The American Dynastic Obsession

In 1991 a British politician – the Chairman of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee – was visiting troops in the Gulf. He introduced himself with the words “Good morning, I am Winston Churchill”, which evoked sarcastic responses along the lines of “In that case I am Field Marshall Montgomery and this is the Duke of Wellington”, which is a shame, as the Chairman was only telling them his name.

In the Summer of 2008 your columnist was vacationing in Cape Cod and a good friend cursed the obvious Republican bias of Yahoo! News, which was reporting the visit of President Bush – himself the son of a President and the grandson of a US Senator – to some troops in another Gulf War ahead of an address to the Democratic National Convention by Michelle Obama. Your columnist suggested that rather than Republican bias – not an obvious feature of Yahoo! News – this was an attempt by the website to position itself as an international news outlet, focusing on the news of international significance and not on something of purely American import.

As the first anecdote above suggests, the grandson of Time magazine’s “Man of the Century” was not a very well-known politician, despite achieving a position of some significance in his own right. Yet the family of American politicians, even when holding no political office at all, are treated almost like Royalty. That does not happen in Britain, where we have Royalty to treat like Royalty.

Of course, American political families are usually only “royal” in one party. Maria Shriver being the obvious exception.

The elevation of “first ladies” and aspirant “first ladies” is not an aberration. At the Democratic Convention in 2004 a prime time speaking slot was given over to largely unknown Broadway actor and dancer solely because his name is Ron Reagan junior. Democrats were delighted that Julie Eisenhower endorsed Barack Obama, and the grandchildren of FDR are regularly sought out for their endorsements by both parties.

The son of State Senator Basil Paterson almost appointed the daughter of President Kennedy to the US Senate – until her own inadequacies became far too apparent. She would have succeeded a reasonably successful trial lawyer from a small state thousands of miles away in representing New York in the world’s greatest deliberative body. And Basil Paterson’s son is likely to fight Mario Cuomo’s son for the Democratic nomination for governor next year.

Joe Biden’s Senate seat is being ‘kept warm’ by a placeholder until Beau Biden can seek the role at his own convenience in 2010. The same ruse was used for Ted Kennedy in 1961, when he was too young to serve in the Senate.

The age restriction clauses in the Constitution were introduced specifically to restrict legacy candidates. After all, who could gain national prominence at a young age other than the sons of Presidents? If they were to seek office at all, then such candidates would have to develop independent careers first. At the Presidential level this has worked, so far. John Quincy Adams (Secretary of State), Franklin Roosevelt (Governor of New York) and George W Bush (Governor of Texas) did indeed have such careers.

But at the state and Congressional levels, such legacies abound. While both parties are infected, it seems to be worse for the Democrats, with Kennedies peppered all over the East and Udalls right across the West. You would probably be better off with real Royalty.


Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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