In her new book, Great Expectations, Noemie Emery writes, “From 1775, when the Adamses began raising their sons to be president, to 2006…this country has been through 230 years of dynastic ambition, with fairly uneven results. Taken together, four families have given us five presidents, three vice presidents, five senators, four governors, four ambassadors to major foreign powers, and four members, including one past and future president, of the House of Representatives.” She writes, “This sounds impressive, and is, until the downside is counted: one certain and one probable suicide, multiple deaths in what can be called young adulthood, numerous lives either warped or distorted, and more alcoholics and drug users than one can easily count.”
It’s the public and private that Emery looks into in her new book, part history and part gossipy, part psychological study, part warning to political parents.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You point out in Great Expectations that “Dynastic sons have been president during the two scariest moments of the current half century” on 9/11 and during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ought we thank God that’s the case?
Noemie Emery: Probably. I think they behaved pretty well.
Lopez: When you consider the prevalence of families in politics, is that stuff they teach kids in school — anyone can be president — just nonsense?
Emery: No, I don’t think so. Clinton and Reagan came up from obscure, and poor backgrounds. With the exception of Romney, whose father was governor, the 2008 field is lacking in dynastic sons.
Lopez: What would a President Ted Roosevelt Jr. have been like?
Emery: I’ve no idea. He was a talented man, a wonderful governor-general of the Philippines, and of Puerto Rico, and an inspired commander in battle. But this didn’t require political talents, of which he didn’t have much.
Lopez: We all read so much about the Kennedys. What’s something new and surprising you learned? (Is it possible there is such a thing?)
Emery: The surprising thing about the Kennedys is how unsurprising they are, or in other words, how typical of dynastic families. Read about the Adamses in l800, and you could be reading about the Kennedys in l980, what with the overstressed heirs apparent, the drinking (or doping) among sons and brothers, and the girls, sometimes in strained marriages, who were fixated on the men in the family. The unique things about them are Jackie (who fits the profile of all great fictional heroines, up to and including Scarlett O’Hara), and the astonishing level of violence. Which, of course, wasn’t their fault.
Lopez: Should I feel bad for Al Gore?
Emery: Of course you should. He was pushed out of his own line of work (which was academic and technical), and into something he didn’t quite understand. He rose quickly and effortlessly, because he always stepped into the shoes (or the seats) of his father, and because he always looked so fantastic on paper: the good looks (he once looked like Clark Kent, about to duck into the phone booth); the picturesque family; the showy intelligence; and the really hard work. Bill Clinton picked him for exactly these reasons, and pushed up him to the head of the line as his heir. Then, starting at the 1996 convention, he was thrown into the deep end of the pool, which was the first contested election of his life, unprotected by his father’s name, or by Bill Clinton’s talent, and began making mistake after mistake.
All through 2000, you could see the Democrats’ panic, as they realized they were stuck with a really bad politician — a man who had won a whole string of elections, but was still a really bad politician — and it was too late to take it all back. In the campaign, he endured an enormous amount of personal ridicule, and then lost in the most grueling way possible: in a tie so tight that any outcome was open to question, and in which both sides — Democrats because of the ballot confusion; and Republicans because of the early and false call of Florida, which I think did suppress their vote in some places — had reason to believe they unfairly lost votes. Gore always found politics a chore and a trial — Time magazine said he found it like “crawling over broken glass” — and did it because he was told it was his obligation and duty to make himself president. To do this must really be awful, but to do it and lose — and think that you won, and were cheated — must really be absolute hell.
Lopez: John Quincy Adams actually became president unlike Gore but JQA sure sounds like a sad character all the same
Emery: Yes, he was. He was filled with anxieties. For all his successes, his father had drummed it into his head that his (his father’s) career and character had been so magnificent they couldn’t be matched
He became president under the old rules, which were that you rose through a fairly closed, elite system, by being a diplomat: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe had been either secretary of State or ambassador to a great power, or, in the case of Jefferson and of John Quincy, both. In l828, the rules were changed, by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren (the Karl Rove of his era), and from then on the White House was won by political wiles. Richard Brookhiser has noted that the Adamses were the only two of the first seven presidents to fail to win reelection. Others have noted the oddity that the only two presidents to have followed their fathers lost the popular vote in disputed elections. John Quincy was a one-termer who followed a one-termer father. George W. of course was mocked by John Kerry: “Like father, like son. One term, and you’re done.” But Bush broke that particular spell.
Lopez: What’s your beef with Henry Adams?
Emery: Actually, with the exceptions of John Quincy Adams and his wife, Louisa Catherine (a cultured and cultivated Jackie-like figure who tried to shield her children from dynastic imperatives), I took a huge dislike to the whole Adams family, whom I found insufferable, due to their exaggerated sense of their own importance and merits, and their lack of generosity to others, many of whom were greater and more important than they. Henry had these traits to a fault, along with an annoying above-it-all attitude. And of course I find this sentence — “Not a Polish Jew from Warsaw or Cracow — not a furtive Yaccob or Ysaac, still reeking of the ghetto, snarling a weird Yiddish to the officers of the customs” — exceedingly hard to forgive.
