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America’s ruling families

By Laurie Bennett

October 29, 2007 at 8:51am

We’ve come to expect political dynasties. They’re a fact of life in the U.S., perhaps even more than royal succession is in the modern UK.

The 2008 presidential campaign is the first since 1952 without a sitting president or vice president. An entire generation has grown up thinking the race for the White House requires the presence of a Bush or a Clinton.

Even beyond the obvious - the Bushes, Kennedys, Rockefellers, Roosevelts and Adamses - many American clans have passed the political baton from one generation to the next.

In recent decades, Hendrik Hertzberg writes in the New Yorker, the “dynastic dynamic” has accelerated.

The presidential field includes not only Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of a former president, but Mitt Romney, son of a former governor of Michigan. Hertzberg notes that there are currently five U.S. senators whose fathers preceded them in the Senate. A prominent example in the House is Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose father was a member of Congress and the mayor of Baltimore.

Such connections yield intriguing Muckety maps. One of our favorites was created by the marriage of Howard Baker and Nancy Kassebaum, which linked not only their separate Senate careers, but the legacy of Kassebaum’s father, former Kansas Gov. Alf Landon, and Baker’s former father-in-law, Sen. Everett Dirksen.

Political dynasties tend to overlap with the business and media spheres. (Think Maria Shriver.) After Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs died in an airplane crash, he was succeeded by his wife, Lindy. One daughter, Barbara Boggs Sigmund, was mayor of Princeton, N.J., before dying of cancer. Another, Cokie Roberts, is a correspondent for ABC and NPR, and the wife of journalist Steven Roberts. A son, Thomas Hale Boggs Jr., is a powerful Washington lobbyist.

Offspring of the powerful can learn from their parents’ example and their parents’ mistakes. Or can they can choose not to learn at all. Hertzberg’s column closes with an observation on George W. Bush:

“Bush’s failure to learn much of anything for the past six years suggests a deficit of character, not of experience; his unwillingness to employ his father’s skills and advice on behalf of the nation shows a disrespectful disregard for a dynast’s biggest advantage. He has given both freshness and family a bad name.”

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