As a democracy," historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., once insisted, "the United States ought presumably to be able to dispense with dynastic families."
Well, you'd never know it by looking at the November ballot.
This is shaping up as a banner year for candidates with marquee names. From Maine to Texas, and from Florida to California, the sons and daughters of politicians—and in some cases, the grandsons and granddaughters of politicians—are lining up for a shot at the family business. Given all that's gone on in Washington over the past year, this might be a time when sensible young people might consider, say, bridge construction or mine detonation to be careers with better long-term prospects than elected office. But instead, the list of second- and third-generation politicians trying to prove Schlesinger wrong is growing to a formidable length.
In Indiana, Evan Bayh, the son of former Democratic Senator Birch Bayh, is heavily favored to win a Senate seat. Democratic cousins Tom Udall (the son of former Representative Stewart Udall) and Mark Udall (the son of former Representative Morris Udall) are running for House seats in New Mexico and Colorado respectively. In Pennsylvania, Pat Casey, the son of former Democratic Governor Bob Casey, is bidding for a House seat; in Louisiana, Democrat Marjorie McKeithen, the granddaughter of a former Democratic Louisiana governor—and the daughter of the state's Republican secretary of state—is also trying to get in the door of the House. So are Democrats Janice Hahn in California (whose father was long a powerful Los Angeles County supervisor) and Don Bevill in Alabama, who is running for the seat that his father, Tom Bevill, represented until he retired two years ago. In Texas, Charlie Gonzalez has a virtual lock on the seat being vacated this year by his father, Democratic Representative Henry Gonzalez.
In Maine, Republican James Longley, Jr., a former congressman, is likewise trying to move into the gubernatorial chair occupied some 20 years ago by his father. By November, former President George Bush is likely to have sons running two of the nation's four largest states: Jeb Bush is heavily favored in his second attempt at the governorship in Florida, and his older brother George W. Bush is cruising toward a landslide re-election as governor in Texas. In Connecticut, Representative Barbara Kennelly, the daughter of the state's legendary Democratic boss John Bailey, is waging an uphill fight as the Democratic nominee for governor. In Minnesota, the trend reached a weird peak when Democrats this September were treated to a my-three-sons gubernatorial primary pitting the offspring of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Orville Freeman. Lower down on the state ballots, Iowa voters have the chance to elect Chet Culver, the son of former Democratic Senator John Culver, as secretary of state; George Wallace, Jr., is running as a Republican for a seat on the Alabama Public Service Commission; and in Texas, Democrats see a future top-of-the-ticket name in state comptroller nominee Paul Hobby, the son of a former lieutenant governor and the grandson of a former governor.
That groaning list doesn't even include all the incumbent successor-generation politicians on the ballot this year—Senators Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Judd Gregg (the son of a former governor) in New Hampshire; Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend; and representatives like Jesse Jackson, Jr., Harold Ford, Jr., Patrick Kennedy (the son of Senator Edward Kennedy), Lucille Roybal-Allard (who holds a California seat once held by her father), John Sununu (the son of the New Hampshire governor who proved that it doesn't take a winning personality to win elected office), and even crusty John Dingell, who since 1955 has represented the seat once held by his father. Nor does it include those whose positions have been gained via appointment, like Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo (whose father is former New York Governor Mario). Nor, finally, does it include all the successor-generation incumbents who don't have a race this year, including Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (whose father was mayor of New Orleans), West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller (two of whose uncles were governors), and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (whose father was emperor).
