By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Decades before President John F. Kennedy inspired a generation and Robert Kennedy was elected to the Senate, before Ted Kennedy evolved from perceived playboy to respected legislator, before a new Kennedy generation filled glossy magazines, America had already seen its share of political dynasties that have left their mark on the nation.
Even today, as the most legendary dynasty of them all is eclipsed by the death of its patriarch, the American landscape is blanketed with lesser-branded multigenerational political families. Best-known historically are the Adamses, the Bushes and the Roosevelts, each of whom produced two presidents. There are also the Lodges, the Tafts, the Lees, the Longs and the Udalls.
There have been some 700 families in which two or more members have served in Congress, according to Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess, author of "America's Political Dynasties." The list includes such high-profile names as Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), whose father Thomas also served in the Senate; Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), whose father David was also in the Senate; and former vice president Al Gore (D-Tenn.), who followed his father Albert Sr. to the Senate. The Udall family has two current senator cousins -- Mark (D-Colo.), whose father, Morris, served in the House and ran for president in 1976, and Tom (D-N.M.), whose father, Stewart, was interior secretary under presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
"We as Americans don't like change and we became more comfortable with a familiar name, and that isn't necessarily good for democracy," says Thomas Whalen, a political historian at Boston University. "People's last names shouldn't matter."
Obviously, the founding fathers didn't envision dynasties in the new nation.
After battling to split away from the British monarchy, the framers took care to avoid the pitfalls of royalty, including nepotism. "No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States" to its citizens, they penned in the Bill of Rights. George Washington was elected the nation's first president in part because he did not have children. And John Adams's critics railed against him for president because he had a son, John Quincy Adams, who was showing interest in politics. The men became the country's second and sixth presidents.
Today, says presidential historian Michael Beschloss, Americans are largely ambivalent about the idea of nobility. He says real political dynasties may "actually have a leg up in the process. They have name recognition and they are able to tap into vast networks and raise money, like George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton. . . . Voters think they know what they are getting."
Still, while the name gives them an advantage, politics is littered by also-rans. Two of Franklin Roosevelt's sons were not able to launch their political careers beyond Congress. The most famous recent example is Caroline Kennedy, whose name made her a serious contender to be appointed to the U.S. Senate from New York, but she failed to make a convincing case for herself.
Most political families did not necessarily strive to become dynasties. The Bush family, for one, shunned the term, and George W. Bush went to great lengths during his first presidential campaign in 2000 to create the impression he was different from his father. "Dynasty means something inherited," George W. once said. "We inherited a good name, but you don't inherit a vote. You have to win a vote."
Hess calls the Bush family "an accidental dynasty." George H.W. Bush's father, Prescott, was a senator from Connecticut, but George H.W. moved to Texas to make money in oil before turning to politics. His second son, Jeb, landed in Florida as governor, and his oldest son, George W., bounced around as an oilman and baseball team owner before running for governor.
No political family has captured the country's imagination as have the Kennedys, through their endless misfortune and sparkling glamour. But many historians attribute this to celebrity and tragedy in the age of television as much as to anything else.
"They seemed larger than life to us because we grew up with them," says Brookings's Hess. He adds that their fame also stems from the fact that as a family "they are uniquely beautiful. They married movie stars. The Adamses were short and squat. Robert Redford would never play them in the movie."
What also made the Kennedys prominent, historians say, was that no other political family so aggressively sought to create a dynasty. Nor has one lasted so long, spanning some 70 years. Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. was quite open about his intention to use his vast wealth to create a legacy of familial power and influence. He had set his hopes on his eldest son, Joe Jr., a Navy pilot, for the White House. But Joe was killed when his plane exploded during a World War II mission, and the elder Kennedy turned to his second son.
According to Beschloss, as early as 1957 Joe Kennedy was openly talking about John becoming president, Robert becoming attorney general (which he did) and Teddy running for John's Massachusetts Senate seat.
"Joe was supposed to be the politician," President Kennedy was once quoted as saying. "When he died, I took his place. If anything happened to me, Bobby would take my place. If something happened to Bobby, Teddy would take his place."
Ted Kennedy's death has prompted conjecture that the dynasty is over. While many in the younger generations have been involved in various forms of public service from the Special Olympics to environmental causes, few have projected the tenacity and political instincts of Ted Kennedy and his brothers.
"There really does not seem to be anyone to assume the mantle," Whalen says. "I think they'll just quietly recede . . ."