Editor’s Note: This series in Jay Nordlinger’s Impromptus is an expansion of a piece he has in the current issue of National Review.
Quite possibly, the most ticklish relationship in human history is that between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. There’s a reason comedians make mother-in-law jokes. (Granted, these comedians tend to be men.) Naomi and Ruth, from the Bible, are the ideal, not the norm.
Comedians don’t make father-in-law jokes, in my experience. But the relationship between father-in-law and son-in-law can be ticklish too. Moses enjoyed a warm, mutually supportive relationship with his father-in-law, Jethro (also called Reuel, confusingly). Other guys have a less easy time.
There’s a story about Churchill — there’s always a story about Churchill. He didn’t like his son-in-law Vic Oliver, an entertainer, who was married to the Churchills’ daughter Sarah. One day, Oliver tried to make conversation with his father-in-law. “Which figure in the war do you admire most?” he asked. Churchill said, “Mussolini.” Astonished, Oliver asked, “Why?” Churchill said, “Because he had the courage to have his son-in-law shot.”
That’s a good story. But one thing I don’t like about it is that Count Ciano, for all his faults, was a better man than Mussolini. I’ll return to this family in due course.
President Trump has a remarkable relationship with his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, husband to the president’s daughter Ivanka. Trump treats Kushner like a prince, one of his own, another son-lieutenant. He has heaped great governmental responsibility onto the slim shoulders of his son-in-law. Whether this ought to be so is a subject for another time.
‐Travel back, now, to the presidential campaign of 1912. William G. McAdoo was campaign manager to Woodrow Wilson. In that same year, McAdoo’s wife died, leaving him with many children. Wilson won, and he then named McAdoo his Treasury secretary. At some point, McAdoo sparked a romance with the president’s youngest daughter, Eleanor. They were married in May 1914, in the Blue Room of the White House.
McAdoo offered to resign his cabinet position, being mindful of propriety, honor, and all. But the president refused: “You were appointed Secretary of the Treasury solely on your merit. No one imagined at the time that the present situation would arise.” Furthermore, “you are now organizing the Federal Reserve Banks and engaged in other matters of vital public interest. Your resignation would be a serious blow.” McAdoo stayed in the job until 1918.
He wanted his father-in-law’s job. And in 1920, he was a leading contender for the Democratic nomination. He was a leading contender in 1924, too. But he fell short each time. In the 1930s, he served a term as senator from California.
‐William Stephens Smith was secretary to John Adams in London. He married the future president’s daughter “Nabby.” During the Adams presidency, he was appointed surveyor of the Port of New York. Later, he was elected to Congress.
‐Jefferson had two daughters. Both married men who would be elected to Congress during their father’s presidency. One of the sons-in-law went on to be a governor; the other went on to be a senator.
‐Return now to the 20th century — to the first years of it. Theodore Roosevelt had a daughter, Alice (a daughter and a half). During his presidency, she married a dashing congressman from Ohio, Nicholas Longworth. In the 1920s, he would be elevated to Speaker of the House. Alice, of course, became a famous, or notorious, wit.
‐The Trumans’ daughter, Margaret, did not marry a politician. She married a journalist: Clifton Daniel, of the New York Times. He was a distinguished foreign correspondent. He would also serve as managing editor of the Times.
‐Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson had a daughter Lynda. She married a brave Marine, Charles S. Robb. The wedding took place in the East Room of the White House. Eventually, Robb would be governor of Virginia, and then senator.
‐Nixon was elected president in November 1968. At the end of the year, weeks before his swearing-in, he served as father of the bride. The bride was Julie Nixon, the groom David Eisenhower, the grandson of the former president. The couple had met at the 1956 Republican convention (which renominated Eisenhower and Nixon). They were both eight at the time.
‐The Nixons’ other daughter, Tricia, got married in the Rose Garden. Her husband, Edward Cox, is today the chairman of the New York Republican State Committee.
‐The Fords’ daughter, Susan, married one of her father’s former Secret Service agents.
‐In 1992, a wedding took place at Camp David. It was an amazingly bipartisan affair. The bride, “Doro,” was the daughter of the Republican president, George H. W. Bush. The groom, Robert P. Koch, had just resigned his position … as a top aide to the House majority leader, Democrat Richard Gephardt. So, it’s possible to reach across the aisle and walk down the aisle at the same time.
‐Enough of boring democratic politics, with their opportunities for lighthearted remarks, and on to dictatorships — which are exciting, bloody, and ghastly.
Edda Mussolini was the dictator’s eldest child, and the apple of his eye. She was the princess of Fascist Italy, and, at age 19, she found her prince: Galeazzo Ciano, the son of Count Costanzo Ciano, a close ally of Mussolini. The younger Ciano was a diplomat and playboy. The wedding between Edda and Galeazzo on April 24, 1930, was the hot social ticket of the entire Fascist era.
In 1936, Mussolini made his son-in-law foreign minister. Ciano was 33 years old. (Robert Kennedy was 35 when his brother made him attorney general.) For a long time, things went smoothly between dictator and foreign minister, father-in-law and son-in-law. They liked each other a lot.
In February 1943, however, Mussolini fired his entire cabinet, including the foreign minister. Ciano had been advocating a separate peace with the Allies; he knew the war was lost. Nonetheless, he retained his position on the Fascist Grand Council. And in July, he voted with the majority that restored powers to the king, effectively dismissing Mussolini. That was trouble.
A few months later, Hitler placed Mussolini at Salò, on the shores of Lake Garda in northern Italy. There, he was the duce of a rump, puppet government (the “Italian Social Republic”). Count Ciano — young Count Ciano, Edda’s husband — was arrested and sentenced to death, along with other Fascists deemed traitors.
Think of Edda’s position. Her father and her husband were the two people she loved most in the world. She begged her father to spare her husband. How much leeway did Mussolini have, given that Hitler was pulling his strings? That is a subject that is debated even unto this day.
On January 11, 1944, Ciano and the other condemned men were made to sit down on chairs, and then they were tied to those chairs. They were to be shot in the back. This was thought to be a humiliating way to die, fit for traitors. Just before the bullets flew, Ciano swiveled in his chair, to face the shooters. We can say a lot about Galeazzo Ciano, but this was a brave death.
Is that enough for one day? Probably so. I’ll return tomorrow with Stalin, Duvalier, Assad, Saddam — and back to Trump, Jared, and democracies. See you then.
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