America's Top Dynasty?

By Stephen Hess
Sunday, September 13, 2009

American public life is saturated with them. Kennedys. Bushes. Clintons. Powerful individuals connected to one another by blood or by marriage who, deservedly or not, take on that most paradoxical of American labels: dynasty.

The passing in August of Sen. Ted Kennedy -- and his nephew Joseph Kennedy's decision last week not to run for the vacant seat -- set off debates over whether the "Kennedy dynasty" was over, and whether the family embodied the last and greatest dynasty in American politics.

But just glance at today's Senate and count those whose parents were once members of Congress, or governors, or in a presidential Cabinet, and you'll see potential dynasties in training: Evan Bayh, Bob Bennett, Bob Casey, Chris Dodd, Judd Gregg, Mary Landrieu, Lisa Murkowski, Mark Pryor, the cousins Mark and Tom Udall; add Jay Rockefeller, nephew of a vice president.

The Constitution states that "no title of nobility shall be granted by the United States," yet it seems political nobility is as American as apple pie.

But were the Kennedys truly the greatest dynasty our nation has seen? What about the Bush or Roosevelt families? The Adamses? The Rockefellers? The Tafts? When The Washington Post's Outlook section asked me to devise a ranking of America's dynasties, an honor roll of political families, it sounded like an irresistible exercise.

My infatuation with political dynasties began in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1957, when, as a bored private in a peacetime army, I wandered into a library and discovered the "Biographical Directory of the United States Congress." Who were these Bayards, Muhlenbergs and Frelinghuysens, I wondered, with five or six names apiece in the directory? I counted 700 families in which two or more members had served in Congress. I eventually explored these questions in a book, "America's Political Dynasties," published more than four decades ago.

Since then, what has fascinated me most is the constant shifts in America's dynastic politics, with new families emerging and older ones leaving the field of combat. For instance, I didn't include the Bush family in my first book because, well, there was no Bush dynasty in 1966 -- just one former backbench senator from Connecticut. But what happened to the Stocktons, Tuckers, Lees and Livingstons?

While the study of dynasties necessarily looks back into history, it also reflects new forces in American politics, such as the rising roles of women and ethnic and racial minorities. Once a woman's route to Congress was through widowhood or, in the classic title of Diane Blair's learned article, "Over His Dead Body." Today House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has far exceeded the congressional career of her father. Now we see the Sanchez sisters, Loretta and Linda, daughters of Mexican immigrants, representing California districts in the House; and the Diaz-Balart brothers, Lincoln and Mario, sons of a Cuban politician, representing Florida districts.

My ranking of the greatest American dynasties of them all is not simply my list of favorites in descending order, but the result of a simple mathematical formula I developed, accounting for three key elements: succession, family and power. Succession means that a dynasty must have at least three generations to qualify (this leaves out the Longs of Louisiana, for instance). Family means blood relations (the Kennedys get no points for Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California, for example). And power is measured by allocating points for each office the dynasts hold, multiplied by the terms they were elected to it. (A fuller methodology is available below.)

Of course, you may disagree with the results; such debates are part of our fascination with dynasties. Yet we should not let such appeal distort dynasties' relatively limited scope. Our greatest presidents -- Lincoln and Washington -- were part of no dynasty, nor were Madison or Jackson. And while the dynasties we have had deserve high marks for their collective contribution to our politics and society, we should not forget that their ranks include some mediocrity, even scoundrels. That said, the winners are . . .


America's political dynasties since 1789 are ranked here by a point system, with individual jobs assigned different point totals based on importance:

President/chief justice: 10 points

Vice president/speaker of the house: 4 points

Senator or governor: 3 points

Representative: 2 points

Cabinet member: 1 point

The points are then multiplied by the number of times a member of the dynasty was elected or appointed to one of the above positions. For instance, with two terms as Texas governor and two elections to the presidency, George W. Bush tallies 26 points for the Bush dynasty. John F. Kennedy, with three terms in the House as well as two elections to the Senate and one to the presidency, totals 22 points.

Then, to reward the depth and breadth of each dynasty, one additional point is given for each dynasty member who served in one of the above jobs, and one point for each generation represented.

To qualify for dynasty status, a family must have had at least three generations in public office. (Sorry, Clintons.) And "family" means blood relations, flowing matrilineally as well as patrilineally. For instance, John Francis Fitzgerald, a three-term congressman from Massachusetts, was the maternal grandfather of Jack, Bobby and Ted Kennedy, so his service counts toward the Kennedy dynasty.

