For Clifton Truman Daniel, grandson of President Harry S. Truman, the week has been an opportunity to connect with descendants he’s met and some he hasn’t.
“People often ask you, ‘What’s it like to be the grandson of a president?’ Well, I don’t know any different. And I’ve always said, I don’t know what it’s like not to be the grandson of a president. But another relative, you have this shared bond – we keep joking that we should issue membership cards,” Daniel told CNN, recalling childhood memories of his grandfather, who read him selections from Thucydides’ “The History of the Peloponnesian War” at the age of 4.
On Tuesday, a group of descendants shared their stories during a panel at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Some have vivid memories of White House life, details rarely shared about what it’s really like behind the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Susan Ford Bales, daughter of President Gerald Ford, was a teenager when her father took office, and she remembered the challenges of dating in the White House.
“The poor boys would show up just wringing wet, because it wasn’t just going on a date, it was having to meet the commander in chief,” she said, seated in a replica of the Oval Office on the stage of the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. Ford Bales said she hosted her senior prom at the White House – “and everybody in my class showed up.”
Lynda Johnson Robb recalled meeting her husband, Charles Robb, who later became a governor and senator, while he was a social aide in the White House.
“I got to date him without anybody knowing about it. The press were indignant they hadn’t discovered it first … We would play cards, play bridge,” she said. “We ended up falling in love.”
Many of the descendants don’t have childhood memories from the White House, or even had a chance to know their presidential relatives.
Massee McKinley is a descendant twice over – he is the great-great nephew of William McKinley and the great-great grandson of Grover Cleveland.
People ask him if he’s related to McKinley “all the time,” he said, noting that he has collections of letters from his presidential ancestors.
Tweed Roosevelt, a great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, has carried on his great-grandfather’s legacy, lecturing on the 26th president, and “[retracing] many of TR’s adventures the American West, Africa, and the Amazon,” per the White House Historical Association.
The summit has also been an opportunity for the group to reconnect with the history of the White House and their own personal histories.
Mary Jean Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Dwight Eisenhower, and George Cleveland, grandson of President Grover Cleveland, chatted in their seats ahead of the panel. During a visit to the White House Monday, they told CNN, the two stood together in the Blue Room. Grover pointed out the space in the room where his parents were married. Eisenhower pointed to another part of the room and said that was where she was christened.
As the group of presidential offspring gathered for a photo on the stage of the theater Tuesday evening, one descendant received a particularly warm welcome: John Tyler’s grandson Lyon Tyler Jr. (Yes, the 10th President of the United States who died in 1862 has two surviving grandsons). Tyler sat in his wheelchair between Eisenhower and Johnson, smiling for the cameras among the ancestors of the United States’ most powerful men.