INTERNATIONAL KOMMENTAR - Last year, when Jeb Bush was mulling a presidential campaign, his mother, Barbara, spoke for a majority of Americans when she declared that besides »the Kennedys, Clintons [and] Bushes, there are just more families than that« who should be considered presidential timber.
An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll in 2014 found that nearly 70 percent of Americans agreed that a Bush-Clinton matchup would be distasteful; columnist Ross Douthat captured one reason for the dissatisfaction when he observed that »Bush-Clinton dominance . . . [is] probably somehow connected to stratification and elite consolidation and other non-ideal patterns in American life.«
Dynastic succession is not exactly what the country's founders had in mind. Thomas Jefferson wrote George Washington in 1786 that »an hereditary aristocracy . . . will change the form of our Governments from the best to the worst in the world,« calling ancestral political rule a »scourge« that in France condemned the overwhelming majority of the country to a cursed existence.
Its most extreme versions — the kinds found in Syria and North Korea — conjure authoritarianism.
Our republican system is safe from those dangers, but Americans nevertheless possess a mythic sense that individuals are better leaders when they rise from humble circumstances (a log cabin, for instance) before entering the White House. We assume that this common man, who understands his fellow ordinary citizens, will be suited to champion their needs once he becomes president.
Not coincidentally, the more relatable candidate has won every recent election. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 33 percent of registered voters said they would be less likely to vote for Bush because of his surname, while 14 percent said the same about Clinton. Dynasties seem inimical to the tenets that have made American democracy strong.
But they are not. The reality of what makes a president equipped to champion middle- and lower-class goals is far more complicated. Privilege — wealth, status, fame — has had a role in presidential campaigns since the nation's founding, and dynastic succession has often produced better, more effective leaders at key moments in American life.
That's because political change comes incrementally, even tectonically. The family that devotes itself to an agenda across generations is likelier to realize it. Dynastic experience brings wisdom and governing sophistication to an unwieldy democracy that badly needs them. Noblesse oblige can serve the national interest.
The Roosevelts (Theodore and Franklin) and the Kennedys (John, Robert, Edward) helped build the architecture of modern liberalism, using their last names to further a cause. The Bushes (George Herbert Walker and his eldest son) helped invent post-Cold War conservatism. If Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush can show that they, too, are running to achieve a vision - a set of beliefs expressed in policies and grounded in principled pragmatism - they merit careful consideration rather than knee-jerk condemnation. They deserve a chance not in spite of, but because of, their last names.
During the 19th century, two experiments in dynastic succession (the Adamses and the Harrisons) were mostly considered failures. But in the 20th century, as the United States became a more democratic nation with a stronger middle class, political dynasties flourished. Americans felt that they had more of a political voice and therefore weren't as worried about dynasties hijacking democracy.
Fascism and communism, far greater threats, sprang from economic hardship, ideological fanaticism, anti-Semitism and an array of other sources that had little to do with family lineage. So politicians who used their last names to advance a public purpose instead of private self-enrichment had an outsize impact beneficial to the American public — and to social and economic progress.
The Roosevelts used their pedigree to promote the larger cause of progressivism, and it is impossible to imagine Franklin Roosevelt's achievements without the model Theodore Roosevelt, his cousin, provided. Franklin made a close study of Teddy. He visited his antecedent's White House; followed almost the exact same path to power (Harvard, Columbia Law, New York legislator, assistant secretary of the Navy, New York governor, president); learned from TR to look out for people on the lower economic rungs, rather than the wealthy and privileged they had grown up with; and, as Labor Secretary Frances Perkins once remarked, had a subconscious »desire to outshine Ted« that »made him so active when there was a great deal of indolence in his nature.«
Franklin modeled his views, politics and policies after TR's efforts to curb concentrated economic power and fight on behalf of the underprivileged. He thought that Teddy »symboliz[ed] moral leadership, political energy, Rooseveltian vigor,« James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn wrote in »The Three Roosevelts.« Franklin's drastic expansion of executive power — especially regarding economic reform and military preparedness — was based on his cousin's Hamiltonian commitment to a strong chief executive and a political coalition devoted to him as leader rather than simply to his political party.
This approach enabled FDR to transform the role of government in society. Herbert Hoover, Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey, his election opponents, could never have achieved such far-reaching reform.
The dynastic lineage of John, Robert and Edward Kennedy made them all better leaders. JFK used his father's wealth and fame to acquire power, but he also learned not to repeat his father's mistakes: He became a war hero and later forcefully opposed the communist threat, evading the 'appeaser' and 'isolationist' labels that dogged his father.
He and his brothers learned other lessons that made them humanitarian proponents of a muscular form of government that stoked the embers of national service, racial reconciliation, and educational and economic opportunity. The patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, told the Boston Herald in 1948 that he had »two words« of advice for his children: »public service«.
As biographer David Nasaw has shown, Kennedy pere counseled John about wedding his privileged status to political and moral goals. Nasaw calls it »striking« how closely JFK's invocation of national service in his inaugural address resembled »his father's lifelong insistence that his children enter public service and do something worthwhile, that they devote themselves not to making money — he had done that for them — but to the greater good of the larger community.«
JFK took such insights to heart when he created the Peace Corps, gradually embraced civil rights and championed public service.