The Rankings

#1 Kennedy - 96 points

Key Jobs: President (1), Senator (3), Representative (4), Cabinet (1)

There is often a founding father, but there is only one paterfamilias like Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., whose demonic drive would create the nation's second Irish Catholic political dynasty. (The first was the Carrolls of Maryland, one of whom signed the Declaration of Independence.) Joe's money buried Hubert Humphrey and won the presidential nomination for son Jack. Joe decreed that the president-elect make Bobby his attorney general and demanded that Jack's Senate seat be available when young Ted was constitutionally old enough to run.

After the tragic deaths of Jack and Bobby, and his failure to win the presidential nomination in 1980, Ted became one of the great legislators in American history, perhaps exceeding his father's expectations.

The second Kennedy generation has been star-crossed. Yet Joseph P. Kennedy has 26 living grandchildren. One rule for long-term dynastic success: Have lots of children.

#2 Roosevelt - 92 points

Key jobs: President (2), Vice President (1), Governor (2), Representative (4)

When it comes to impact, the Roosevelts deserve to rate at the top, with Theodore and Franklin jointly creating the modern presidency. However - dynastically speaking - they were only fifth cousins. A writer in 1936 computed that there were 17,000 living persons whose relationship to TR was at least as close as that of FDR.

The bridge between TR and FDR was Eleanor - niece of TR, wife of FDR - who might have catapulted the dynasty to first place if she had agreed to accept the Democratic Senate nomination from New York after FDR's death.

Otherwise, there was nothing notable about the Roosevelts in politics except the failure of the next generation, which suggests this rule: Voters give the children of important dynasts one free pass, a step up the political ladder before they must prove themselves. For FDR's sons, Jimmy and Frank, this meant going from election to the House of Representatives to defeat, with Jimmy losing a nomination for mayor of Los Angeles and Frank losing a nomination for governor of New York.

#3 Rockefeller - 81 points

Key jobs: Vice President (1), Governor (3), Senator (2), Representative (2)

The 19th-century "robber barons" did not seek public office. After all, the business of America was business. But it was useful to connect their children to politicians. Thus John D. Rockefeller Jr. married Abby Aldrich, daughter of powerful Sen. Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island. Their son was named Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, and he would become vice president of the United States.

As with other wealthy politicians, the Rockefellers' riches relieve them of the effort to raise campaign money - a big plus. There are also some voters who prefer to elect politicians who assuredly will not need to have their hand in the till. And for these to-the-manner-born "rich as Rockefeller" dynasts, seeking votes must be fulfilling work because it is one pursuit in which they have to earn their successes.

#4 Harrison - 76 points

Key jobs: President (2), Governor (2), Senator (3), Representative (5)

No dynasty sought public office with more tenacity than the Harrisons. The result was that even though they were men of limited talent, two of their number became presidents.

"Dynasty" can become a campaign liability, as it was in the 1888 presidential contest, when the brilliant Puck cartoonist Joseph Keppler invented "Grandpa's Hat" to ridicule Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison, grandson of William Henry (who died on the 32nd day of his presidency in 1841). Ben, a man of modest stature, was depicted each week as lost under a gigantic hat. The longer he was president, the more buried in the hat; by 1892 he had disappeared altogether, with Uncle Sam asking, "Where is he?"

While most dynasties stay rooted in one state, the Harrisons were wanderers in search of political or financial advantage. William Henry, whose father had been governor of Virginia, was elected president from Ohio; his grandson was from Indiana, with a cousin who had been a congressman from Illinois. The last of the line, also named William Henry, was a congressman from Wyoming. He died in 1990.

#5 Adams - 68 points

Key jobs: President (2), Vice President (1), Governor (1), Senate (1), Representative (2), Cabinet (2)

The Adamses made their great contributions to the country before there even was a United States. After 1789, they produced two presidents who decisively were not returned to office. Yet in defeat John Quincy reentered politics as a House member from Massachusetts and played an important role as an abolitionist spokesman.

Over the years, the flinty Adamses became more and more out of step with what voters wanted in their politicians, and after a while they didn't even try. The only 20th-century Adams to hold public office was Charles Francis, a great-great-grandson of John Adams, who became President Herbert Hoover's secretary of the Navy, then a Cabinet office. Secretary Adams was also a descendant of Benjamin Crowninshield, who had been secretary of the Navy during the War of 1812.

#6 Bush - 67 points

Key jobs: President (2), Vice President (1), Governor (2), Senator (1), Representative (1)

Robert Kennedy had to move to New York and Patrick Kennedy to Rhode Island; apparently Massachusetts was too crowded to hold all of their family's ambitions. But if George H.W. Bush was angling for a political career, there was plenty of room in Connecticut, a state that had sent his father to the Senate. He moved to Texas for oil, not votes.