The Power of Pedigree
Dynastic politics, of course, isn't a new development, as Brookings Institution political scientist Stephen Hess chronicled in his encyclopedic book America's Political Dynasties (the source for much of the history that follows). The sixth president, John Quincy Adams, was the son of the second, John Adams (and was every bit as dour, inflexible, and unsuccessful as his father). President Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of President William Henry Harrison, who himself could trace a line of elected ancestors back to 1632. In the Progressive Era, LaFollettes were as common as cows in Wisconsin. Two of Franklin Roosevelt's sons got themselves elected to Congress. The line of Cincinnati Tafts in national politics runs from an attorney general (Alphonso Taft), to a president (William Howard Taft), to a senator (Robert A. Taft), to another senator (Robert Taft, Jr.) to the current Ohio secretary of state, Robert A. Taft II, who calls himself Bob and happens to be the GOP's gubernatorial candidate this year.
But if it isn't new, the trend seems unusually dense about now. And in 2000 it is heading toward a crescendo—with the possibility of the first all second-generation presidential race in American history between senator's son Al Gore and George W. Bush, the son of a president who was himself the son of a senator. The prospect of a Gore and a Bush leading both national parties into the new century speaks volumes about the enduring power of pedigree in a society that supposedly apportions its rewards by the impartial calculus of merit.
Of course, America doesn't entirely apportion its rewards by merit in any field. There are still not many more important things a child can do to secure his future than taking the care to be born to the right parents. Scouring the country for the best and the brightest, Ivy League schools always manage to find more than their share of freshmen who can recognize their family names on the buildings along the quad. A lawyer whose mother was a nurse embodies the American dream; but it's still more common to meet lawyers whose parents were lawyers. That's not to say many of those in America's corner offices haven't displayed ability and tenacity and commitment; it's just to acknowledge that it's easier to climb to the penthouse from the fiftieth floor than the basement. In that sense, politics is no different.
In many ways, politics is less of a game rigged at birth than most aspects of American life. Running for office can be a profoundly leveling experience. Wealth is no guarantee of success (ask Al Checchi), and neither is a famous name. Franklin Roosevelt's sons Jimmy and Franklin, Jr., both failed when they tried to spring from the House to governorships. John Quincy Adams is still the only president's son to make it to the Oval Office; until now, no other president's son besides Robert A. Taft was even a serious contender for the job—and he was denied the Republican presidential nomination on three separate tries. Hubert H. Humphrey III was crushed when he tried to follow his father into the U.S. Senate in 1988; Kathleen Brown was trounced when she tried to follow her father and brother into the governor's mansion in California in 1994; and Douglas LaFollette, who carried a pretty good name in Wisconsin, nonetheless lost a Democratic primary for a House seat in 1996. Gary King, whose father had been New Mexico's governor, wanted to follow him, but finished out of the money in a Democratic primary this June.
In some ways, a famous name can even be an obstacle. Successor-generation politicians can have a hard time even getting in the door with voters who disliked their parents. George W. Bush speaks for many of his contemporaries when he says of his father: "I've inherited half his friends and all his enemies." Successor pols can also have trouble convincing voters that they are not just trying to cash in on their parents' reputation. Albert Gore, Sr., once recalled that Al Gore, Jr., pushed away his help in his first House race because he did not want to be seen as "my father's candidate." In 1990, Bush wanted to run for statewide office in Texas and maybe even governor, but was convinced not to, largely out of fear that voters would think he was trying to cut in line because his father was president. When Jesse Jackson, Jr., was elected to the House in 1995 at the age of 30, he had to overcome charges that his father would control his vote. "What the name does in the mind of some people is it raises the threshold of credibility," says Evan Bayh, who won two terms as governor in Indiana before seeking the Senate seat this year. "They want to know is this person doing it because they are genuinely talented and genuinely interesting and have something to offer, or are they just running on their family name?" There's nothing new about that problem: after Theodore Roosevelt's son announced for a New York State Assembly seat in 1919, his opponent jibed, "My hat's in the ring too—and it isn't my father's."
It's worth remembering, of course, that Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., won that race. And even all of the losers listed just above won other elections, most of them for statewide positions. Which is to say that while a famous pedigree doesn't assure victory, it does provide a huge advantage. It's no coincidence that many of the second-generation politicians win their first elections at remarkably young ages. Patrick Kennedy was the youngest member of the House—until Harold Ford, Jr., was. Evan Bayh was the nation's youngest governor when he was elected to the job in Indiana in 1988. Mary Landrieu was the youngest female state legislator in the history of Louisiana.
