The National Journal’s Ron Fournier will be my guest in the first hour Tuesday morning. His new book, Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent’s Expectations, is a must read for every parent and grandparent –a remarkable, moving, and perhaps life-changing read for anyone raising a child in the new millennium.
I called my wife 220 pages into this book and recommended she have her book group read it asap. I’ll make the same recommendation –probably to the point of annoyance– to everyone I meet. Fournier is on television a lot, because he is funny, very smart, and very fair, and he got that way by reporting and writing, and because of his upbringing in Detroit as son to a Motor City motorcycle cop who loved Rocky Colavito. This book, though, isn’t about his reporting or his views on the current state of American politics, but about his “Aspie” son Tyler, his daughters Holly and Gabrielle, and his wife Lori as well as a few presidents and a score of other authors and dozens of parents he interviewed along the way. Get it, read it, and pass it along. Once in a great while a book arrives perfectly timed for a country off-the-rails in so many ways but about which almost everyone will agree makes every reader better. This is one of them. Trust me.
HH: And I am joined now by a guy who could comment on all those stories, absolutely with accuracy. You probably watch Ron Fournier every night on the Fox News All-Stars. And the senior political writer and editor at National Journal could absolutely cover any of those things, and may indeed. But I’m here to talk to him about his brand new book, Love That Boy, which I believe may be the best book on parenting I have ever read. Ron Fournier, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
RF: Wow, that’s pretty remarkable. Thank you, Hugh. How are you doing?
HH: Well, it is. I called my wife when I landed at O’Hare yesterday. She had her book group last night, and I said I don’t know what you’re reading next, but go get Fournier’s book, Love That Boy, because I thought it was going to be a book about Tyler Fournier, who has Asperger’s, and it indeed that, but you’re a man of many dimensions. It’s a book about your wife, Laurie, about your daughters, Holly and Gabriella. It’s about your dad. It’s about being a reporter and chasing stories in the middle of a busy life. Mostly, it’s about Tyler. But do a lot of people bother to read it and figure out it’s about a lot more?
RF: It seems to be connecting, and I hope they do. I tried very hard to make it universal. I talked to a lot of other parents, and their stories are in this book, and I talked to a lot of solid experts to really get at, you know, the bottom line of the expectations that we have for our kids, where they come from, which are unique to our times, and how they shape, and if we’re not careful, they can misshape our kids. So I thank you very much for the kind words, Hugh. I put a lot into it.
HH: Well, I also will tell my audience that if they think it is impossible for a book to make them like both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush more than they already did, they are mistaken, because this book will do exactly that. We have to set it up, though. Let’s tell them. You’re married to the wonderful Laurie, who I wish to meet. I can’t believe you’re, are you moving to Michigan in June? Is that true?
RF: Probably not that soon. Tyler graduates in June. He’s our youngest child. The two oldest girls already live in Michigan. Laurie and I are both from Michigan. Now that the nest is emptying, we’re going to move up there. It’ll probably take a little bit of time to figure out exactly what I’ll be doing up there, but at some point this year, we will be.
HH: You’re going to Michigan? You couldn’t find a condo in Kazakhstan? You had to go back to Michigan? I mean, it was…
RF: Hugh, you obviously, I mean, I thought you loved the Midwest, Hugh. You’re an Ohio boy, aren’t you?
HH: When we won the Ohio-Michigan war, unfortunately, we kept Michigan, and we kept Toledo. I wanted to give it all to you back. And when we beat the British in the Battle of 1815, we gave them Detroit.
HH: We got Detroit back. That was sad.
RF: Sir, I think Ohio is a really nice suburb of Michigan.
HH: Well, your dad was a motorcycle cop.
RF: He was.
HH: And you grew up playing ice hockey on Lake Erie. In fact, one of the very great stories is when your dad goes through the ice on Lake Erie.
RF: Oh, my God, was that funny.
RF: My dad was, yeah, he was a Detroit cop, and a hero to all the kids in the neighborhood, and the best buddy of everybody on the block. And we’re out there playing hockey one day, and he’s playing with us, and you know, keeping the puck away from us. And he said okay, I’m going to go out and find some better ice, which is what you did, as you know, Hugh, on the ponds and lakes of the Midwest.
