Editor’s note: Dana Perino, co-host of “The Five” and former White House Press Secretary recently talked with Senior Political Columnist for National Journal Ron Fournier about his new book, “Love That Boy”: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent's Expectations” (Harmony, April 12, 2016).
DANA PERINO: You’ve spent your career observing the country and the world and reporting on major events but, as far as I know, this is the first time you’ve ever written about yourself and your family. “Love That Boy” is an intensely personal and strikingly honest book about you as a dad and a husband. How different was the writing process for you when you turned your skills to observe your own life?
RON FOURNIER: Thank you for the kind words, Dana. The writing process that led to “Love That Boy” couldn’t be any different.
Throughout my career, I held politicians, police chiefs, judges, and other powerful people accountable but never really took the time to hold myself to account – both as a father and as a husband, my most important jobs. This project forced me to do that.
I cried in a Starbucks writing about my father, my son, and my “Field of Dreams” sports hang-up.
It was like opening a vein: Once I started thinking about how much I missed my dad and how much I had failed Tyler, I couldn’t stop the gush of feelings.
I spoke to dozens of parents who struggled, like me, between the need to guide their children and their tendency to push.
One summer evening, I took my wife Lori out to dinner and set a digital recorder between our plates – then I interviewed her about our lives together. She told me how I had taken her feelings for granted while chasing scoops.
I listened to that recording again and again while writing the book.
Still do. I listened.
If I was totally honest, I’d say it was probably the first time I really listened to the love of my life. I hope it’s not the last.
PERINO: The decision to visit all of the presidential libraries and meet with the presidents that you could see is quite unique, and in the book it seems that you learned as much as Tyler did. Was that a surprise to you?
FOURNIER: Yes. I thought I had life figured out before the road trips. I called them “guilt trips.” But I learned so much.
I learned Tyler and I could form a bond outside of sports.
I learned to stop worrying so much about how many friends he had.
I learned to see Tyler through the eyes of others, and to be proud of what I see.
I learned that happiness isn’t pleasure, but it’s doing things good things, hard things, again and again.
I learned so much more, but it boils down to what I wrote in the book: Tyler is no longer my idealized son, he is my ideal one.
PERINO: I read this book not just as one that could instruct me about Asperger’s and autism, but it is also a love story between you and Lori. So not only might you help parents, it is also has good reminders about what can make a marriage strong. What are your top three suggestions for couples who are under immense stress from a situation similar to yours and Lori’s?
FOURNIER: I’m glad you picked up on that, because this book is about all children and was written for all parents. All couples are under immense stress.
To your question, I wrote a lot in the book about my parents’ happy marriage, and the two pieces of advice my dad gave me shortly after I got married to Lori.
First, he said, “Even when she’s wrong, she’s right.” He said it with a chuckle, but he was serious: Dad always put mom first in their relationship. Second, he told me to always put Lori ahead of our children. The kids will grow up and leave home, he said, but if you’re lucky you’ll always be with Lori.
You asked for three pieces of advice. I guess the last one is to marry your best friend and remember every day that he/she is the most important thing in your life.
PERINO: On page 152 you write, “Grit is it.” Could you expand on what that means?
FOURNIER: Sure. Social scientists are starting to understand just how important it is to instill in children attributes like grit, self-control, and optimism. Grit is a certain resilience that allows them to overcome the arrows that life slings.
I’m glad you asked about this because in the book I quote one of the leading thinkers on this topic, Angela Duckworth. Just recently, long after the book went to print, she wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that, while underscoring the importance of teaching grit to children, discouraged educators from folding such character traits into school testing.
PERINO: America’s school systems are struggling to keep up, to help parents. In your experience, what is something that you think schools can do immediately to change the approach to teaching children with Asperger’s?
FOURNIER: The biggest thing they could do would actually help all students: Create a culture of acceptance and tolerance, a place where “being different” is cool. Tyler calls his seventh-grade transfer to a small public school in Arlington, Va., a “life-changing experience,” not because of its Asperger’s program but because the entire student body is filled with free spirits and big hearts – good kids. The sort of kids who know it’s their responsibility to condemn bullying, for example, and to make everybody feel welcome. They learned this behavior from a staff of teachers and administrators as well as a remarkable principal – a man whom I call the greatest leader in Washington, D.C.
This is not to dismiss the importance of the school’s Asperger’s program, which caters to a dozen or so Aspies like Tyler. It’s a disgrace that so few U.S. schools can afford such services.
PERINO: Who is going to win the election? (KIDDING!)
FOURNIER: The American people (that’s my standard cop out).
Dana Perino currently serves as co-host of FOX News Channel's "The Five" (weekdays 9-10PM/ET). She previously served as Press Secretary for President George W. Bush. She is the author of the new book "Let Me Tell You about Jasper : How My Best Friend Became America's Dog" (October 25, 2016). Ms. Perino joined the network in 2009 as a contributor. Click here for more information on Dana Perino. Follow her on Twitter@DanaPerino.