For these candidates, the advantages begin literally at birth. Second-generation politicians grow up steeped in politics. Marjorie McKeithen, the Democratic congressional candidate in Louisiana, lived as a child in the governor's mansion when her grandfather John served there; she ran her father's first campaign for secretary of state when she had just graduated from college. At 18, George W. Bush got his first look at Texas politics as a "stagehand" and advance man for his father's senate campaign. Evan Bayh campaigned in Iowa and New Hampshire and Massachusetts when his father ran for president in 1976 and managed his father's last (losing) campaign for the Senate in 1980. The successor-generation politicians listen and learn. When it comes their turn to run—or, for that matter, to govern—they are usually far more comfortable in the arena than typical first-time candidates.
Then there are the practical advantages to a good political pedigree. When looking to fill key spots on the ballot, local political leaders often seek out the sons and daughters of former party heroes. ("People just assumed that I might have an interest in it," says McKeithen of the steady stream of Democrats who encouraged her to run for office.) That may be partly because local leaders have been personally exposed to the talents of the sons and daughters of famous politicians; but usually more important is the awareness that rank-and-file voters remember their family names. As it becomes more difficult—and expensive—for candidates to make themselves known to an increasingly distracted electorate, the value of a name that is already known rises enormously too. (It speaks volumes that most of the second-generation politicians run in the same states where their parents were successful.) In that sense, the successor-generation phenomenon is best understood as part of a larger trend. Like the growing number of self-financed millionaire candidates and the steady stream of celebrity candidates (from sports stars like J. C. Watts and Steve Largent to entertainers like the late Sonny Bono), the proliferation of second-generation candidates is another reflection of how the high cost of becoming known is tilting the electoral playing field against ordinary citizens, particularly at the statewide level, where the ante for a serious campaign is greatest. In a world of $40 million primaries, just about the only way to succeed is to start well known, or to start with the means of acquiring the money it takes to become well known.
Typically the successor-generation politicians start off with both of these. Mom's or Dad's friends—and more importantly, their financial contributors—provide an instant network of support unimaginable for other political newcomers. Even Jerry Brown, who cringed at the clubby back-scratching Irish politics of his father Pat Brown, relied enormously on his father's network to fund his first gubernatorial campaign in 1974. "As much as Jerry recoiled at a lot of the fundraising techniques of the earlier days and gritted his teeth about the personalities that surrounded his father, it was undeniable that he had an enormous advantage in tapping into those sources," says pollster Richard B. Maullin, a longtime aide to Jerry Brown.
Facing all of that, the candidates across the ballot from successor-generation politicians often feel like they are running against not a single opponent, but an en tire battalion. Consider the case of Kevin Vigilante, the Republican whom Patrick Kennedy defeated when he was first elected to the House in 1994. On paper, Vigilante was a good match: an emergency-room physician who worked with female prison inmates infected with HIV, he was moderate and energetic. Kennedy, at the time, was 27 and had held no job except serving in the Rhode Island House of Representatives (to which he had been elected while in college). But even in the best Republican year in a generation, Kennedy swept past Vigilante. "There are some really big challenges to running against a Kennedy," says Vigilante. "Their access to media, their mythological status, their access to money—all of those things are there with a wave of the hand really." The Kennedys' mythological status in New England may be unmatched, but anyone running against a Daley in Chicago, a Long in Louisiana, or a Bush in Texas could say much the same thing.
Father Knows Best
In fact, if George W. Bush decides to seek the presidency next year, his campaign will provide a kind of laboratory experiment in the advantages and perils of successor-generation politics. In that, he's a contrast to Gore. Gore's father, a progressive Democratic senator from Tennessee who last held office in 1970, has receded far enough into memory that he won't affect his son's presidential bid one way or the other. For better and worse, Bill Clinton is Gore's political father.