RF: And we were on Lake Erie, which shifts a lot with the wind. So you were constantly looking for fresh ice. So we keep playing, and all of a sudden, we hear this big splash, and about a hundred yards away, here’s my six foot five, almost three hundred pound father nimbly getting himself out of the water. He’d gone in and popped up about as quick as he went in. And then he turns around on his stomach and is reaching back in for his boots, like you know, Dad, we can get you some more boots, man.
HH: But you never assumed he would die.
HH: And you write about what are the essential qualities of living a happy life, one of them being optimism. You just assumed he’d be fine.
RF: Yeah. You know, like a lot of sons, even adult sons, you know, I’m 52 years old now. My dad was bulletproof. You just, he never got sick, he never missed a day of work, and was always there for everybody. And up until he got sick, he was still kicking my butt at racquetball in his early 70s. But he got Louie Body Dementia that you might recall Robin Williams had.
RF: That’s what led him to take his life, a debilitating disease.
HH: Yeah, it’s one of those…
RF: And he went quick.
HH: The most moving part of the book, there are many moving parts, is when Tyler is at the Ford Library with you, and he says what’s wrong with you, Bompa, his nickname for your dad. And it’s sort of the precursor of the downhill run. But let’s talk a little bit about Tyler. Tell, give people the thumbnail before the first break, Ron Fournier, and the book, by the way, is Love That Boy. And Love That Boy is linked at Hughhewitt.com, and the Frank Luntz rule is say Love That Boy seven times. And Love That Boy is indeed worth getting for every parent in your life, every grandparent out there, anyone raising a child. Indeed, every teacher ought to read Love That Boy, because unlike most books, it will not only make you feel new things, it will teach you new things about kids, and about adults, about people. I called my friend, Mark Gearan last night, Ron, and talking to him about your book, and we both ran down the group of people that we think have Asperger’s in our shared experience who you wouldn’t normally think of having Asperger’s after I read your book. It’s pretty remarkable in that way. But tell people about Tyler.
RF: Well, first of all, I love how you’re closing the circle for me. My kids called my father Bompa, and this weekend, my first and only grandson was in from Detroit, and for the first time, I heard, I woke up Sunday morning getting ready for one of the shows, and I hear from the other room, Bompa, Bompa. It was my new grandkid, and I was like Holy Moly, what a weekend this is being. Tyler is, he’s now 18. When we took these road trips at Laurie’s urging, father and son going out and spending some time with each other, he was 12 and 13 years old. He has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is what they call high-functioning autism. It’s basically the social graces that you and I were born with, looking people in the eye, shaking hands, holding a conversation, he has to learn. And we’re finding out now that a lot more people in this world have it than we thought, now that it’s getting more easy to diagnose, and more easily to treat. And he’s just, because of his condition, yeah, he can be a little quirky, and he’s not, you know, what we call typical. But he’s, he brings things to the social community table that the rest of us don’t. For one thing, these guys can’t lie. They’re just literal-minded, guileless, wonderful people who just are incapable of lying. He’s off the charts smart. He’s got a great sense of humor, as you see in the book. And he’s, you know, he’s not the kid I thought I was going to raise, but thank God he’s the kid Laurie and I have raised. He’s our perfect, little boy.
HH: On Page 43 is one of the hearts of the book. It’s a book with many hearts. We don’t want our kids flirting with society’s Mendoza Line, smaller than normal, taller than normal, heavier than normal, skinnier than normal, stronger than normal, weaker than normal. For nine months, expectant mothers and fathers worry about childhood deafness, dwarfism, Down Syndrome, various other physical and learning disabilities that could dash their dreams. Sexuality is another bugaboo. Straight parents expect to have straight kids, because that’s what they know, and because they think being gay in America is harder than being hetero. This is not just about Aspies, as you call it, and by the way, I gather that’s acceptable to call it, Aspies?
RF: It is, yeah.
