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How Two Presidents Helped Me Deal With Love, Guilt, and Fatherhood How Two Presidents Helped Me Deal With Love, Guilt, and Fatherhood

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PERSONAL ESSAY

How Two Presidents Helped Me Deal With Love, Guilt, and Fatherhood

Guidance from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush taught the author how to accept and understand his son’s Asperger’s syndrome.

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Professorship: Ron and Tyler visit the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.(Richard A. Bloom)

Our noses were practically touching the wall. Tall, white, and seamless, it was the only thing standing between us and the president of the United States. “Stay right there,” a White House aide told me, my wife, and three children. “The president will be with you in a minute.” Suddenly, the wall opened; it was a hidden door to the Oval Office. “Come on in, Fournier!” shouted George W. Bush. “Who ya’ dragging in?”

It was my last day covering the White House for the Associated Press, and this 2003 visit was a courtesy that presidents traditionally afford departing correspondents. I introduced my wife, Lori, and two daughters, Holly and Abby, before turning to their 5-year-old brother. “Where’s Barney?” Tyler asked.

 

“He’s coming!” Bush replied as his Scottish terrier scampered into the room. “Let’s do a photo!”

As the most powerful man on Earth prepared to pose for a picture, my son launched into a one-sided conversation, firing off one choppy phrase after another with machine-gun delivery. “Scottish terriers are called Scotties, they originated from Scotland, they can be traced back to a single female named Splinter II, President Roosevelt had one, he called it Fala, Dad says he kept him in the office down there when he was swimming, there’s one in Monopoly, my favorite is the car …”

I cringed. Tyler is loving, charming, and brilliant—he has a photographic memory—but he lacks basic social skills. He doesn’t know when he’s being too loud or when he’s talking too much. He can’t read facial expressions to tell when somebody is sad, curious, or bored. He has a difficult time seeing how others view him. Tyler is what polite company calls awkward. I’ve watched adults respond to him with annoyed looks or pity. Bullies call him goofy, or worse.

 

But the president was enchanted. Waiting for Tyler to take a breath, he quickly changed the subject with a joke. “Look at your shoes,” Bush told Tyler while putting a hand on his shoulder and steering him toward the photographer. “They’re ugly. Just like your dad’s.” Tyler laughed.

Ten minutes later, we were walking out of the Oval Office when Bush grabbed me by the elbow. “Love that boy,” he said, holding my eyes.

(RELATED: Readers Find Comfort in Presidential Directive: "Love That Boy")

I thought I understood what he meant. It took me years to realize my mistake.

 

DREAMS AND REALITIES

Fathers and sons don’t always know how to talk to each other, which is why we have sports. I never felt closer to my dad than when we played catch. He was a soft-spoken Detroit motorcycle cop who didn’t believe in saying, “I love you,” as much as he did in showing it, and sports were one way he knew how. The 1989 film Field of Dreams—and its idealized notion of fatherhood—makes me cry every time.

I assumed I would have that same relationship with my son. He’d be an athlete, and we’d find common ground on a baseball diamond. Even before his birth, 15 years ago last month, I nicknamed him Tiger—after Tiger Woods, Ty Cobb, and the Detroit Tigers. There was no doubt in my mind that we would be jocks together.

But Tyler didn’t like athletics, and he was terrible at it when forced to try. I know because I forced him. Once a week or so until Tyler was 12, I’d drag him outside with a baseball, football, basketball, volleyball, hockey stick, badminton racket, or croquet mallet. I signed him up for Babe Ruth baseball, flag football, and hockey lessons.

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His basketball career ended at about age 11, when he spent one excruciating game at half court, pacing back and forth barely across the center line. His stiff, awkward strides were no match for the other nine boys who blew past him in their full-court dashes, looking considerably more feline. At one point, he looked up at me in the stands, shrugged his shoulders, and shot me a bemused smile as if to say, “This ain’t for me.”

Slowly, I learned to see Tyler through the eyes of others—a skill he, too, was trying to master.

I never got mad, but I never gave in. First, Lori and I believed, Tyler needed the exercise. Second, he needed to learn what it means to be part of a team, because he was becoming strangely isolated from his peers. From his first days in school, he struggled academically and socially. He had no sleepovers. One play date rarely gave way to a second. He scared easily. He had few hobbies or interests but was fixated on those he had: telling jokes; visiting bookstores; playing video games; building Lego models; watching TV shows about animals, U.S. history, and the presidency. Still, I refused—was unable—to see Tyler as anything but a normal kid. I missed or ignored so many clues.

(PICTURES: Ron Fournier, His Son, and Two Presidents)

Tyler knew. By the time he reached his teens, he could sense that something was amiss. After a dozen years of butting heads about sports, which he had come to hate, Tyler and I struck a deal. He could give up sports if he promised to exercise three days a week and join an extracurricular club in school. We were sitting on the sofa in the family room when he grabbed my hand and shook it. “You got a deal,” Tyler said. Then he grew quiet. I asked what was wrong. “I was afraid you wouldn’t like me as much if I stopped playing sports.”

National Journal's Ron Fournier Discusses His Story 'First, Family' on Morning Joe

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