Outlook: American Political Dynasties

Stephen Hess
Stephen Hess (Brookings Institution)

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Stephen Hess
Senior Fellow Emeritus, Brookings Institution and Author
Tuesday, September 15, 2009; 2:00 PM

Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution and author of "America's Political Dynasties" and "What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President-Elect," was online Tuesday, Sept. 15, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article about American political dynasties.

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Stephen Hess: Hi. I'm Stephen Hess. I hope you enjoyed my scoring of America's political dynasties in the Washington Post on Sunday, and I'm delighted to do the best I can with any of your questions.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: What is your definition of a political dynasty? Within politics, there have been several generations of political activists and office holders, and it seems having a name, for instance Casey in Pennsylvania, helps. On the Presidential level, there was a Bush dynasty. Yet, unless one wishes to count FDR and Teddy Roosevelt, there really hasn't been a family dynasty in the past century. The famed Kennedy dynasty ironically really lasted only three years on the presidential level. What do you consider a political dynasty to be?

Stephen Hess: For the purposes of my article, I defined a dynasty as having three generations of members in a bunch of offices, from president to U.S. House of Representatives. You should note that I include matriarchal line as well so that President Kennedy's dynasty gets credit for his grandfather, John Fitzgerald, who served in the House of Representatives.

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Washington, D.C.: Have you done any work on dynasties in other countries? Noy Noy Aquino is running for president in the Philippines next year and the son of Rajiv Gandhi's in Parliament.

Stephen Hess: I haven't. But what a wonderful topic for historians and students. Note, of course, that in many countries, dynasty members are not elected, they're called, among other things, royalty.

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Washington,D.C. (Shepherd Park): Mr. Hess, thanks for doing the Q&A. Fascinating subject. I'm stuck though. Why are Congressman worth 2 points and Senators only 3? 1/435 with 2 year term vs 1/100 with 6 year term. I realize it must be taken relative to other point assignments, but that weighting between the legislative chambers really favors the House. It makes JFK's 3 terms in the House of Representatives worth the same as 2 Senate terms. So how did you come up with it?

Stephen Hess: What a good point. If I ever do another dynasties scoring, I will certainly take this into account.

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Freising, Germany: I've met sons of politicians, and some want nothing to do with politics and others want to continue in their father's and grandfather's footsteps.

When watching successful politicians in impromptu situations, where a wrong choice of words can determine success or failure, I often wonder if politicians are born and not made. Do you think that there are talents that future politicians can learn or inherit from parents who are politicians?

Stephen Hess: You have certainly mentioned one of the acquired skills--when to keep your mouth shut. I do think, however, that the born politicians have an advantage in that the making process can be very laborious.

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Mt. Lebanon PA: Ok, Stephen.. I'll take Political Dynasties for $1,000.

The Answer is: Nothing.

Oh, I know this one. Umm.. the question is... in the greater scheme of things, what have political dynasties done for all of us, our lives, our livelihoods, the nations of the world, and our planet at large?

Correct! And thank you all for watching Civics & History Jeopardy. Now available in our new home edition.

Thanks much. Vietnam era Draftee/Veteran, Citizen, Engineer in private practice/Taxpayer

Stephen Hess: Certainly, our two greatest presidents--Washington and Lincoln--were not of a dynasty. But do you really want to count out Franklin Delano Roosevelt just because there were other Roosevelts in political life?

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Wokingham UK: In a society which is markedly dynastic or feudal there must be strict limits on real social mobility. The fact that the top dogs stay on top must surely mean that the bottom dogs never get far off the bottom. So does the reality of these dynasties prove that the American Dream is an illusion or does the reality of the American Dream of social mobility prove that the society is not really all that dynastic?

Stephen Hess: You are right that most of the dynasties I write about in my book were to-the-manner-born. However, this certainly wans't the case with the Kennedys, and I am proposing in my article that we are already seeing the first generation of African American and Hispanic dynasties.

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Davidsonville, Md.: Stephen,

You need to re-do your math on the Kennedy's. While you give no points for Gov. Schwarzenegger, you clearly forgot Mayor Fitzgerald, "Honey Fritz," for which all the Kennedy Brothers ARE blood relatives.

Stephen Hess: Sorry, I'm right and you are wrong. Mayor Fitzgerald has indeed been included in my Kennedy count.

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Laurel: If you included a scoring mechanism for pre-Indepence and Confederate offices, where would the Randolphs (from Peyton to Jennings) and Lees (from Richard Henry to Blair III) rate?

Stephen Hess: I'd love to promote my own book. You don't have to buy it. Just got to the library, and you will see a detailed chapter on the Lees as well as several other southern families.

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Cary, N.C.: If Matt Latimer's book on GWB is the first historical judgment on the president, shouldn't Mr. Bush be worried? Yikes!

Stephen Hess: Most recent former presidents write their memoirs. An exception was George H.W. Bush. But George W. Bush has signed a contract and is entitled to the first cut on his own history.

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Dynasties tend to die out...: ...due to genetic regression to the norm. It's pretty rare for outstanding traits to be handed down for more than maybe three generations.

Stephen Hess: I don't have enough knowledge to really answer your question, if it is a question, but I suggest that you look at portraits of the Adamses generation after generation and see if you find sustaining characteristics.

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Downtown DC: What about the Udalls? Aren't there three, counting cousins, holding statewide offices across the West right now, not to mention Mo, Stuart, etc.?

Stephen Hess: You might be thinking of Gordon Smith, a cousin to the two Udall senators, who was a senator from Oregon but was defeated in the last election. One unusual thing about this trinity of cousins is that two are Democrats and one is a Republican.

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Stephen Hess: I've enjoyed our chat. Appreciate all your interest in this subject and my article, and let's see how America's political dynasties change in the future as I predicted.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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