HH: Okay, I didn’t know that. That’s something that is really a revelation to me, and I think a sign of maturity among the community that they can shorten it without having people’s eyebrows go up. But it’s about parental expectations. And I had written down the name Frank Bruni before I ran into Bruni in the book, because I had Frank on last week talking about Where You Go Is Not Who You Are. And so it’s not surprising to me he deals with those expectations And this is, this is really about parents who grew up in the 60s and maybe even the 70s coming into collision with what was an uncomplicated world being very complicated now.
RF: Actually, you know what? I think it’s actually a book about parents in the 1860s and 1760s and the 1560s.
RF: How do you rate kids with the modern day pressures? And what I try to do in the book was each chapter deals with one of those expectations, so the first one is that we all want our kids to be normal. As my wife said when each of our kids was pregnant, I just hope he or she has all her fingers or toes. Well, you know, what is normal? Aren’t we all actually abnormal? The next one is we all want our kid to be geniuses. The next one is we all them to be popular. The next one is we all want them to be successful. The next one is we all want them to be happy. So I delve into what those expectations really mean, what’s the social science behind it. For example, you really don’t want your children to be popular in the way that we both know it.
HH: And because if they are, they’re going to end up at a higher risk for all the things you really don’t want. I’ll explain more with Ron Fournier when we come back.
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HH: I’ve got to tell you during the break, Ron, Dan Martin, our program director at WAAM up in Ann Arbor called in to say hey, hey, hey on the Michigan stuff. Maybe he doesn’t realize I am a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, and you know, this is about lowering expectations, so we should be talking about Michigan football, and certainly Lions football would fit into that. But I want to go back to…
RF: Stop it. Stop it.
RF: My daughter, by the way, goes to Michigan State Law School, so again, my condolences for going to the wrong one.
HH: I know, Gabriella…
HH: I wanted to ask you about Holly and Gabriella. When you have a special needs child, all of the emotional bank account, or not all, but most of it, goes into them. You know, all my kids are special needs in one way or another, but none of them would be classic special needs. But I’m wondering when you have a kid who has Asperger’s, what do the other kids do? Luckily, I think they were older than Tyler. But do they resent the amount of time and effort and actually money that has to go into arranging the life of someone like Tyler so that he has a fighting shot?
RF: It’s funny, I was talking about that with a couple last night at an event who have a set of twins, and one of the twins has special needs, has Asperger’s, and then an older child And we all agreed that it kind of cuts both ways. And yeah, the kids do carry some resentment. It certainly does give them some extra baggage in life having been short-changed in time, and in some cases, money. But mainly, it’s time and attention. And you know, we can only do so much as parents, and we have to, you know, it’s almost like triage. And when you have a bleeding patient, that’s the one you rush towards. And that’s what a special needs child, you know, kind of is. On the other hand, look, part of life that we shield our kids from too often is failure, and is, and are things that are unfair and not just. So my older daughters were, you know, they were raised having to be more empathetic, and realizing that life isn’t fair, and things not going their way. So it has helped shape them into, Hugh, I’ve got to tell you, I know I’m biased here, but they’re two remarkable young ladies. One is a mother now, a 20 year old mother of a foster child she adopted out of Detroit. And the other is a charismatic, bright, wise, soulful Michigan State, go Spartans, law school student, who are the adults they are, and I think in large part, because not the parents that raised them, but because of their help in raising Tyler.
HH: Now Ron Fournier, when I wrote this, I made a note to myself about a SEAL who called in last year. I do an annual, a Memorial Day show for the Semper Fi Fund. And a SEAL called in who’d lost his leg in an explosion in Afghanistan, much like the explosion today. And after the Boston Marathon bombing, he got on a plane to go meet with the survivors, and to tell them that they would have a life. But he took his dad with him so that his dad could tell the dads of the wounded and the disabled after the Boston Marathon that they would have a life as well. I think Love That Boy is resonating…
HH: …because it tells everybody out there they’re going to have a life. Their kids are going to be fine. They’re different, they’re on the spectrum, they’re challenging, but they’re going to be fine. And this is really why I think the book is taking off. And I’m surprised you’re at 75 on Amazon. You were at 44 last night. You may make the New York Times list this week.
