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The US: Politics and presidents: the ultimate family business?

SPECIAL REPORT: The US

James W Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA.
Richard Skinner is visiting assistant professor of political science at Allegheny College, Meadville, PA.

The president of the US is the most powerful job in the world – and several notable families have coveted the position. James W Ceaser and Richard Skinner look at the parallels between politics and family business …

Politics in America has been called a business. If this is so, the market share that belongs to the family enterprise has grown remarkably in recent years. To be sure, the path to the presidency remains open to new entrants with 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: Kennedy, Bush, Gore, and, for 2008, Romney and Clinton, to name a few.

Is family influence of this kind something new? In a nation founded in opposition to hereditary monarchy, the dynastic principle has 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 HW Bush (1989-93), fathers of John Quincy Adams (1825-29) and George W Bush respectively. Interestingly, neither father was especially popular or successful. 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.

The distinguished dynasty
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 to 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 downside 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 Robert would succeed his brother as president, which produced a bitter 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 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, 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 sons of Robert and Edward elected to Congress. 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. The magic of the Kennedy name seems to have died with him.

The next generation
The Bushes have exceeded the Kennedys' political accomplishments, though without the glamour or drama. Son of US Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut, George HW Bush became a successful oilman in Texas after World War II and then a Republican congressman in 1966. Following a failed bid for the US Senate, Bush served in a series of high-level posts under Presidents Nixon and Ford. Despite jibes that he had a "resumé, not a record," Bush sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 and finished second to Ronald Reagan, who in a surprise move 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 as governor of Texas, while brother Jeb was chosen as governor of Florida in 1998. George W proved to be a successful and popular governor, and the Republican Party united behind him in the 2000 campaign. As he nears the end of his presidency with low approval ratings, the name and family connection now ironically have worked to the disadvantage of Jeb, who, as probably 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 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, a decade in the Senate, and two terms in the House.

The modern day empire
While the 2008 presidential campaign promises to be Bush-less, the influence of other family names is clearly present. Mitt Romney, one of the leading contenders among the Republicans, is the son of George Romney, who first achieved fame as a successful auto executive and then parlayed his CEO reputation into six years as governor of Michigan. George 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").
 
Mitt has followed in his father's footsteps, succeeding in business 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 political right, which has continued during the early phases of the current campaign. The Romney name still generates good will in a few Republican circles, and the family remains politically active in Michigan, which has a fortuitously early primary.
 
The other family facing the voters is, of course, the Clintons.

A marriage made in heaven?
It is a link of a different sort, sealed by marriage rather than bloodline. Neither Bill nor Hillary profited from a parent opening any doors for them, but their political careers have been deeply intertwined with one another. 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 polarising figure involved in one controversy 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, Hillary ran and was elected senator in New York State in 2000, where she, like Robert Kennedy, had never resided. Bill Clinton has already played a significant role in her presidential campaign, raising money, soliciting support from leading Democrats, and speaking on her behalf. He brings both formidable assets and liabilities to the campaign. Democratic voters almost unanimously admire the former president, but many others do not wish for a re-run of the Clinton soap opera.

A family business?
What, therefore, can a family bring to the business of politics? The answer is "political capital" in its different forms. American politics is more individualistic than the party-oriented systems of Europe, and the family label offers a "brand name," recognisable to voters, that can help a candidate cross an important threshold. The name is rarely enough, however, to get an individual very far without showing merits of his or her own. Another kind of capital comes in the shape of a network of supporters that can assist in fundraising and in forming a campaign organisation.

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. Being a member of a family enterprise can make the many obstacles to political success seem far less daunting. Knowing the ropes is no small advantage to the political entrepreneur.

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