Give me a Harvard man for president any day, decade or century. Yale, not so much.
Political dynasties are part of The Conversation we’ve all been having at the beach, the village pool, the island, the farm or on baseball bleachers.
Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are said to have this pedigree in common. If we are a free people, why do the same names keep coming up? Never have we had three presidents from the same family. We wonder: Why start now?
Dynasties will stay on our minds while there’s a Bush or a Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. But I have a little news to break: The Bushes are an American political dynasty, by the book, going back to Connecticut senator Prescott Bush, father and grandfather to the two Bush presidents. All three Bush men were Yalies: old Prescott, his son George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. (In fairness, Jeb Bush did not go to Yale. But he boarded at the family favorite, Phillips Academy, known as Andover.)
The Clintons, however, are not a dynasty, which requires generations of public officeholders. There now, do you feel better?
Jeb Bush hails from arguably the worst dynasty in American history. Of course, all dynasties are ambitious. None but the Bushes have shown such hungry ambition purely for ambition’s sake. In a tragedy that has unspooled over time, the Kennebunkport, Maine sporting set doesn’t stand for much except winning — especially against each other.
Against the world, loyalty is another cardinal virtue, as we saw in the deadlocked state of Florida, where Jeb Bush was governor, in the 2000 presidential election. With our republic as their playing field, the Bush men stay the same lords of privilege. They are not intellectuals at all; forget the posh credentials. If you thought they might crack a book now and then between their sporting games, you thunk wrong.
Ironically, as Brookings Institution author Stephen Hess observes, the Bushes deny the dynasty label, while the Clintons court it. Funny how it is: President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham both graduated from Yale Law School, where they fell in love.
To start with the first dynasty, made of the best Massachusetts Puritan stock, the Adams family produced two one-term presidents, John and John Quincy, and a renowned diplomat, Charles Francis Adams, ambassador to Great Britain. Yes, all went to Harvard. The erudite Adamses were never handsome, popular and hail fellow well met, but they felt they were the smartest guys in the room. Their heads and hearts were usually in the right place. Former president John Quincy Adams, elected to the House after a humiliating loss to populist Andrew Jackson, turned out to be one of slavery’s most nettlesome foes.
The privileged Roosevelt and Kennedy — Harvard men — dynasties actually had dreams, goals and plans for the common good. Lots and lots. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt were distant cousins. In 1901, Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, presided over a great era of Americanization: consisting not only steamships and modern industrialization, but also welcoming millions of immigrants to these shores.
The younger Franklin was inventive during the Depression — “bold, persistent experimentation” was his motto — in reviving the country’s economy and morale in the 1930s. In 1941, the beloved president wisely took the nation into the Second World War, leading the fight abroad and the mobilization on the home front. I know my grandmother, a widowed nurse raising four children, never missed FDR’s living room addresses on the radio, his personal fireside chats. His resonance seemed to beam over straight to Spooner Street in Madison, Wisconsin. He was a patrician with a common touch.
John F. Kennedy was not a man of the people with his clipped Northeastern diction, cool poise and perfect tailoring. Words, books and ideas mattered to him, and from the start, he electrified the electorate with lofty goals: involving a trip to the moon, founding the Peace Corps and reaching for peace, urging fellow Americans never to fear to negotiate as a way out of the Cold War. His great-nephew, Joseph P. Kennedy III, is now a young congressman.
Concentrating power in elite hands is not new in our democracy. Yet some dynasties are better than others. And history shows Harvard’s the place to go, by a country mile, if you’re looking for a stellar president.
Stephen Hess’s new volume, America’s Political Dynasties, is forthcoming from The Brookings Institution.
To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit Creators.com.
Photo: George W. Bush and family” by Eric Draper, White House photo director and personal photographer for President George W. Bush — St. Mary’s Today, smaller version published in a press release by The White House. Licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons.