Largely overlooked amid the wall-to-wall coverage of the Boston terror attacks was some intriguing and potentially important political news. Former President George W. Bush weighed in on speculation regarding his brother former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential prospects, saying that he hopes his sibling runs for the nation’s highest office in 2016.
If Bush runs, it is unlikely that he will be the only familiar name on the ballot. It is widely believed that former first lady-turned-Senator-turned-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will also run. This means that regardless of political party, the White House could soon be occupied by a familiar name and family. 2016 might just end up feeling a bit like a flashback from A Christmas Carol — except, instead of all of us taking a stroll down memory lane to revisit Christmases past, we’ll be visiting elections past.
Here’s a question for American voters: Are political dynasties actually good for America?
One of the core principles that are supposed to distinguish America from monarchy-ruled countries in Europe is that in America, political power is supposed to be earned, not inherited. Yet from the earliest days of our country’s existence, political power has been concentrated among already powerful families. The earliest example is the Adams family. John Adams served as the country’s first vice president and second president, while his son John Quincy Adams served as the country’s sixth president.
It would be more than a century before this feat would be repeated, with George H.W. Bush serving as the nation’s 41st president and his son George H.W. Bush becoming the nation’s 43rd president. But throughout history, there have been countless sons, daughters and spouses succeeding their mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts into state legislatures and Congress.
Within the Bush family, Prescott Bush, the first President Bush’s father, served in the U.S. Senate. Barbara Bush, the former first lady and mother of the second President Bush, is descended from Franklin Pierce, the 14th president of the United States. In addition to Jeb Bush’s possible presidential run, his son George Pierce Bush is running for office in Texas.
The most comparable Democratic counterpart to the Bushes is the Kennedy family. The Kennedys count one president (John F. Kennedy), one attorney general (Robert F. Kennedy), three senators (John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Edward Kennedy) and three congressmen (Patrick Kennedy, Joseph Kennedy II and his son Joseph Kennedy III), one lieutenant governor (Kathleen Kennedy Townsend) and two ambassadors (family patriarch Joseph Kennedy, who served as ambassador to England in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, and his daughter Jean, who was an ambassador to Ireland during the Clinton administration).
According to reports, the family could soon count another. It is rumored that the Obama administration is considering nominating John F. Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, ambassador to Japan. The family also includes one mayor: John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, President Kennedy’s maternal grandfather, who served as mayor of Boston and is the earliest prominent political figure in the family’s history.
A few of America’s other notable political dynasties include the Landrieus of Louisiana (who include two New Orleans mayors and one senator), the Hutchinsons of Arkansas (one congressman and one senator), the Pryors of Arkansas (two senators), the Meeks of Florida (two members of Congress), the Kilpatricks of Michigan (one congresswoman and one mayor), the Carnahans of Missouri (two congressmen, a governor and a senator), the Gores (two senators, one who became vice president) and the Udall family, which includes multiple members of the Senate, the House, city councils and various other offices spanning both major political parties over more than a century.
And let’s not forget the Romneys. 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is the son of former Michigan Gov. George Romney and Senate candidate Lenore Romney.
In addition, at least 18 American women have been elected to the House or the Senate to fill seats left vacant by the deaths of their husbands. This is such a common political practice worldwide that such elections and appointments have a term: widow’s succession.
Although children of privilege cannot help the circumstances into which they are born — any more than those of us who are not born into privilege can — and therefore deserve to be considered on their merits just like the rest of us, the fact that they are so overrepresented in government means that they probably aren’t being judged on their merits like the rest of us. But that’s not the greatest travesty.
The fact that our political system is dominated by so many people of privilege is cause for concern because it means that even if our elected officials represent racial and gender diversity, they still aren’t really that diverse. Ultimately, people of privilege and power have plenty in common — certainly more in common with one another than with those of us who don’t enjoy much privilege or power.
I’ve often wondered what would have happened in a presidential debate between John Kerry and George W. Bush or George W. Bush and Al Gore if the moderator had presented a FAFSA form (the form families fill out to obtain college financial aid) and asked any of the men to identify it. Considering that all three men were from families who didn’t require financial aid to subsidize their educations — and hadn’t for a generation or two — I doubt that any of them would have been able to identify the form. And that’s the problem.
Both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush have the academic and political smarts to be effective candidates and competent presidents. (Whether you actually agree with them on the issues is another matter.) What is debatable is whether or not both of them possess something that Barack Obama did when he ran for office: the knowledge of what it’s like to make career decisions based on whether or not you will be able to pay off your student-loan debt someday, or knowing what it’s like to lose a parent because of substandard healthcare, and because your family couldn’t afford anything better.
This kind of firsthand knowledge of what life is like for average Americans is something you can’t pick up by reading a briefing book or just talking to voters on the campaign trail. So does this mean that Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be allowed to run? No. They both have plenty of respectable experience that would legitimately qualify them for the presidency. But it might be nice if they publicly acknowledged that no one should consider voting for their children until those children demonstrated some actual experience and qualifications, too, experience that extends beyond simply having the right last name.
Otherwise, we might as well brace ourselves for “Bush vs. Clinton: the Rematch” in 2028. In addition to George Pierce Bush’s foray into politics, in a recent interview, Chelsea Clinton hinted that she might run for office someday.
Keli Goff is The Root’s political correspondent.