Robert Kennedy's growth and evolution as a political leader happened primarily because of his association with his brother's White House. RFK's service as attorney general completely shaped him — and made him a much more inspirational senator and presidential candidate than another Massachusetts liberal would have been.
In office, he witnessed massive resistance to civil rights and slowly became more sympathetic toward African Americans; after refusing to send federal troops to protect Freedom Riders in 1961, he was shocked at the use of fire hoses and attack dogs against protesters in Birmingham, and he ultimately "pushed harder than almost anyone in the administration for a civil rights bill," historian Jeff Shesol has written.
After JFK's assassination, Robert framed a piece of paper on which his brother had written the word »poverty«. He became obsessed with the problem and concluded that greater economic opportunity coupled with community action were the touchstones of the fight. And he saw that the reckless use of military power invited a national disaster during the Bay of Pigs episode, whereas the reluctance to use it in the Cuban missile crisis, when JFK defied his generals' calls to bomb the island nation, averted nuclear war.
After the assassination, »a single-minded dedication to his brother's legacy« overcame Robert, Shesol writes. »I've lost a brother,« RFK said, »but that's not what's important. What's important is what we were trying to do for this country.« During his presidential campaign, in addition to civil rights, he championed urban renewal and helped lead opposition to the war in Vietnam — positions indelibly stamped by his family ties, inheritance and sense of what his last name meant. He would not have been the leader he was had he not been a Kennedy.
That certainly goes as well for the youngest sibling, senator Edward, who spent a career in Congress fighting for a singularly Kennedy-esque vision. The panel he eventually chaired — the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — sounds like one of his brothers' presidential platforms. He was the godfather of the Affordable Care Act, passed after his death in 2009.
Dynastic lineage poses significant hurdles to both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. Since she left the White House, Clinton has amassed a personal fortune and wooed corporate and foreign donors for her family's foundation, while the aura of entitlement surrounding her 2008 primary campaign lingers in public memory. The news about her private e-mail system as secretary of state does not help.
Bush's burden is even greater. His father was a one-term president, and his brother's legacy rests mainly on a botched war and an economic collapse.
Nevertheless, the Clinton and Bush names should be seen as assets. Clinton will be arguably the most accomplished presidential candidate in modern times - because of experiences that she would not have had were she not married to Bill. She helped shape the Clinton White House's economic and social agendas for eight years and survived numerous (mostly pseudo) scandals that prepared her for the vicissitudes of White House life. Similar episodes have derailed other administrations, and presidents who wobble with insecurity before Washington's scandal culture can worsen the firestorms by covering up facts or giving their enemies additional fodder.
Clinton's dynastic ties also allow her to continue projects that began decades ago. As a first lady, senator, presidential candidate and Cabinet secretary, she championed economic opportunity, advanced women's equality, and furthered the values of tolerance and human rights across the world. Her record of using her connections and experience to these ends is a cause for celebration, not hand-wringing.
Bush offers a more complicated case. He has before him two models. There is the pragmatic conservatism of his father, who defended Ronald Reagan's legacy in 1988, dislodged Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and sealed communism's coffin — but who also understood that sending troops to Baghdad was unwise and agreed to raise taxes as part of a bipartisan deal that set the economy on a course to balanced budgets, a decision that helped cost him a second term.
Bush 43 was a more skilled politician than Bush 41, securing a second White House term, but ideological conservatism plagued his presidency, which most historians will probably see as a failure. If Jeb Bush can find ways to elevate the pragmatic aspects of his father's conservatism and tap his brother's eloquent defense of freedom immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, while minimizing the ideology that drove some of his brother's decisions, he, too, could advance the conservative project and reclaim for the country a more responsible governing vision on the right.
As Florida governor, Jeb was arguably a savvier political leader than his dad or even his brother. He learned from his father's experience the importance of shoring up the Republican base; he cut taxes, enacted school vouchers and signed the stand-your-ground bill into law. At the same time, he understood that ideology cannot be a substitute for governing; he promoted conservation, won 60 percent of Latino voters in his 1998 campaign and at times showed his father's gift for pragmatism.
With these object lessons to learn from, Jeb could be a more effective president than either of them. So far, he has mostly refused to cater to the extremist elements in the GOP, giving him liberty as president to pursue the choices he thinks best. And he may have an easier time getting there, given that he has his own base of support, from his time as Florida governor and confidant of two presidents, and easy access to wealthy donors.
Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton — seasoned pros who between them have worked on 10 presidential campaigns — are formidable candidates. Dynasty may seem anathema to our democratic sensibilities, but without the Roosevelts and the Kennedys and their warm embrace of their lineage, the United States would be a less tolerant, more unequal country.
Rather than stoking fears that unprecedented elitism is marring America's dysfunctional democracy, the last names of Clinton and Bush should remind us that political dynasties have been and can continue to be forces for social and political progress.
Af Matthew Dallek, lektor George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. Indlægget er tidligere bragt i Washington Post.