Relative Power
We Elect Our Leaders, and Dynasties Are Few, but Sometimes Ascension Looks Like an Inheritance

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.

Another way to look at the predominance of the relative few is the "small pool" theory. The reason you keep seeing the same names over and over in the early years of the republic is because there were fewer worthies to choose from. "You have this narrow set of aristocratic families -- the draw was minuscule -- this narrow set of educated people who had the time and leisure to engage in politics in a young country where most people were just trying to feed themselves," says Edward Renehan Jr., historian and author of "The Lion's Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War." Plus, Renehan says, "You couldn't have the riffraff running things."

"Some colonies before the revolution did have a ruling elite," says Jack Rakove, Stanford University historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution." Especially in the South, with its planter aristocracy.

But there was a wariness, too, says Rakove, an instinct to counterbalance the weight of ancestry. "The founders were united in their attitude that political office should not be transmitted from one family or passed down through the generations," Rakove says.

As an example, Rakove points to the founders' chilly reception of the Society of the Cincinnati, one of America's premier hereditary associations (with its headquarters today in Dupont Circle). The society was formed in 1783 by former officers of the Continental Army and was named for the dictator Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who served Rome during a time of war, then returned power to the Senate and went home to plow his fields. Both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were critical of the group in which membership was passed down to sons and included no enlisted men. "It implied a founding generation," Rakove says, "a military aristocracy with a hereditary principle, and there was deep bias from the revolution against the idea that political power should be passed on." (Nevertheless, the reception wasn't so chilly as to prevent George Washington from serving as the society's first president.)

David Kennedy, Stanford historian and co-author of the popular high school textbook "The American Pageant," reminds us that the founders "were not wild believers in all-out democracy. They were quite wary of what we know of as democracy now. They rejected the monarch. But they also believed in the rule of the best men. The electoral college is a vestige of that, and so is the Senate," two institutions devised to restrain unbridled democracy.

As for politics as family affair, Kennedy (no relation to those Kennedys) says the founders "were friendly to it and understood it. They expected that 'nature's aristocrats' or 'the first families of Virginia,' as they would be called, would take up their proper roles. People would not have remarked upon it as anomalous at the time."

Among the first and most prominent political families were the Adamses, though David McCullough, author of "John Adams," the book that inspired the upcoming HBO series on the second president (played by Paul Giamatti), bristles at the suggestion that the word "dynasty" be applied to his beloved Adams family.

Why? Because they aren't a dynasty "in the real meaning of the word," he says. Though John Adams's son, John Quincy Adams, did become the sixth president (and his son Charles Francis Adams was a member of Congress and ambassador to Britain), McCullough feels the word implies a certain unseemliness. "The children and grandchildren of the Adams family were raised with the idea that public service was expected of you. John Adams, he never ignored the call to duty. To his financial detriment, with a threat of his life, to his marriage."

McCullough asks, "Is that a worthy tradition in a family? To raise their children to serve. It was not held as a handicap or something to be suspicious of." But would the nation have been better served had son not followed father in the White House? McCullough thinks not. "John Quincy Adams was a very great man," McCullough says. "He wasn't an important president. He wasn't the greatest president. But he wasn't a bad president."

McCullough is now thundering a bit on the telephone. "He is the only president who, after serving as president, went back to serving in the House of Representatives, which has never happened before or since, where he was battling slavery day after day after day, as an old man, tired, put upon. They called him 'Old Man Eloquence.' But what he said mattered. He died there. He died with his boots on."

By the time John Quincy Adams became the sixth president in 1825, the idea that great families owed a great debt had gone out of fashion a bit, confronted by the rise of Andrew Jackson in the 1820s and the more inclusive "Jacksonian democracy," which legitimizes people from humble origins, Kennedy says.

"You can have the backwoods bastard hick, from the fabled log cabin," says Kennedy. "In fact, the log cabin becomes a proxy for humble origins." He points out that today a candidate of meager birth is likely to trumpet the fact. "I'm the son of a millworker," John Edwards has said more than once. Similarly, Barack Obama tells an inspiring story of his rise from adversity. "You can be a Roosevelt," Kennedy says, a scion of wealth, an heir to a great name, "but you have to be a tribune of the people."

The Roosevelts are a most American dynasty, as Theodore Roosevelt (progressive Republican, man of action) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (progressive Democrat, suffered from polio, steeled the nation in depression and war) were at once so different yet so similar. Theodore served in the state legislature, was governor of New York, assistant secretary of the Navy and president -- and Franklin pursued the exact same path to the White House. He even married Theodore's favorite niece, Eleanor, whom Theodore gave away at the marriage ceremony.

"TR encouraged him to enter politics, though he lamented that he was a Democrat instead of a Republican," says Jean Edward Smith, a historian at Marshall University and author of "FDR." Was there any contemporaneous grumbling among the pundits, digs from his enemies at the time, about the prospect of another Roosevelt? On the contrary. "Much of the press coverage, early on, would focus on him being a Democratic Roosevelt," Smith says. "Franklin traded on it his entire career. It was plus all the way for FDR. No downside to it. None at all."

As a dynasty, the Roosevelts are instructive in another way. After FDR, the political lineage does not end, but diminishes, then withers. Two sons go into Congress, as Democrats representing New York and California. One son marries into the du Pont family, which opposed and despised FDR. Another seconds the nomination of Dwight Eisenhower at the Republican National Convention in 1952.

As Hess says, American political dynasties have been mercurial and fluid. Many of the founding families played their roles and then departed the stage. George Washington had no children of his own. His stepson Jackie, who joined him at the siege of Yorktown, died of camp fever. Similarly, there was no long line of Jeffersons or Madisons or Lincolns clamoring for public office. ("Looked at another way," says Rakove, "the story of America's political dynasties may be that there are conspicuously few.")

"It's not as if the families stay too long," Hess says. "Oh, maybe there's a Kennedy who stayed too long, but by and large, they left the scene gracefully. If you look at history through a long enough lens, what happens is that they either lose interest in us, or we lose interest in them, and they fade away."

Has it been good for us? "Taking the long view," says Hess, "they've done well by us and we've done well by these people." Mostly. Among any top 10 lists tabulated by historians, there are presidents from the established dynasties. Who would wish to exclude Theodore or Franklin Delano Roosevelt or John Adams? John F. Kennedy galvanized a generation of young activists and William Howard Taft's administration was known for trust-busting and an improved postal service.

But it is also true there have been a lot of backbenchers the nation could have done without. President William Henry Harrison and his grandson President Benjamin Harrison? Mediocre? The Taft in the national spotlight now is Bob Taft, governor of Ohio, who left office just last year -- with a 7 percent approval rating and four criminal misdemeanor convictions.

In a nation of 300 million citizens, the small pool theory no longer applies, so something keeps these families in office. Access to networks of fundraisers? That's one explanation. Political skills learned at a parent's knee? A sense of stewardship -- or an appetite for power? Does a distracted electorate prefer the ease of a brand name? Lexis, Chevy, Target, Macy's, Bush, Clinton.

A truly historical assessment about current and contending members of the Bush and Clinton political dynasties will be made in the future, when we all will be judged. In the meantime, Chelsea Clinton and the Bush twins will be eligible to run for the White House in 2017.

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