For months, American pundits speculated that after a few boisterous spectacles, the 2016 presidential election would turn into a fight between a Bush and a Clinton, two names that have featured in every presidential cycle since 1980. These are our dynasties. – and our politics as well as our economy, argues historian Rick Perlstein in the Financial Times, is simply dynastic. Perhaps the call of Donald Trump or other non-political candidates is a reaction to all dynasties.
Republican donors and supporters of John Ellis Bush, the former governor of Florida known as Jeb !, might well have capitalized on the dynastic leanings of American politics. But while there are many local political dynasties spanning the centuries (the Frelinghuysens of New Jersey, for example, or the Chafees of Rhode Island), and many wealth dynasties, there is really only one real dynasty of national policy: the Bushes. The Clintons, with one generation and one president so far, are hardly worth considering. Measured by electoral success at the state or national level, even the names that first come to mind when you think of America’s political dynasties don’t come close to Bush’s reach, across four states and now the fourth generation (which includes Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush) and running for their third presidency. But all dynasties seem to die out in the third generation or so, and even the most successful and deliberate of them end up losing the ambition or the chance to be elected. Jeb’s current single-digit ranking in the polls could mark the end of this family’s singular success.
Here are some of the Bush rivals, as measured by electoral success:
- The Adams. Until the two George Bushes, John Adams and John Quincy Adams were the sole parent / child presidents. They sit at the top of Boston’s Brahmin elite, and Adams’ family tree includes figures such as Henry Adams (if you’ve been instructed to read The autobiography of Henry Adams at school and I did not enter, please try again); Charles Francis Adams, who ran for vice-president in 1848 on the Free Soil Party ticket; and Brooks Adams, an important historian. But only John and John Quincy got a higher post than Congressman.
- The Harrisons. William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, who only served 32 days after contracting pneumonia during his inauguration, was the grandfather of Benjamin Harrison, who served two full terms in this haze of bearded presidents of the 1880s and 1890s. But with 47 years between the two inaugurations, it’s hard to see the Harrisons as a continuing dynasty, even though Benjamin’s father – the only person, so far, to be both the child and the relative of a US president – served four years in Congress. .
- The Roosevelts. The third family with two presidents, although distantly related. As Ken Burns’ documentary on the family showed, FDR was in many ways inspired by Theodore, but 28 years passed between Teddy’s re-election in 1904 and FDR’s first victory, and they represented different parties, therefore FDR did not rely directly on Teddy’s coalition. Among Franklin and Eleanor’s children, James Roosevelt served five terms in the House and ran for Governor of California and Mayor of Los Angeles, but lost both races, the first to future Chief Justice Earl. Warren.
- The Rockefellers. As a dynasty of wealth and philanthropy, the Rockefellers are unmatched, and at one time they had also amassed impressive political power. Nelson Rockefeller was governor of New York, a presidential prospect in 1964 and 1968, and ultimately vice president appointed by Gerald Ford, where his most significant achievement was paying for renovations to the vice president’s mansion at the Naval Observatory. Winthrop Rockefeller was Governor of Arkansas, and John D. Rockefeller IV, a Democrat, was Governor and – until early this year – Senator from West Virginia. (A current governor has a connection to the Rockefeller family: Governor Mark Dayton of Minnesota was married to Alida Messinger, a sister of Jay Rockefeller.)
- The Udalls and the Romneys. I brought them together because both are great Mormon families who win elections in several different states. There were recently three Udall cousins in the Senate, including Mark Udall of Colorado, Tom Udall of New Mexico, and Gordon Smith of Oregon. George and Mitt Romney were both governors and presidential candidates, and Rep. Morris Udall was the Liberal frontrunner in the 1976 Democratic contest. But neither family produced a president.
- The Kennedys. For almost anyone over 40, especially those of us in northeastern towns where a framed photo of JFK had a place next to the crucifix in many homes, it stands to reason that the Kennedy family is our central, loved and hated political dynasty. Yes, there has only been one President Kennedy, but there are so many lost promises: How long has that presidency lasted over 1,000 days, and how many Presidents Kennedy has? there could have been? From 1956, when JFK nearly won the vice presidential nomination, until 1980, when Ted Kennedy’s challenge to Jimmy Carter failed, Kennedys dominated every presidential election, as announced or potential candidates. With the exception of the brief period when Ted Kennedy was not yet old enough to serve in the Senate and a family factotum kept the Massachusetts seat warm for him, a Kennedy – or two – served in the upper chamber. continuously from 1953 until Ted Kennedy. death in 2009.
But the now solidly middle-aged third generation of Kennedy has not yet extended the dynasty to roughly the same level. Joseph Kennedy II (one of RFK’s children) served five terms in the House and his son, now 35, was elected to the same seat in 2014. Among Ted Kennedy’s children, Patrick served multiple terms in the House from Rhode Island, and Ted Kennedy Jr. resisted politics but ultimately sought and won a Connecticut State Senate seat last year. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was Lieutenant Governor of Maryland but failed to seize the governorship of that Blue State in 2002. Their public service is admirable (as is that of Caroline Kennedy, the US Ambassador to the United States. United with Japan and the Shrivers), but measured only by electoral success, these third and fourth generation Kennedys hardly dominate American politics as was once expected.
The Bush dynasty, on the other hand, begins with Prescott, a senator from Connecticut in the 1950s (some family accounts attribute a major role to Prescott’s stepfather, George Herbert Walker, a Wall Street great), and continues with George HW Bush, elected to the House in 1966, then primarily appointed to positions until he ran for President in 1980 and was chosen as Ronald Reagan’s running mate. A Bush has been on every successful Republican ticket since, and George’s sons have won governorships in the second and third largest states. (In some sort of diversified investment strategy, a third brother, Neil, who was once believed to have great promise, was sent to Colorado, another state believed to be critical to the conservative Republican counterrevolution.) No family does approach that level of political success. , across generations, across states, changing ideology as needed to win.
The United States surely has a problem with dynastic economic power and dynastic control over access to elite institutions. But our politics, which produced presidents named Obama, Clinton, Reagan, Nixon and Johnson, who started from scratch, are not so dynastic. Most of the time, there are just too many bushes.