RF: Yeah, we got as high as 10 this weekend, not that we’re counting. It really has, seems to have connected. And I appreciate you saying it, because I think that’s, that’s the most powerful level that I think it’s been, is that hey, you know, this is not a perfect parent who wrote this book. This is no expert who wrote this book. But you know that guilt you’re carrying around, that anxiety you’re carrying around, that fear that you’re carrying around? You’re not alone. And I know one of the more fascinating and rewarding things I’ve been doing so far is going to schools that focus on Asperger’s, and talking to the dads, and getting the dads away from work and out of the basement, and to come out and talk to each other about what it’s like to raise one of these kids, because the moms are so involved. But the dads tend to hold back, and they don’t talk about their feelings and their regrets, and it’s great to be able to have that forum.
HH: When we come back, Bill Clinton and W., and how they figure in Tyler and Ron Fournier’s journey. Don’t go anywhere.
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HH: As I thought about it last night, it’s because he took a reporter’s approach and a reporter’s skill, and fine writing chops, and put them all together. So he’s not a parenting expert. As he said, he just talked about scores of them. Every book on parenting is somewhere in here. And having not recognized the symptoms of high-functioning autism in his own son, Tyler, Laurie and he, and that would be pseudo-intellect vocabulary in a baritone voice, his awkward social interactions and obsessions, his aversions to certain fabrics, the comfort he found in a weighty blanket, an extraordinarily picky palette, you know, food range that’s similar to mine, five food groups, all of them orange. They went on this remarkable journey to try and teach Tyler how to read faces and interact. And that journey included visits with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. And we’ve got to tease that a little bit, Ron. Come back next week in the third hour and talk more, because I’ve got 15 pages of notes. But let’s tell people about the extraordinary generosity of Bill Clinton towards Tyler, and of the charming, probing, oil drilling technique of George W. Bush that you describe.
RF: Yeah, I’d love to come back, thank you. It was remarkable. I’ve covered both these men a long time, Bill Clinton back to Arkansas. And I saw something different in them in the way they handled Tyler. First of all, agreeing to meet with him when they had nothing to gain from it, Bill Clinton was interesting, because he sat down and he said hey, Tyler, I’ve heard from my staff that your favorite president is Teddy Roosevelt. He’s my favorite president, too, and then off we went comparing our times with Teddy Roosevelt’s times, Bill Clinton’s presidency to Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency. It was fascinating stuff, something like you and me would just gobble it up. And I’m taking all kinds of notes. You know, Bill Clinton is just brilliant at connecting these dots. And I noticed, though, that he’s kind of losing Tyler. You know, Tyler is a teenager, and he wants to talk. He wants to be the monologue man, not Bill Clinton. And I realized in that moment, my God, Bill Clinton, the most social animal I’ve ever met, you know, the great communicator and empathizer, is missing these social clues with Tyler, and he’s obsessing on a topic for 45 minutes, like he’s apt to do.
RF: And so I actually wrote down in my notebook this stream of consciousness is Bill Clinton an Aspie? Now I know he’s not, you know, but it did make me realize look, that if Bill Clinton has some rough edges, why am I so worried about my son? And Tyler kind of picked up on it, because on the way out, I said hey, what did you think, buddy? And Tyler is just outside of Bill Clinton’s earshot, and said well, great. He talks a lot about himself and his stuff. And I said like you, pal? And he says yeah, like me.
HH: (laughing) He also gave him not only a book about polar bears, but a first edition of Teddy Roosevelt’s letters to his son inscribed by Bill Clinton. And these are very touching gestures.
HH: George W. Bush has got a different kind of empathy for your son. As I said earlier, you describe it as drilling for oil until he finds the comedy stuff.
RF: Exactly, and it’s a great lesson of first of all, be there for your kids. And it doesn’t have to be your natural kids. It can be a neighborhood kid, in the Boy Scouts, you know, George was there, George, President Bush was there for my son. He was present for him. And he listened. He asked all kinds of questions, Hugh, and they were really short questions. Like I said, like you said, they were very probing. What’s your favorite topic? What do you like in school? What do you after school? Until he got him to say that he wanted to be a comedian when he grew up, something that Tyler had never told his mother or father. And then he told this really self-effacing story that I won’t go into, but about basically poking fun at himself, and he literally told Tyler the power of self-deprecating humor, to make fun of yourself before other people make fun of you, which is a great lesson for a teenage boy, let alone one who is autistic.
