Last year, Richard Skinner and I published an article in a small British journal on the role of families in American national politics. With Caroline Kennedy’s recent “campaign” for the senate seat in New York, we thought this article would be of interest to some of the readers of this blog. As Caroline might have put it, what could, you know, be more conservative than, you know, the institution of the family? Richard Skinner is a professor of politics in the Department of Government and Legal Studies at Bowdoin College and I am at the University of Virginia. JWC
Politics in America has been called a business. If so, the market share that goes to the family enterprise has grown remarkably in recent years. The reports that Caroline Kennedy, despite having never held public office before, may be the next senator from New York illustrate the continuing importance of these ties. To be sure, the path to the presidency remains open to new entrants having no previous family connections. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton are all examples of self-made men from humble backgrounds. But it is striking to observe just how important a role has been played over the past century by a few family units, which have served as incubators of political careers. Think of the names of Kennedy, Bush, Gore, and Clinton.
While Barack Obama’s triumphs over Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain (himself the son and grandson of admirals) would seem to have marked a respite for dynastic politics, Caroline Kennedy’s campaign to be appointed to the New York senate seat vacated by Clinton shows that a famous name can still open doors.
Is family influence of this kind something new? In a nation founded in opposition to hereditary monarchy, the dynastic principle has generally been regarded with suspicion. Some feared that George Washington, just because he was so virtuous, would be forced to accept the title of king. He would never hear of it, and it was only one more of the many gifts that this “Father of His Country” bestowed on his extended family that he never troubled it by having any biological children of his own.
Surveying the sweep of those elected president, the strength of family ties does not seem excessive. Only two presidents had offspring who followed them into the White House: John Adams (1797-1801) and George H. W. Bush (1989-93), fathers of John Quincy Adams (1825-29) and George W. Bush. Interestingly, neither father in these teams was especially popular or successful. Ditto for the sole father-grandson duo of William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison. William caught pneumonia while delivering his Inaugural address and served only a month. The closest pair to a dynasty in terms of the attraction of the family name was also the most tenuous in terms of the family link: Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45) was a distant cousin of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09). Together, they held the presidency for almost a fifth of the twentieth century.
But the politics of the presidential campaigns over the last half century tells a different story of the growing influence of the family unit. The Kennedys led the way. Joseph P. Kennedy, an Irish-American self-made multimillionaire, entered politics as a supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, eventually becoming his ambassador to Great Britain. But Kennedy’s defeatism during World War II destroyed his dreams of becoming the first Catholic president. With a singularity of purpose, he then transferred his ambitions on his children, pinning his hopes first on his son, Joseph Jr., who was shot down in a bomber over Germany. As if by the rules of primogeniture, the torch then passed to John F. Kennedy, who was elected to the House in 1946 and the Senate in 1952. When JFK sought the presidency in 1960, his father’s wealth and connections played a helpful role, especially in the nomination race. But there was a down side as well. Many held the sins of the father against the son. Former president Harry Truman once declared, “It’s not the Pope I’m worried about, it’s the pop.”
JFK named his brother Robert as Attorney General. Not only did this appointment arouse controversy, leading to a law banning nepotism in high government offices, but it also prompted immediate speculation that RFK would succeed his brother as president, which led to a enormous rivalry between the Attorney General and vice President Lyndon Johnson. After the assassination of JFK, the Kennedy name acquired an irresistible aura. Robert was elected to the Senate from New York State, a state in which he had never lived, and he entered the Democratic nomination race in 1968 following Johnson’s forced withdrawal. His campaign was cut short when he was shot dead in a Los Angeles hotel on the night of his victory in the California presidential primary.
The mystique of the Kennedy name, seared now into the national consciousness by these tragedies, achieved an epic status. Almost immediately, the youngest brother, Edward, who had been elected to the Senate from Massachusetts in 1962 at the age of 30 (and suffering many of the same criticisms as a lightweight that now afflict his niece), was widely seen as the likely Democratic presidential nominee in 1972. But a 1969 auto accident on Chappaquiddick Island, in which a young woman died, kept him from running and cast a shadow on the rest of his career. In 1980, Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter, then seeking nomination for a second term. In a flawed campaign, in which questions of character linked to Chappaquiddick were never far from the surface, Kennedy’s bid fell short. Kennedy’s presidential prospects were now over, but he has continued to serve in the Senate and has become one of the giants in the history of that body.
No other Kennedy has sought the presidency since 1980. The family has remained politically prominent, with a son of both Robert and Edward having been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Both have run into difficulties. The stylish John Kennedy Jr. was mentioned for a time, mostly in gossip columns, as a possible future presidential candidate, until he was killed in a plane crash that he piloted, along with his wife and sister in law. The magic of the Kennedy name seemed to have died with him — until his sister Caroline, previously known as a New York socialite who avoided politics, became a close associate of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and one of Barack Obama’s most fervent supporters. When Obama named her to chair his vice presidential search committee, it became clear that another Kennedy was on the rise. But the spotlight cast upon her has illuminated many of the less appealing features of dynastic politicians — arrogance, lack of preparation, a sense of entitlement, a lack of familiarity with everyday existence. Indeed, Caroline’s "you know"-filled interview with the Associated Press brought to mind her Uncle Ted’s fumbling attempts to explain his 1980 presidential campaign in a chat with TV newsman Roger Mudd.
The Bushes have exceeded the Kennedys’ political accomplishments, though without the glamour or drama. Son of a U.S. Senator from Connecticut, George H. W. Bush became a successful oilman in Texas after World War II and then a Republican congressman in 1966. Following a failed bid for the U.S. Senate, Bush served in a series of high-level posts under Presidents Nixon and Ford. Despite jibes that he had a “resume, not a record,” Bush sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 and finished second to Ronald Reagan, who in a surprise move aimed at uniting the party tapped the more moderate Bush as his running mate. After two terms as vice president, Bush was elected president in 1988.
Bush failed to win a second term in 1992, and the family name became an ambiguous asset. In 1994, his son George W. was chosen governor of Texas, while brother Jeb was chosen governor of Florida in 1998. George W. Bush proved to be a successful and popular Governor, and the Republican Party united behind him in the 2000 campaign. But his low public standing meant that the name and family connection now ironically have worked to the disadvantage of Jeb, who, as perhaps the most accomplished governor in nation, took himself out of the running for 2008. Even if the streak ends here, the record of offices held by the Bush family (starting with Prescott) may never be surpassed: three presidential terms, two vice presidential terms, five national campaigns for the presidency, four gubernatorial terms in two of the nation’s largest states, two senate terms, and two terms in the House. Jeb’s apparent interest in running for the Senate in 2010 will provide an important test as to whether the Bush name still carries any weight with the public.
The other family still standing athwart American politics is, of course, the Clintons. It is a link of a different sort, sealed by marriage rather than blood line. Neither Bill nor Hillary profited from a parent opening any doors for them, but their political careers have been deeply intertwined with one another, for good and ill. Bill went so far during the 1992 campaign as to remark that if you “buy one you get one free,” which some considered to be suggesting a co-presidency but which the Clintons evidently also thought of as a possible four term dynasty. Hillary Clinton presented herself as a different kind of First Lady, a policy activist rather than a social hostess, and quickly became a polarizing figure. Some voters admired her, others loathed her. She found herself involved in one controversy or scandal after another. Ironically, it was the largest scandal of the Clinton presidency that gradually rehabilitated her image, when she displayed stoical endurance during her husband’s (and her own) humiliation in the Lewinsky affair. In a show of both independence and dependence, Mrs. Clinton ran and was elected Senator in New York State in 2000, where she, like Bobby Kennedy, had never resided. Bill Clinton played a significant role in her presidential campaign, raising money, soliciting support from leading Democrats, and speaking on her behalf. But he also proved to be a distraction, criticizing Obama in what many saw as racially tinged language, and repeatedly clashing with reporters. As a result, he was mostly sent to smaller communities, away from the media spotlight, where his celebrity status could wow locals. While both Clintons enthusiastically endorsed Obama in memorable convention speeches, and Hillary hit the campaign trail repeatedly for the Democratic ticket, her husband still seemed a bit wary and half-hearted in his support. When Obama nominated Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State, it took days of negotiations to untangle the messy finances of her husband’s charities. While Hillary’s days as a presidential contender may be over, the popular support she amassed in her run remains a formidable asset, and her Cabinet post gives her a global platform. And their daughter, Chelsea, who had previously avoided politics, emerged as a doughty campaigner on her mother’s behalf; despite her youth, she is now being mentioned as a political prospect in her adopted home state of New York. Could we be seeing a new rivalry in the future between a Kennedy a Clinton?
While 2012 is far off, at least one scion is already prominently mentioned as a presidential contender: Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, made a credible bid at the Republican nomination in 2008, and is widely expected to run again. His father, George Romney, first achieved fame as chief executive of the now-defunct American Motors, and parlayed his CEO reputation into six years as governor of Michigan. He sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, until a gaffe made him a national laughingstock (he said that a trip to Vietnam had given him a “brainwashing”). His son Mitt followed in his father’s path, building a successful business career before entering politics and mounting a losing but respectable challenge to Senator Edward Kennedy. Romney then burnished his managerial reputation by taking over the administration of the troubled 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. He returned to Massachusetts to be elected governor, where he began a shift to the right, which continued during his bid for the Republican nomination last year. Mitt Romney shows many of his clan’s more positive attributes – good looks, a knack for business (an asset in troubled economic times), a large personal fortune, an appealing family — but it remains to be seen whether his devotion to Mormonism will serve as an obstacle, now more to those on the Left than evangelicals, to his further ambitions.
What can a family bring to the business of politics? The answer is different forms of “political capital.” American politics is more individualistic than the more party-oriented systems of Europe. The family label offers a “brand name” recognizable to voters, which can help a candidate get over an important initial threshold. The name is rarely enough, however, to get an individual very far without showing merits of his or her own. Only the Kennedy name for a time seemed to impel family members further than at time they might even have wished to go. Another form of capital comes in the shape of a network of supporters that can assist in fundraising and in putting together a campaign organization. This benefit is greatest where the time span between elections is not very long. Both the Kennedys and Bushes, and now the Clintons, have benefited from armies of vassals and courtiers willing to support the latest heir to the throne. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, family members see and learn from what others in the family have accomplished. Getting into a business and opening an horizon are important obstacles that block so many from trying to enter. Being a member of a family enterprise makes this all seem less than insurmountable.