But memories of Bush's father are vivid enough that they will inevitably affect his campaign, both positively and negatively. On the positive side, George W. Bush is already benefiting from widespread name recognition that's boosting his lead in early polls of Republican preferences for 2000. And if Bush decides to run, he'll instantly inherit a national network of political operatives and fundraisers who supported his father. "You've got probably 30,000 people across the country: those people will raise money for you, they will do all that stuff for you," says Bush's cousin John Ellis, a Boston Globe contributor. "That's the only real political network that exists in the Republican Party."
The problem for Bush is that that isn't all he'll inherit. He'll also inherit the doubts about his father among conservative activists—especially religious conservatives—who carry a big stick in the Republican presidential primaries. He'll inherit the sense among less ideological voters that his father didn't understand the stressful realities of modern family life. ("The biggest hurdle for us," says one top advisor to George W., "is does he get it . . . is he clued in to reality?") And he'll inherit the particular antipathy toward his father among New Hampshire Republicans who still seethe over the old man's seeming obliviousness to the recession of the early 1990s.
These worries are tangible enough that the key Texas advisors to Bush the younger are trying to prevent his father's cronies from muscling into the most visible campaign roles if the son runs for president. That reflects their self-interest, of course, but also the legitimate political fear that voters won't be particularly enthused if George W.'s campaign looks like an effort to restore the Bush administration.
Avoiding that impression might be easier for Bush because he is defined to the public much more by his differences from than his similarities with his father. As much as Bush the elder was stiff and preppy, the son is relaxed and folksy. In fact, many—if not most—of the successor-generation politicians are defined more by the differences than the similarities with their parents. Jerry Brown presented himself as the antithesis of his father—the monk to Pat Brown's barkeep. Evan Bayh is as much a Clintonite moderate as his father, Birch Bayh, was a Great Society liberal. Al Gore, Sr., was impulsive and engaging, a onetime square-dance caller who campaigned with a hillbilly band in the 1930s, played the fiddle, and took emphatic political risks—like opposing the Vietnam War. His son is calculated and buttoned-down, a man who examines policy problems as if they were mathematical equations to be solved and rarely puts down his foot without carefully examining every blade of grass below. "Al by nature is more of a pragmatist than his father," his mother Pauline told the Los Angeles Times during her son's 1988 presidential campaign.
Changing circumstances explain many of these contrasts. Al Gore, Sr., grew up on a farm in Tennessee and attended a one-room grade school; his son grew up in a hotel on Embassy Row in Washington and attended the exclusive St. Albans School. The Bushes went in the opposite direction: the father grew up in leafy Greenwich; the son in dusty Midland. Changing times play a role, too: George W. is more conservative than his father largely because he came into politics at a time when his entire party was tilting to the right. Evan Bayh and Al Gore are more centrist than their fathers largely because they absorbed the critique of traditional liberalism that emerged after their fathers left the stage. (Of the ideological differences with his father, Evan Bayh quite persuasively says, "What would be truly remarkable is if 30 years later our ideas about how to meet the challenges hadn't changed. It seems to me perfectly natural that as the world has changed over the past three decades, so has our approach to government.") Biology counts too. The successor generations aren't clones of their political parents; they're blends of both their parents. It's easy to see in George W. Bush his mother's tart irreverence, or in Gore, the more pragmatic impulses of his mother. ("I tried to persuade Al [Sr.] not to butt at a stone wall, just for the sheer joy of butting," she once said.)