Lopez: One more Adams-related question: What’s historically significant about the lives of Charles Adams and David Kennedy?
Emery: None whatsoever, they were merely collateral damage. Their dynastic significance is that they illustrate the dangers of having too good an example, which I think can sometimes paralyze dynastic sons into impotence before they have a chance to begin. More pertinent to this perhaps than poor Charles was John Quincy’s son, George Washington Adams, who was a not only a severe alcoholic, but got the maid pregnant, and then killed himself by jumping off the deck of a steamer into Long Island Sound. Both John Quincy Adams and Robert F. Kennedy were compulsive over-achievers, going in constantly for mental and physical overexertion, letting no moment pass unimproved in their quest for perfection. Perhaps in reaction, each had one son a piece who could barely drag himself out of bed in the morning, and spent the rest of the day lying around getting stoned.
Lopez: Besides the car incident…what’s Ted Kennedy’s problem?
Emery: Ted Kennedy’s problems, I think, are that he never got over the deaths of his brothers, and felt forced for their sakes to pretend to want to be president, a position I think that he feared. I think he loved the Senate from the word “go,” and wanted nothing more than to stay there forever, and that had he been allowed to do this in peace, his life, and the lives of his first wife and children would have been much, much, easier, and Mary Jo Kopechne would be alive today.
I think the pressures on him between Bobby’s death and Chappaquiddick were beyond precedent and beyond belief, and that the Democrats and his family’s fans bear a great deal of blame for what happened. I think that if he hadn’t driven that car off that bridge at that time, he would have done something quite similar on another occasion, and the outcome would have been quite the same. I think it is no accident that in l980, he torpedoed his efforts at the beginning, and that later on his skill as a candidate improved in inverse proportion as his chances of winning the nomination faded away. I think that since then he has used well-publicized scandal — public drunkenness, fornicating on the floor of a restaurant — as a way of making himself unelectable as a national candidate, now that his seat in the Senate is safe. I believe Chappaquiddick is never out of his mind.
Many people believe he got off too easily, as concerns legal punishment, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he were among them. Many strange things that he does — his constant use of phrases like “dead in the water,” his fixation on water boarding as a special obsession, his naming his dog “Splash,” and then writing a book about him — seem to be saying, “In case what occurred on the night of July l9, l969, has slipped from your mind just for a moment, let me refresh your memory of those sad events.” This may not be the reason he always slips into this pattern of reference. But if it isn’t, I’d like someone to tell me what is.
Lopez: Does George Bush lean on his dad’s people a bit much? I’m thinking most recently — but certainly not exclusively — of the Baker Commission of course.
Emery: That’s a story for another book.
Lopez: Can Jeb Bush be president of the United States? Or would the prospect of a third Bush administration end American dynastic tolerance?
Emery: I think he can, and probably should. No one should be punished for being somebody’s relative, just as no one should be promoted for only that reason. Dynastic children who have big careers tend to have genuine political talent, and don’t parrot their parents’, or brothers’, ideas.
Lopez: Looking at folks who will actually run in 2008: Mitt Romney, as you’ve mentioned, comes from a political family too. Any sense of how his late father plays in the son’s ambitions?
Emery: I have no idea.
Lopez: Besides Hillary in her way, any up-and-coming girl dynastics? A Gore daughter? Someone off our radars as of yet? Are they liable to be even more interesting than the guys for a Great Expectations II, whenever the time comes?
Emery: Don’t know. The most prominent examples so far are Kathleens Brown and Kennedy Townsend, who ran for governor (of California and Maryland), who don’t seem to have been very impressive. Kathleen Townsend was elevated well over her level of practical talent, in this case a female Al Gore.
Lopez: Poor kid.
Of the families you’ve written about in Great Expectations, which did you find yourself liking the most?
Emery: With the Adams exception, I sort of liked all of them, or at least could understand their points of view. The Gores’ rise from abject poverty to power and influence was truly quite admirable, and you could understand their desire to extend it into the next generation, by taking the next step up the ladder, which was the only one left to go. Their mistake was in thinking they could take a bright child, and make him a president, as politics is an art, not a science, and something you simply can’t learn. It’s important to know that the Adamses, the Gores, and the Kennedys weren’t simply greedy for power, or trying to put something over on people. They truly believed they were doing the country a favor by giving it their wonderful children, and went to great pains to raise them as leaders who would be fit to hold power. Among individuals, my favorites were JFK and George W., whose transformations are fascinating. But then Prince Hal is my favorite character, and Henry IV is my favorite play.