HH: Now the title of the book, Love That Boy, and I’m keeping the Luntz rule saying Love That Boy. It’s linked at Hughhewitt.com.
RF: There you go.
HH: My friend, Jim Emrick just said he’s already ordering it. He’s got a special needs kid. It comes from the first time you meet with W. and Tyler, and your daughters, and your wife in the Oval when Tyler’s looking for Barney. And that’s, it opens the book. It’s a funny story, and you lead with the lead as only the AP national bureau chief would be sure to do at the beginning.
RF: Right. Why bury the lead? It was a very awkward encounter for me, for the father. And I was worried that we were taking too much of the President’s time, and Tyler might be embarrassing himself, or worst of all, he might be embarrassing me. And George Bush picked up on this. He’s a very intuitive man in a room, as you know. And he grabbed me by the hand as Tyler and the family were walking out, and by the way, this was as I was leaving the beat. There’s a tradition that you visit the president on your way off the beat. It’s been going on for years. And he grabs me by the hand and he says love that boy. And at the time if you would have asked me, I would have thought that’s a nice gesture. He’s telling me to love that boy despite the fact that he’s quirky, and he’s different. Over the course of the next ten years as I matured, as I finally learned how to be a better father, not a perfect one, and maybe not even a good one, but a better one, and spending this time with Tyler, I realized no, no, I’m not going to love this boy despite his idiosyncrasies. I love him because of them, that what makes my son different, what makes all of your sons and daughters different, all of our kids different, is what makes them special. So I’m going to celebrate his uniqueness instead of cringing over it, and shirking from it.
HH: The bones of the book is hard-core thinking about children and parental expectations. The cartilage holding it together are the stories. There are six stories. I just wrote these down. We don’t have time to do all these, Ron Fournier, but there’s your, Holly’s wedding and your dad, and there’s your dad delivering old clothes when he runs into your brothers.
HH: There is the Monticello metaphor. There is this teacher at John Quincy Adams house who rebukes you for not letting your kid ask questions. There is Jilaco Hernandez, I hope I’m saying his name right.
RF: You are.
HH: And then there’s finally Tyler telling you that the bench is his happy place, because he’s so bad at sports. You are just a master at anecdote. And your editor sent back 30,000 words, that’s in the acknowledgements, by the way, and he threw your book back at you.
RF: He did.
HH: Were any of these anecdotes in the first book?
RF: They were, but they weren’t very well organized or thought through. I had a hard time with the structure of this book, and it wasn’t until a second editor came on, and a woman named Heather Jackson, just a wonderful editor, who said you know what? Treat every chapter as a deep dive into one of these expectations, and use your son’s stories, the parent’s stories and the social sciences as the three threads that run through it, and open every chapter with one of the guilt trips. And then it flowed. It was like I couldn’t stop writing, then. But it took two and a half years before we got to that point.
RF: And thank you, by the way, for reading so well.
HH: Oh, well, the Monticello metaphor, why don’t you tell people what it is, because in many respects, it’s the central building in America, without which there would not have been a Declaration. And it’s the central metaphor. I don’t think I’ll ever get it out of my head when it comes to parenting.
RF: Yeah, it’s one of my favorite passages in the book, and in my favorite chapter, which is about happiness. You know, Monticello is this beautiful building constructed by, you know, one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, that had all these hidden components to it, things like he could reach behind the fireplace and slaves beneath would send up through this hidden passage a fresh bottle of wine. The food would be delivered on this elaborate closet that he constructed where the food was hidden until it would spin out, and then be presented to people. The slaves lived within a stone’s throw of the mansion, but behind a series of trees on what they called Mulberry Row. So it’s almost, I drew the analogy to parenthood that we put out front the best of our children. We celebrate it on Facebook. We talk about it at the birthdays. It’s the public face of our children. And we hide the darker side, things that we’re not very proud of, the things that make them different. And what I try to do in this book is say no, you know, our kids are the full experience. It’s not just the best. It’s also the failures. It’s also where they’re different from everyone else. And you know, let’s not treat our kids like a show house.
