Kendall is a smooth storyteller with a good instinct for vivid details and anecdotes. This alone suffices for pleasurable historical reading, but he also claims to do something more. In the prologue he declares that his book 'starts from the premise that character, as traditionally defined, both counts and is worth resuscitating as a critical variable in political analysis.' The sketches in the book certainly do reveal aspects of the characters of various presidents, but there’s little serious political or historical analysis. Ultimately this doesn’t really matter — it’s good enough to watch Teddy Roosevelt’s son bring a pony into the White House elevator or Jimmy Carter’s son smoke a joint on the White House roof.
Kendall is good at linking a president’s strengths or failures as a parent to his success or failure at governing, though the correlation is sometimes indirect — Grover Cleveland struggled to form deep bonds with people, including his children, but as president this remove helped him to shape an efficient administration that wasn’t undermined by emotional loyalties. Less illuminating in this regard is the chapter on the bereaved and grieving, where the lesson seems to be that grief can distract — hardly unique to presidents. Still, it’s startling to be reminded of just how vulnerable young children were back then, even children of great privilege ... Kendall’s book also provides delightful peeks at life inside the White House, a place where you might think nothing could (or should) go unmonitored ... More than anything, “First Dads” provides a valuable reminder that while an American president may have the clout to launch spaceships and end world wars, that doesn’t mean he can get his children to behave.
Presidential biographers, themselves paternalists, tend to shield readers from their subjects’ most unflattering moments. First Dads holds the reader because Mr. Kendall himself does not hold back, especially not in detailing the generational misery of the Adams clan ... Still, some of the Kendall portraits deteriorate to stereotype, and though ostensibly apolitical, First Dads slants left via omission and anecdote ... Also questionable is Mr. Kendall’s guiding assumption that presidents not only are, but ought to be, perceived as national fathers.