Political Columnist Ron Fournier Talks New Book 'Love That Boy'

Originally published on April 16, 2016 10:39 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I just finished Ron Fournier's book "Love That Boy." Let me tell you about his son Tyler. He's a brilliant, big-hearted teenager who loves history and talking. He doesn't, can't really tell a lie, but Tyler also has no off switch and uncertain interpersonal skills. Tyler Fournier's an Aspie. It's a new word for me. He has Asperger's, which was diagnosed six years ago when he was 12. His mother, Lori, told Ron that he ought to take a series of road trips with his son to presidents and presidential libraries, which Tyler loves.

The story of those trips and the journey of parenthood are told in Ron Fournier's memoir "Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, And My Son Taught Me About A Parent's Expectations." Ron Fournier, political columnist for the National Journal, joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

RON FOURNIER: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You write that Tyler both amazed and worried you.

FOURNIER: Yeah. Well, he amazed me - all three of my kids amazed me, but this one in particular, our youngest, was our first boy. He had a vocabulary, Scott, that was out of this world, new words that I didn't - used them in a great way. Obviously from the earliest age he was much smarter than I would ever be - big heart is a little kid, just loved you to death - loved everybody to death, just didn't have a raw bone in his body. But he was all the things you said and more.

You know, nowadays we probably use the work quirky. There was worse words a generation or so ago, and I think the two of us, especially me, just didn't want to acknowledge that he might be different. That's one of the many expectations we carry into parenthood, wanting our kids not to be different, not to be abnormal, to be perfect. Well, we realized that he's not perfect, and you know what? That's OK.

SIMON: Yeah. You call these road trips guilt trips.

FOURNIER: Yeah. Well, I realized a couple things. Literally as we're walking out of the doctor's office after the diagnosis, Lori said it's time for you to step up. You got to spend some more time with this kid and bond with him because I had used the presidency, covering the presidency, to stay away for my family. I didn't do it purposely. I love my family very much, but the job took me away.

And she said he needed to get out in the world and learn these things that we had thought for 12 years were uncomfortable for him but we had just learned in the doctor's office were unnatural, things like looking people in the eyes like you and I are doing, shaking hands, modulating your voice. So she called them road trips but to me I realized that, you know, I was part of the reason why we were here where we were this late in his life realizing he had a problem, so to me there were guilt trips.

SIMON: You met several presidents with Tyler, and I want to make a point of saying in this contentious political times that Democratic or Republican they were all unfailingly kind and eager to meet Tyler. I was very moved by that.

FOURNIER: Yeah, I'm glad you mention that 'cause it's something I haven't talked about yet. I'm part of the problem in D.C. I write very hard about our politicians. It's my job to hold folks accountable. But it's easy to get cynical in our job and both President Bush and President Clinton you'll see in this book and, to a lesser degree because he didn't have as much time with Tyler, Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, were incredibly gracious, incredibly kind and taught me something about manhood and fatherhood.

And President Bush taught Tyler something very powerful about what it's like to be a young boy whose bullied. And they didn't do this 'cause they had anything to gain. They had nothing to gain at the time. They did it because that's what public servants do. That's what decent men do.

SIMON: Tell us the story of the title that involves President Bush.

FOURNIER: Well, in 2005, well before he was diagnosed, I was leaving the White House beat. And as you know, Scott, there's a long tradition that goes back many presidents ago when a correspondent leaves the beat the president says goodbye quickly to the family because of the contribution, the sacrifice, the family makes. So Tyler walks in with my family and all he can do is talk about Barney the dog and as you know these guys are going boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And then he starts talking about Fala, Roosevelt's dog, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

And I am - I got that feeling in my stomach that, you know, all us parents do whether our kids are atypical or typical. Oh, my God, he's wasting this man's time. Oh, he's embarrassing himself. Oh, my God, he might even be embarrassing me. And Bush looks at me on the way out, grabs me by the hand, looks me in the eyes as if it's a presidential directive and says love that boy. At the time, I thought what a nice thing for him to do. He was telling me to love my son despite the fact he's a little quirky. Not until several years later I go out on these trips I really dig in and look into myself. I talk to a lot of parental experts, talk to a lot of other parents for this book, and I realize, no, no, the message here isn't to love him despite his idiosyncrasies. It's to love him because of his idiosyncrasies. What makes him different, what makes all of our kids different, is what makes them special.

