Ron Fournier on what his autistic son, Tyler, teaches him about parenting, politics and life

Bianna Golodryga
Yahoo News and Finance Anchor

By Alex Bregman

Ron Fournier, a columnist for the National Journal and the Atlantic, has covered politics and presidents for decades. In his new book, “Love That Boy,” he merges the politics with the personal. It’s the story of his son, Tyler, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a highly functioning form of autism, when he was 12 years old. It’s also the story of how Fournier learned to embrace his son not “despite” his idiosyncrasies but rather “because” of them, as he told Yahoo News and Finance Anchor Bianna Golodryga.

Fournier had trouble coming to grips with raising a son who is, as he called him, “quirky.” As the subtitle of the book puts it, it took two presidents and eight road trips to change that.

The book’s title comes from a family visit to the Oval Office in April 2003. Fournier was finishing up an assignment covering the George W. Bush administration and, as is tradition, was allowed to bring his family for one last visit to the Oval with the president. As Fournier described the meeting to Golodryga: “I was anxious during the meeting because Tyler was very quirky. He is very quirky, especially at 5. He was going on and on and on about Bush’s dog and on and on and on about Roosevelt’s dog, and I’m thinking he’s embarrassing himself and, worse, he might be embarrassing me.” Fournier continued, “Bush, to his credit, really reads a room really well, and he grabbed my hand on the way out … it was a really brief meeting … and he said, ‘Love that boy.’”

It took Fournier nine years to understand what Bush meant by that. He told Golodryga: “At the time, if you had asked me, I would’ve thought the president was telling me to love him despite his idiosyncrasies, despite the fact that he’s quirky, and over the course of the next nine years in really understanding my son and my role as a father, I realize I love my son because of his idiosyncrasies, and what makes him different is what makes him so special. All parents should get that.”

It was over the course of those nine years that Fournier, at the urging of his wife, Lori, took his son on what he calls “guilt trips” to seven presidential libraries to bond with Tyler through Tyler’s love of presidential history. Fournier also arranged for two private meetings with Presidents George W. Bush and Clinton at their respective libraries.

At the meeting with Clinton, Tyler and the former president bonded over their enthusiasm for Theodore Roosevelt. Clinton went off on a 45-minute tangent about Roosevelt and his other obsessions. It was such an awkward encounter that Fournier wondered, sarcastically, if Clinton had Asperger’s too. Fournier described the meeting to Golodryga: “If the most talented man I have ever covered, the most social human being in politics today, one of the greatest communicators in his nation’s history … if he can have troubles with his social cues, why am I tied up in knots about my son’s rough edges? Maybe I should accept my son for who he is.” He continued, “They were bonding over what are autistic-type traits. … They were bonding over their rough edges.” He called the meeting “a beautiful moment for the raw honesty of it.”

The meeting with Bush at his presidential library was much different. Fournier said, “What Bush did was ask a ton of questions … really short questions, and then listened.” Fournier said, “It was a lesson for me in how to ask questions and listen and help your boy or your daughter with whatever issues they have. Not the issues you think they should have.”

Tyler’s meetings with former presidents helped Fournier in covering the presidents from a much different perspective than the usual reporter. Fournier told Golodryga: “I think voters need to remember that most of the people we have in these offices are in it for the right reason.” He also now sees our last three presidents as “obviously very good parents.”

As to what Tyler thinks of the current presidential race: “We don’t talk about politics much at home. He’s not very impressed with Trump, though, and I’m not sure why.” If Tyler and Trump ever met, Fournier is confident he knows how that meeting would go: “I think Tyler could run circles intellectually around Donald Trump.”