But the generational contrasts in political families involve more than circumstance or biology or time. There's another factor: many of the successor politicians seem to learn more from their parents' failures than their successes. Once again, Bush is instructive. His admiration for his father is enormous (the son praised the father so lavishly at the dedication of his presidential library that many took it as a slight at Clinton). But it's the weaknesses in his father's approach to politics that appear to have left the strongest impression on George W. The father tended to govern by leafing through his in-box; the son is insistent on trying to control the political debate and define the agenda for his state on issues such as welfare and education. George W. says, "There is a difference in a way. The concept of service is a very strong concept that was passed on from my dad's father to him; you served. I feel that as well. But on the other hand, I think you've got to have a reason to go into the political process. You've got to have a vision."
In his father's crushing loss in 1992, the son says, "I did learn a lesson about incumbency . . . you can't [just] defend your record. There has to be a what next."
Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr., provides another variation on the theme. Unlike Bush, or Gore, or Bayh, Representative Jackson hasn't migrated from his father's ideology. If anything, representing a district that sprawls from the South Side of Chicago into hardscrabble suburbs south of the city, he may be even more aggressively liberal than his father. While the father has grown closer to Clinton over time, Jackson, Jr., is a fierce critic of the President—whom he considers (along with Gore) an advocate of a neo-confederate state's rights agenda that abandons the tradition of a powerful federal government (a tradition he traces back to Lincoln) moving to solve national problems. "We need a more perfect union, and these guys don't believe in a more perfect union," says Jackson, Jr., an ebullient and engaging 33-year-old who has inherited his father's tendency toward monologue. "They believe in more perfect state's rights. But local governments cannot resolve the health care crisis in America. Local governments cannot resolve the affordable housing problem in America." Jackson, Jr., strongly argues for his father to challenge Al Gore in the Democratic presidential primaries in 2000.
Yet in the way he operates, Jackson, Jr., is a study in contrasts with his father. Reverend Jackson is peripatetic; Representative Jack son turns down almost all speaking requests and doggedly returns to his district on weekends. Reverend Jack son's presidential campaigns were famously disorganized; Representative Jackson spent the first $37,000 he raised in 1995 on computer and communications technology and surprised his rivals with a sophisticated voter contact and turnout program. Reverend Jackson isn't known for attention to detail; like a South Side Al D'Amato, Representative Jackson works diligently to squeeze out federal dollars for nuts-and-bolts local improvements like signs pointing motorists to gas and food from the two interstates that cut through his district. Representative Jackson's overwhelming priority is winning funding for a third Chicago airport that would be built in his district—a project on which he is so focused that he has refused to endorse the Democratic gubernatorial nominee because the nominee has refused to support the plan.
Biology and circumstance may explain many of these differences (Jackson, Jr., says he inherited his instinct for organization from his mother, and a young representative who didn't spend weekends in his district might soon have more time on his hands than he'd like). But Jackson, Jr., is also acutely conscious of the difficulty his father has had in trying to be seen as a leader for more than just African Americans, even though he has been emphasizing broader progressive themes at least since his 1988 presidential campaign. The son is insistently focused on being defined to his constituents—and ultimately the country at large—primarily as an advocate for economic, not racial, equity. "So I am very sensitive about what media I engage and on what subject I choose to engage it," Jackson, Jr., says. "Because 10 or 15 years from now I'd like all Americans to think of me as someone who fights for everybody and not let the sum total of a lot of press articles be 'Rodney King.'"
Given all of the advantages successor-generation politicians enjoy, maybe the story isn't how many, but how few, now hold positions of power. In some countries, the phenomenon seems even more common. Gerald Curtis, an expert on Japanese politics at Columbia University, says that between 40 and 50 percent of the incumbent Diet members in the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party are the sons or sons-in-law of former Diet members. In just half a century of existence, India has been led by three generations of Nehrus—India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira, and her son Rajiv. In the United States, nonpoliticians usually exceed politicians even in the most political families. Though it sometimes seems otherwise, even most Kennedys don't pursue political careers.