HH: Well, that’s, Monticello…
RF: Let’s treat our kids like the complicated human beings they are.
HH: Jefferson wanted his best parts of his home to be shown to the public. He wanted to keep the privies and the slave quarters hidden. His problems, his existential dilemmas, he wanted in the back. And therefore, all these beers you have with all these das, Jilaco, I want to go back to him, he’s this immigrant, illegal, who comes to the country and does well. But he can’t be a success until his kids are a success, and that’s just everybody.
RF: Yeah, that’s a remarkable passage. And by the way, years ago, he did become legal. He’s now a U.S. citizen, and a store owner, a restaurant owner in Little Rock, and that you could just see. I met him at a ballgame in Arkansas, and his son is sitting down the row from us, and he’s talking about his son. He loves him very much, but boy, he’s disappointed that his son wants basically to just kind of take over the restaurant, and he’s not getting a degree and living out Jilaco’s dreams for his son. And I just wanted to take him in my hands and say sir, let him be what he wants to be. Don’t make the mistakes that I made. But that would be judgmental, because I know he’s doing it out of love and fear and anxiety, and maybe guilt. But he’s putting these pressures on his son, and before they came to the game, they had this big, huge fight. And I just hate to see, you know, parents and sons dividing themselves, and parents and daughters dividing themselves like that.
HH: And the backdrop, of course, economic anxiety, but I don’t even know if you intended to put this in here. You’re walking down the driveway on 9/11, and your wife sees you, and she says the White House has evacuated, what are you doing on the driveway? Well, we’re all going through, nationally, still, a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder after 9/11. And so it’s the age of anxiety, and to be a young parent at this period of time is not ideal.
HH: It’s always an age of anxiety. Bill Clinton wanted to riff with Tyler about that. But I think you’ve touched a number of chords here, Ron, and I hope you’ll come back and talk more with me about it. Is the book tour anything like you expected?
RF: It’s much better than I thought it would be. Just having interviews like this and talking to people who connected with the book has been remarkable, and I’m really enjoying talking about Tyler and Laurie and the girls, and what a privilege this is to brag about your family.
HH: Is Tyler critiquing all of your interviews as he sees you on TV? Is he giving you a debrief?
RF: He doesn’t care enough about me on TV to watch them all. But if he catches one, he’ll tell me yeah, you know, you’re sure sounding wise there, Dad. You’re pulling the wool over their heads. He knows my B.S.
HH: My favorite…Matt Lewis and I were tweeting at each other favorite parts last night. And at one point, he says he won’t go to sporting events with you, because you’re his dad, but he’ll be there for his kids. And it opened up a vista that he was thinking about having kids of his own. It’s a very touching moment, Ron.
RF: Oh, wow. Yeah, I know. That one got me, because you know, you worry about your kids, especially if they have special needs. Are they going to have that kind of future and that kind of happiness? And one thing I get into the book, do they really need to have that kind of happiness? What is their kind of happiness? So thank you so much for…
HH: Well, one of the great reactions from this is I think a lot of dads are going to release a lot of unhappy kids from a lot of sports they don’t want to be playing, Ron. I really do. I think…
RF: Well, look, I hope, I hope so. My wife and I pushed Tyler into sports for different reasons. She wanted him to get some exercise and know what it’s like to be on a team. I thought that was the only way I could connect with him, was through sports, because my dad and I had a great relationship. The last thing we talked about on his deathbed was Harvey Kuenn and the Detroit Tigers, and Gordie Howe and the Wings. And it wasn’t until the trip to Grand Rapids when my dad was a part of that, I realized that, well, my dad told me, it was wrong what I was doing to Tyler. So we gave him a deal. Buddy, if you will exercise three times a week, and if you do any kind of extracurricular activity at school, anything that gets you with kids, you don’t have to play sports.
HH: Yeah, you can be done with sports. Ron Fournier, come back next week, my friend, and we’ll talk more about Love That Boy, because Love That Boy should be found by everyone out there.
End of interview.