Whereas young John Quincy Adams listened intently to his parents expound on politics, young George W. Bush had his mind on Little League. Yet George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush would be the second set of father-son presidents. In remarkably short order, they were the second and third generations in national office. Our first accidental dynasty.

Moreover, despite the state of George W.'s reputation when he left the White House, the family has a better chance of staying in the game than any of the other extant dynasties. Jeb Bush, still in his mid-50s, completed two successful terms as governor of vote-rich Florida; his son, George P., a 33-year-old lawyer, is said to have an eye on politics and is half Hispanic as well.

#7 Frelinghuysen - 66 points

Key jobs: Senator (4), Representative (2), Cabinet (1)

Unlike some of the other families that reached these shores early - the Harrisons (1632), the Adamses (1636), the Roosevelts (1649) - the Frelinghuysens (1720) never took their political eye off the place where they landed. They have been a New Jersey dynasty through six generations in elective office. Rodney is still in Congress, where he and his father, Peter, have served a combined 19 terms.

This is a frequent pattern among political families that can be overlooked amid the glitter of the national clans. Only once did a Frelinghuysen stray from New Jersey: Frederick Theodore was secretary of state in the administration of Chester A. Arthur.

A characteristic of many dynasties is the ability to marry well. The Frelinghuysens, who started as clergy, not great landholders, over time wed a brewery heiress (Ballantine), a sugar heiress (Havemeyer) and a Procter of P&G.

#8 Breckinridge - 65 points

Key jobs: Vice President (1), Senator (2), Representative (6), Cabinet (1)

The Kentucky Breckinridges were never in repose. They felt strongly about everything and were often in disagreement with each other, including over the Civil War. Only two had prominent national personas. John (1760-1806) was Jefferson's floor leader in the Senate and then his attorney general. John Cabell (1821-75) was Buchanan's vice president, the Southern Democrats' candidate for president in 1860 and a senator who was expelled in 1861 for supporting the rebellion. He become a Confederate general and then the South's last secretary of war.

Although a rash of Breckinridges served in the House of Representatives, they were less like the dynasties that were mainly there to take good care of their constituents, and more like a collection of the battlers who often give spice to American politics.

When they stepped back from politics in the 20th century, their careers included serving as dean of a school of social service at the University of Chicago, founding the Frontier Nursing Service and editing the Lexington Herald.

#9 Taft - 64 points

Key jobs: President (1), Chief Justice (1), Governor (1), Senate (3), Representative (2), Cabinet (3)

The Tafts of Cincinnati - lacking the flamboyance of the Roosevelts, the political antennae of the Kennedys and the vast sustaining wealth of the Rockefellers - had plodded along for four generations as a kind of model of unheroic leadership, steady, sturdy, dedicated. How sad then was the legacy of the fifth generation.

The core of the dynasty was William Howard, whom Theodore Roosevelt was responsible for putting into - and kicking out of - the White House, but who concluded his public service where he always wanted to be, as chief justice of the United States. Some years back a radio program called me on Presidents' Day and asked me to name my favorite commander in chief. "William Howard Taft," I said. Not Washington or Lincoln? My reply: "You asked my favorite. Taft was not a good president. But he was the nicest, kindest man to ever be president."

His great-grandson, one of many Bobs in the family, was a two-term Ohio governor from 1999 to 2007. Along the way he was convicted of criminal misdemeanors relating to undisclosed gifts and other favors from lobbyists. He left office as one of the most unpopular governors in the country.

#10 Bayard - 63 points

Key jobs: Governor (1), Senator (6), Representative (1), Cabinet (1)

The Bayards of Delaware were one of those families that often dominate small-state politics. For half the years between 1804 and 1929, a Bayard represented Delaware in the Senate. The last Bayard to seek office, Alexis Irenee du Pont Bayard, was defeated for a Senate seat in 1952 by John J. Williams, who successfully emphasized his own résumé as a chicken farmer.

The Bayards' long tenure in Congress did include one moment of supreme importance. When the 1800 presidential election was thrown into the House of Representatives - with one vote per state - James A. Bayard was the lone representative from Delaware. As a dedicated Federalist, he was expected to support Aaron Burr. But on the 36th vote, he broke with his party and cast the blank ballot that made Thomas Jefferson president.

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, was on the Eisenhower and Nixon White House staffs and advised Presidents Ford and Carter. He is the author of "America's Political Dynasties" and his most recent book is "What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President-Elect."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company