Explaining why some children of politicians run and others run away pushes you smack into the mystery of why families turn out the way they do. Nature, undoubtedly, is part of it: in his book on political dynasties, Stephen Hess reports that young Robert A. Taft was "rapt" at his father's presidential inauguration, while his brother brought along a copy of Treasure Island. But the way that young people react to their environment may matter even more. Growing up in a political family can be exhilarating, but also oppressive. It means expectations, exposure, and scrutiny for young people who'd often prefer to be left alone. It's hard to imagine that the events of the past year have Chelsea Clinton dreaming of becoming the first woman president. "It can be a hell of a burden to be a young Adams or a young Roosevelt or a young Kennedy," says Hess.
In the end, the children in political families who run are those who find the opportunities greater than the burdens—a calculation that even in the same circumstances can differ for each member of a family. Evan Bayh, who met Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson as a child, says, "In my case, I found it to be inspirational. . . . But if that's not consistent with your own value set about what you find to be rewarding, and what you want to accomplish with your own life, and hopefully on behalf of others, you are not going to follow that path."
That the path is open at all to so many children of politicians still raises hackles in a society that recoils from the idea of hereditary advantage. It's undeniable that some of the successor-generation politicians have risen faster, and further, than they would have without an ancestral boost. Maullin, the Santa Monica–based Democratic pollster, marveled when Kathleen Brown rose to become the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in California four years ago. He says, "She is a bright woman, well-meaning, but I can walk around this office complex and find at least a dozen women who personality-wise are no different than her, but would have no chance of being a political figure whatsoever."
Brown was, in many ways, an engaging and attractive candidate, but that doesn't diminish the power of Maullin's conclusion: born to a different family, she, like more than a few of her second-generation contemporaries, probably never would have found herself on the top of a ticket.
The comparison to baseball—another American institution with more than its share of father-son succession—is instructive. In baseball, questions of fairness rarely arise when the sons of former players make it to the major leagues. Ken Griffey, Jr., or Barry Bonds may have received more attention from scouts early on because their fathers were talented major leaguers, but ultimately they had to prove their worth on the field, under the same rules as everyone else. Pete Rose, Jr.'s name earned him a look, too, but it wasn't enough to lift him out of the minor leagues. In the end, no one doubts that Griffey or Bonds succeeded not because of their names, but because of their skills.
That can't be said as definitively in politics. The advantages for a Bush or a Gore can make the playing field uneven (as if pitchers facing Bonds or Griffey had to throw from a lower mound). No successor-generation politician can say as confidently as a successor-generation athlete that he succeeded entirely on his own. Yet, even in politics, the successor generation seems to rise to its natural level, the Rose, Jr.'s going one way, the Griffey, Jr.'s another. "A family name," says Hess, "is usually worth one rung up on the ladder. After that you are on your own." Remember even two of Franklin Roosevelt's sons—bearing arguably the century's most revered political name—still slipped when they tried to reach for the higher rungs. No one will cede the Republican presidential nomination to George W. Bush in 2000 just because his father twice won it.
The dynastic process isn't entirely benign: in principle, a political system that increasingly rewards candidates with an external advantage not inherently linked to qualification for the job—a respected family name, a famous name, or a big bank account—is evolving away from the ideal of a representative government equally open to all. But compared to the other forms of unearned political advantage (wealth and fame), family ties have proved in practice to be the least objectionable. The successor generation has produced some of the most talented and effective officeholders in America. Maybe some are just looking to cash in on their parents' renown. But somewhere near the core of their attraction to politics, almost all of the successor-generation candidates can locate a memory like that of Marjorie McKeithen, who remembers watching "my grandfather [the governor] speak to crowds, seeing the conviction in his face, hearing the big booming voice." Embedded in those memories is the most unambiguously admirable quality of the second-generation politicians: their shared conviction, learned around the dinner table, that public service is a worthwhile, even a noble, calling. It's not as if that sentiment is so widespread today that we can afford to disqualify from political life everyone whose last name has already appeared on a bumper sticker.