by Hendrik Hertzberg
Source: The New Yorker
October 29, 2007
Generations Shortly after Hillary Rodham Clinton declared her candidacy for President last winter, Roger Cohen, writing in the International Herald Tribune, declared that “a delicate problem confronts her that few people are talking about: almost two decades of dynastic domination of American politics.” Well, they’re talking about it now. “Forty per cent of Americans have never lived when there wasn’t a Bush or a Clinton in the White House,” a recent Associated Press story, by Nancy Benac, begins. “Talk of Bush-Clinton fatigue is increasingly cropping up in the national political debate,” Benac goes on. “If Hillary Clinton were to be elected and reëlected, the nation could go twenty-eight years in a row with the same two families governing the country. Add the elder Bush’s terms as Vice-President, and that would be thirty-six years straight with a Bush or Clinton in the White House.” And a cover story in the Economist a couple of weeks ago, while noting that a woman President “would undoubtedly be a good thing for the country,” adds, ominously, “But there is a downside: dynasty.”
Ruling families are not supposed to be a big part of the picture in our democratic republic, whose very Constitution states firmly, “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.” Even so, we’ve dabbled in dynasties from the beginning, when the Lee family, of Virginia, got to work spawning two signers of the Declaration of Independence, three governors, two senators, nine members of Congress, and four Confederate generals, including Robert E. (The Lees’ Washington, Randolph, and Harrison in-laws won some elections, too.) The New Jersey Frelinghuysens are well into their third century of political droit du seigneur, from Frederick (born 1753), a delegate to the Continental Congress and later a United States senator, through Rodney (born 1946), a current member of the House of Representatives.
If anything, the dynastic dynamic has picked up speed in the past half century or so. It reached a perfect storm in 1962, when Massachusetts voters filled the Senate seat vacated by John F. Kennedy, grandson of Congressman and Mayor John F. Fitzgerald and son of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, when he was elected President—the very seat that, in 1952, J.F.K. had wrested from Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., who was a great-great-great-grandson of Senator George Cabot, a grandson of the Senate titan Henry Cabot Lodge, and a son of George Cabot Lodge, who, though himself a poet, married a Frelinghuysen. (Are you following this?) The 1962 Democratic nominee for senator was, of course, Edward Moore Kennedy, then thirty years old. His Republican opponent was—wait for it—another George Cabot Lodge, this one a son of Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., and a great-great-great-great-grandson of, etc. Nor was that all. There was a third-party “peace” candidate, too, a professor of European history at Harvard: H. Stuart Hughes, grandson of Charles Evans Hughes, Governor of New York, Chief Justice of the United States, and 1916 Republican Presidential nominee. During a primary debate, Kennedy’s opponent for the Democratic nomination told him that if his name were just Edward Moore his candidacy would be a joke. A real zinger, but it might have been even zingier if its deliverer, Eddie McCormack, had not been the nephew of John W. McCormack, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.
Teddy won. But even if one of the others had prevailed the result would have illustrated the point, which is that a country with such a plenitude of political patriarchies—not only Kennedys, Lodges, Hugheses, and McCormacks but also Bayhs, Browns, Cuomos, Daleys, Dodds, Longs, La Follettes, Romneys, Tafts, and Udalls (to say nothing of Bushes and Clintons)—cannot claim immunity from the apparently universal temptation to tug the forelock. On Capitol Hill, at the moment, there are five senators whose dads were senators before them; in the House, the legacy cases begin, but do not end, with the Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, whose father was a congressman (and mayor of Baltimore).
At the Presidential level, the Bushes 41 and 43 were preceded by the Adamses 2 and 6, the Harrisons 9 and 23, and, of course, the Roosevelts 26 and 32. The younger members of the first three pairs on this list—sons in the first two cases, a grandson in the third—all had the dubious distinction of winning the Presidency while being defeated at the polls, which suggests a certain thinning of the blood. The Roosevelts were more distantly related; Theodore was Franklin’s fifth cousin, as (once removed) was his wife, Eleanor—a spiritual and political auntie of Hillary Clinton. Which brings us to the women, who, in this country and elsewhere, have generally come to power as a result of family ties.
In most cases, the tie has been broken by death. In South Asia, which seems to lead the world in female national leaders, violent death is invariably a factor. In Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, a total of four female heads of state have come to power in the wake of male relatives’ assassination; in India, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, was herself assassinated, as was her son and successor, Rajiv. (Her daughter-in-law, Sonia, now heads the ruling Congress Party.) Burma’s imprisoned opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is the daughter of the assassinated independence leader Aung San. And the father of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s two-time and perhaps future Prime Minister, was a Prime Minister whose life ended at the gallows; her return to Karachi last week was marked by a suicide-bomber attack that claimed more than a hundred lives.
In the United States, the widow-of and daughter-of pattern has been gentler. Of the two hundred and forty-four women who have served in the House and the Senate, forty-six succeeded their husbands and twelve their fathers. The wife-of, as distinct from widow-of, method of conferring power has been a relatively minor theme, found mostly in the nether parts of the country—one thinks of Governors Ma Ferguson, of Texas, and, especially, Lurleen Wallace, of Alabama, through whom George ruled when term limits forced him out of the state house.
Senator Clinton is different, obviously. She is indisputably a wife-of, but it was she, not he, whom Life selected as an icon of their generation when she graduated from college. It was she, not he, who, as a young lawyer, got the coveted job with the House Watergate investigation. She would have gone far, maybe even this far, without him. However much she benefits from the dynasty factor, though, the Economist is right: there’s a downside. The downside’s name is Bush. If, as the voters in 2000 wished, Al Gore, son of Senator Albert Gore, Sr., had been granted the White House, things might be a bit easier—not just for Hillary Clinton but also for her main Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama. George W. Bush has been as poor an advertisement for “inexperience” as for dynasticism. It’s not fair, of course. Bush’s failure to learn much of anything for the past six years suggests a deficit of character, not of experience; his unwillingness to employ his father’s skills and advice on behalf of the nation shows a disrespectful disregard for a dynast’s biggest advantage. He has given both freshness and family a bad name.