SIMON: Can you help us understand the everyday grace and courage that it takes your son and other people with Asperger's to navigate the shoals of life?

FOURNIER: I'm getting a chill. I can't. Tyler talking to me at the end of a school day is physically exhausting for him. It's hard just to make eye contact and talk to his father, to his sisters, to his mom. Could you imagine the guts it takes and the concentration it takes, the discipline it takes to look President Clinton, the most social being, you know, in our generation perhaps, and President Bush, you know, a guy who can hold you to strict accountability in a conversation - awfully hard thing to do. And he does it and there are - we're realizing now there's a lot of young men and women who are dealing with Asperger's and other forms of autism who aren't getting the kind of support that Tyler was able to get because we're lucky to have a little means.

SIMON: Yeah. You tell a story toward the end of your book that - I'm going to be a little emotional. He really has - your son has an ability to comfort people.

FOURNIER: Yeah, thank you. You're going to make me cry.

SIMON: (Laughter).

FOURNIER: My dad was my hero, and one of the things that I had a hard time dealing with was how do I connect with my son in a way that my dad did? My dad was a jock. I'm a jock. That's how we connected. My son doesn't like sports. So in writing this book, my dad, who was still kicking my butt in racquetball when I started, by time I got done he was dying and went real quick.

And at my dad's - we're spreading his ashes on the Detroit River and my sister is dropping his ashes over the boat and my mom is - steps back and is kind of in an awkward position 'cause her husband's being disposed of and her boys - me and my two brothers - we step back even behind her. We didn't know what to do. I'm supposed to be a pretty social being. I'm the oldest son. And my son steps up in front of all of us and grabs my mom in a big ol' hug, which, by the way, for an Aspie is not a natural thing to do. And he tells her - whispers to her, Grandma, everyone's going to think that you're - that I'm comforting you, that I'm hugging you but really you're hugging me.

SIMON: As parents, we're supposed to teach our children (laughter) it's both - it's a little hard I think for us to talk about this. As parents, we're told we're supposed to teach our children and then at some point you wind up...

FOURNIER: No, you see in this book he taught me. He taught me a lot. They say these folks don't have empathy. I dare you to read this book and not see all kinds of empathy coming out of Tyler. It's not typically shown. It's not - you'll see how hard it was for me to realize, oh, my God, look how empathetic he is. They do have empathy. They just don't show it the way we do. He is the most remarkable, guileless, heartfelt, genuine, wonderful young man. I'm blessed to have been a part of raising him and my - the big point in this book is that he's not my idealized son. He's not the one I dreamed of, but dear God he's my ideal son.

SIMON: Ron Fournier's book is "Love That Boy." I'm not going to let you go just yet 'cause you are one of America's top political columnists.

FOURNIER: Oh, thank you.

SIMON: What's going on this year?

FOURNIER: (Laughter) The people are madder than hell and they finally realize that they have the power not to take it anymore. And we're seeing on the far-right with Donald Trump and the far-left with Sanders and I believe all across the spectrum but a lot of people who really haven't seized the power they have people are saying we're not going to take it anymore. We want change, and we want it in the worst way.

Now, I like to joke that I think Donald Trump is the worst way, but it shows you how angry people are, how disconnected they are from their politics, how all of their social institutions, from their churches to their celebrities to the charities to small business and big businesses to the media and especially politics, are letting them down. And they're demanding - and this is a buzzword but they're demanding disruption. They're demanding positive change. And I think they're going to keep acting out even beyond this election until we have a positive disrupting force that changes our politics the way Teddy Roosevelt did at the beginning of the last century. And oh, by the way, Teddy Roosevelt is Tyler's favorite president.

SIMON: (Laughter).

FOURNIER: We went to Sagamore Hill as part of the trip.

SIMON: That's right. Well, again, Ron Fournier, his new book is "Love That Boy" and thanks so much for being with us.

FOURNIER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.