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The burdens of political dynasties

By Laurie Bennett

February 21, 2013 at 12:13pm

Birthright in prominent political families can be a curse more than a blessing.

The Kennedys know this all too well. So, now, do the Jacksons.

The Jackson dynasty

Former Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., heir apparent to his father’s national standing, has pleaded guilty to misusing about $750,000 in campaign money. His wife, Sandi, a former Chicago city council member, also admitted filing false tax returns.

Jesse Jackson Jr. and his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson
Jesse Jackson Jr. with his father,
the Rev. Jesse Jackson, 1997.

Among Jackson’s ill-gotten gains: two stuffed elk heads, a fedora worn by Michael Jackson, an Eddie Van Halen guitar and a football signed by U.S. presidents.

The buying spree was so odd, so celebrity-driven, that one has to wonder whether Jackson was trying to obliterate a political future.

We won’t presume to psychoanalyze, but we will point out that scandal is a recurring theme among offspring of well-known political figures.

Noemie Emery has written an entire book on the topic, “Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.”

The dark side of privilege, she notes, goes all the way back to the country’s founding. Presidents John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams each had three sons - “one who contrived to fulfill his ambitions and two who broke under the pressure and drank.”

The Adams dynasty

George Washington Adams, eldest son of John Quincy Adams, was brilliant, beating Ralph Waldo Emerson in an elocution contest at Harvard. He was dead by age 28, an apparent suicide.

The pressures on political progeny aren’t only external. Ambitious parents have high expectations.

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams

As John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary, “I have indeed long known that my father is far more anxious for my advancement … than I have ever been or shall be.”

Theodore Roosevelt ran his children through obstacle courses. Literally.

Children in George H.W. Bush’s family were ranked on a statistical grid.

When Joseph Kennedy told his sons, “We don’t want losers around here,” he was referring to both the playing fields of Hyannis and national campaigns.

The Kennedy dynasty

But of course there were losers in the Kennedy clan. Even the winners struggled with excess and tragedy.

Two brothers fell to assassins. A third destroyed his chances for the presidency at Chappaquiddick. Other family members have wrestled with drugs, alcohol, depression and criminal charges.

The Kennedy clan
The Kennedy clan

Yet Emery concludes: “There is no ‘Kennedy curse,’ just a dynastic one, which for two-hundred-plus years has woven its way through the life of the country. It has produced presidents, statesmen, and slow-motion suicides. And it is not over yet.”

The Roosevelt dynasty

The dynamic often produces both good sons (and they are almost always sons) who strive to fulfill their parents’ dreams, and other offspring who fail with such flair that their behavior approaches mockery.

Kermit Roosevelt, the second son of President Theodore Roosevelt, completed a Harvard degree in just two and a half years, accompanied his father on wilderness expeditions, and married well, to the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Spain. However, he struggled for years with alcoholism and committed suicide in 1943.

The Roosevelt clan
Theodore Roosevelt and family, 1903. (Kermit is third from right.)

Kermit’s cousin Elliott, the second son of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was entangled in a series of scandals, repeatedly investigated by Congress and married five times. He worked for a time for one of his father’s most ardent critics, William Randolph Hearst.

Elliott Roosevelt’s career in elected office was limited to a single term as mayor of Miami Beach, FL.

His brothers James and Franklin Jr. went to Congress.

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