Politics & Policy

Family Affairs

(Mario Tama/Getty)
Dynasties and their discontents

Praising the capacities of Herself, She Who Must Not Be Named, presidential candidate Bill Clinton famously promised that Americans would get “two for the price of one” if they elected him. It was not the first time that slogan had been deployed in American politics: When Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson won the governorship of Texas in 1924 — following her husband’s impeachment from the governorship and his banishment from holding any public office in Texas because of a bribery scandal — the Democratic party offered the same deal: “Two governors for the price of one.” That motto was less of a mouthful than the campaign’s official slogan — “Me for Ma, and I Ain’t Got a Durned Thing Against Pa” — though you think that they’d have wanted to avoid the word “price.” But Texas Democrats were as shameless then as they are now: The price of her husband, James E. “Pa” Ferguson, had been about $156,000. Ma Ferguson was investigated repeatedly on allegations that she was taking bribes and kickbacks, selling pardons (she issued thousands of them), and the like, but nothing ever stuck to her. She lost reelection but won another term in 1932.

The passing of political office from one family member to another rubs us lowercase-r republicans the wrong way. We have a native distrust of hereditary aristocracies and European-style entitlement both in the figurative sense of that word and the literal one, i.e., the unseemly practice of calling former government officials by their expired job titles for the rest of their lives. Strange that we feel the need to continue calling the admirable lady from Alaska “Governor Palin,” while Mrs. Thatcher was perfectly happy to be “Mrs. Thatcher,” though many insisted on “baroness,” an unfittingly archaic title for such a modern woman.

The case for dynastic politics is the Bushes. (I am not entirely persuaded by the argument for John Quincy Adams.) George Herbert Walker Bush, himself the son of a senator and cousin of a Supreme Court justice, had one of the most impressive résumés of any modern president: World War II naval aviator and genuine bad-ass who once finished a bombing mission with a head wound and his airplane on fire, president of a successful oil company, congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to China, CIA director, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, part-time professor. He was not the greatest president of his time, but he was a pretty good one: His diplomacy leading up to Operation Desert Storm was a textbook example of how foreign policy is conducted when the adults are in charge, and the contrast with the feckless floundering of Barack Obama and company is dramatic. His sons were both excellent governors, and one was a pretty good president, albeit one who made some very large mistakes.

In terms of American political dynasties, the Bushes are about as good as it gets. And, with apologies to the remarkable former governor of Florida, nobody is clamoring for another one. If we end up with a George P. Bush vs. Chelsea Clinton election 20 years hence, we will have failed in some important way.

Political offices should not be handed down through families like heirlooms, or bequeathed to wives like life-insurance benefits. About 50 widows have been elected or appointed to their late husbands’ House and Senate seats over the years. They have not, for the most part, been a terribly impressive group, though Mary Bono Mack was a reliable legislator who might have remained in office had she not been married to what her rainbow-bedecked Palm Springs constituents considered the wrong half of Sonny and Cher.

Wives ascending to their husbands’ congressional offices have, for the most part, had the decency to wait until they died, but not so Deborah Dingell, who takes over her husband’s former seat in January. John Dingell Jr., the longest-serving member of Congress in history, has been representing environs west of Detroit for nearly 60 years, since the Eisenhower administration. (The vagaries of redistricting have put him in three different districts over the years.) He inherited the seat from his father, John Dingell Sr., who was elected to it in 1932. Mrs. Dingell, who was in diapers when her husband was first elected to the House, just turned 61 a few days ago, and appears to be in excellent health. If she serves 18 years in the House — a fraction of what her husband did — then the Dingells will have had a stranglehold on the office for a century. Dingell rule, which already has lasted longer than did the Austro-Hungarian Empire, will have lived longer than did the Aztec Empire.

If the case for dynasties is the Bush family, then the case against starts with the Gores — Senior was a sleazy Possum Hollow bamboozler, and Junior is Junior — and proceeds inevitably toward Herself, the unsanctified junior senator from New York. The career of our recently retired secretary of state has been an odd one: a feminist icon whose main role in life has been that of accessory to her husband, whose understanding of sex roles is as thoroughly traditional as Warren G. Harding’s. Jeb and George W. Bush may have been born into political dynasties, but each proved himself as an excellent governor before seeking the White House or contemplating it. Herself, on the other hand, has had many opportunities to show her quality: in the Senate, where she was a mediocrity, and as secretary of state, where she presided over the serial disasters of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

You might think that she couldn’t do any worse than the current administration, but consider this: When John Dingell Jr. first came to office, Detroit was by some measures the most prosperous city in the world. Leadership matters, and so does its absence. The Democratic front-runner caused a scandal many years ago by sneering at women who “stayed home and baked cookies and had teas.” For the sake of the country, let us hope that her future plans are less White House and more Toll House.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.

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