Relative Power

Another political dynasty in the making? Former president Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, at a fundraiser in 2007, are making a bid for it.
Another political dynasty in the making? Former president Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, at a fundraiser in 2007, are making a bid for it. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Getty Images)
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By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 4, 2008


The American people, having won in violent revolution their freedom from the tyranny of kings, quickly surrendered to the idea that certain families are destined to lead -- as long as we get to pick them.

Bush. Clinton. Bush. Clinton? While it would be extraordinary in our history for two families to occupy the Oval Office consecutively for decades, political dynasties are as American as mudslinging and pork.

Most precocious children can probably recite a few of the most assertive brand names in American history: the brilliant but cranky Adams family, the Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin, the tragic and cinematic Kennedys. But these well-known repeats only begin to tell the tale of politicians advantaged by their kin.

While we in the age of "American Idol" may pretend to decry the idea of inherited favor, there are reasons why Hamilton Fish II, Hamilton Fish III and Hamilton Fish IV all served in Congress -- and one reason is Hamilton Fish I, the progenitor who served as U.S. representative, New York governor and U.S. senator. (The Fishes were in Congress, off and on, from 1845 to 1995, or put another way, from the invention of the rubber band to the founding of Yahoo.)

Political genes? You might think so looking at those persistent Frelinghuysens of New Jersey, who have put six Frelinghuysens in Congress (four senators, two representatives), including the current Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.). That is staying power.

So with the prospect of another family dynasty in the making -- for not only is Hillary Clinton the wife of a former president, but Mitt Romney is the son of a former Michigan governor and presidential candidate -- we dug out our high school textbooks and telephoned a few sage historians to ask: What gives?

A full 45 percent of the members of the first Congress in 1789 had a relative who was also serving, according to Pedro Dal Bó, professor of economics at Brown University and co-author of a study on congressional dynasties. "The number of members with relatives is too high to explain away by the relatively smaller population of the United States at the time," Bó says. Two hundred years later, 10 percent of Congress has a close relative who has also served in the House or Senate. And in case you're wondering, the phenomenon crosses party lines.

The evidence is all around us: the Gores, the Murkowskis, the Rockefellers, the Bakers, the Doles, the Bonos, the Meekses, the Dodds, the Tsongases, the Chafees. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to hold the position, is the daughter of former congressman Thomas D'Alesandro Jr.

"Some families are very good at politics. Perhaps it is a family trait," Dal Bó says. "Being in power makes it more likely you will have descendants in power. Being in Congress facilitates your relatives' entrance to Congress. Power begets power."

Stephen Hess, a historian at the Brookings Institution, first made his name as the author of the 1966 book "America's Political Dynasties," which begins with the fact that there have been 700 families with two or more members of Congress, and they account for 1,700 of the 10,000 men and women who have served in the House and Senate.

"Initially it was a question of who is best prepared to serve," Hess says. "Then over time it becomes a question of branding." The nation's first leaders were chosen from "the creme de le creme of the country," says Hess, as long as le creme were white Christian males with property.

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