Magazine | February 23, 2015, Issue

The Dynasty Question

Thoughts occasioned by Jeb Bush

When people discuss Jeb Bush, they naturally bring up the “dynasty question”: How can we have three presidents from one family in the space of 25 years or so? And one nuclear family, at that! The word “dynasty” is slightly problematic. We use it loosely. For example, the New York Yankees in the 1920s were a “dynasty.” They have had several other “dynastic” periods, too.

From the beginning, we have voted for Adamses, Harrisons, Roosevelts, Tafts, Kennedys, Bushes . . . Are these “dynasties”? Maybe in some loose sense, but voters have made democratic choices: They have voted for these people, as individuals, in free and often hotly contested elections.

There are real dynasties in the world — monarchical and dictatorial ones. There are ceremonial kings and queens, sure, but there are also kings who rule, especially in Arab lands. As for dictators, the world is pocked with them. North Korea is now ruled by Kim Il-sung’s grandson, as it was ruled by his son, Kim Jong-il. Kim Il-sung took power in that part of Korea right after World War II. The two Assads have ruled Syria since 1970. Two men named Bongo — another father-and-son team — have ruled Gabon since 1967.

The Duvaliers, père et fils, ruled Haiti for nearly 30 years: from 1957 to 1986. One of Qaddafi’s sons probably would have taken over Libya, if the old man had been able to hang on to power. There were two or three sons in contention. One of them was Saif al-Islam, who, asked about the issue, would say, “Libya is not a farm to inherit.” He might have done so regardless. In the 1970s, Jean-Bédel Bokassa crowned himself emperor of Central Africa. From his dozens of children, he chose a prince héritier, who would be Bokassa II. But the first Bokassa lost his crown when Junior was but five.

Sons tend to follow fathers into lines of work. This has been true from time immemorial. The Big Three composers — Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven — all had fathers who were professional musicians. And it was rarer in those days to be a professional musician than it is now.

Beethoven had no children. Mozart had two who survived infancy. One of them became a full-time musician, and the other almost did, opting for business and government instead. Bach had many children — of whom three or four became noted composers.

Alessandro Scarlatti was an important composer, and his son Domenico became a more important one. We could talk about the Strauss family in Vienna, too: the waltz kings. How about Richard Strauss, in Germany? His father was a prominent horn player.

Thinking of conductors, I think of three father–son pairings, immediately: the Kleibers (Erich and Carlos), the Jordans (Armin and Philippe), and the Plassons (Michel and Emmanuel). The Estonian maestro Neeme Järvi boasts not one conductor son but two: Paavo and Kristjan.

Shall we glance in on golf? I think, right away, of three major-tournament winners who later had sons on the PGA Tour: Dave Stockton, who begot Dave Jr.; Julius Boros, who begot Guy; and Craig Stadler, who begot Kevin. Hockey? Bobby and Brett Hull. Baseball? The Ken Griffeys. We could do this all day. And when it comes to coaches, I’m almost surprised when a coach is not the son of a coach.

Consider writers for a second. It occurs to me that I know five writer sons of famous — in some cases very famous — writers: Chris Buckley, Bill Kristol, David Pryce-Jones, John Podhoretz, and Adam Bellow. I have never met Martin Amis (son of Kingsley).

Forgetting the famous, sons follow fathers into law, medicine, business, all sorts of professions. Is that because they are wired that way? Does genetics bend them that way? Or is it because they have watched their fathers do what they do, so that the given profession seems normal? Here, as elsewhere, there is nature–nurture debating to do.

But return to politics — and review with me the U.S. elections of last November. Let’s start with governors, going west to east (the way we read). In California, Jerry Brown was the Democratic nominee. His father had been governor before him. In Wyoming, Matt Mead was the Republican nominee. His grandfather had been governor (and U.S. senator). His mother had been the GOP gubernatorial nominee. In New Mexico, Gary King was the Democratic nominee. His father had been governor. In Oklahoma, Mary Fallin was the Republican. Her parents — both of them — had served as mayor of their town. In Georgia, Jason Carter was the Democrat. His grandfather had been governor, and the 39th president. In New York, Andrew Cuomo was the Democrat. His dad had been governor.

#page#You get the point, but you can’t shut me up yet, because I’m going to review Senate elections. In New Mexico, Tom Udall was the Democratic nominee. His father was Stewart, who was a House member and interior secretary (under JFK and LBJ). In Colorado, the Democratic nominee was Tom’s cousin Mark. His dad was Mo, Stew’s brother, the congressman who ran for president.

In Kansas, the Republican nominee was Pat Roberts, whose father was once chairman of the Republican National Committee. In Arkansas, the Democrat was Mark Pryor, whose father, David, had been both governor and senator. In Louisiana, the Democrat was Mary Landrieu, whose dad had been mayor of New Orleans. In Kentucky, the Democrat was Alison Lundergan Grimes, whose father had been a state legislator and chairman of the state party.

In Georgia, the Democrat was Michelle Nunn, whose father had himself been a senator from that state. Her opponent was David Perdue, whose cousin, Sonny, had been governor. In West Virginia, the Republican was Shelley Moore Capito. Her father had been governor of the state.

So as not to exhaust or bore you, I will mention just one House family: the Dingells of Michigan. John Sr. was elected in 1932 and died in 1955 (still holding office). His son, John Jr., took over the seat, holding it until last month. He is succeeded by his wife, Debbie.

All of this is perfectly normal and non-sinister. Sons, and daughters, have followed fathers, and mothers, into politics — and voters have made their choices. No one ever voted for a Kim, an Assad, or a Bongo.

Although sometimes there are fake elections, of course. “Papa Doc” Duvalier staged a referendum on his rule in 1961. He was asking for six more years. The vote turned out to be 1,320,748 to zero — in his favor. Humbly, the good doctor said, “I accept the people’s will. As a revolutionary, I have no right to disregard the will of the people.” Not waiting for the expiration of his “term,” he staged another referendum in 1964, this one to make him president for life. He did less well this time around: winning by an even 2.8 million votes to 3,234.

By January 1971, Duvalier had decided that his son, Jean-Claude, would succeed him. “Baby Doc” was then 19 years old. His father informed the people of his choice in an interesting way. “Caesar Augustus was 19 when he took Rome’s destiny into his hands,” he said, “and his reign remains the ‘Century of Augustus.’” But, good democrat that he was, Papa Doc submitted his choice to a popular referendum: Did Haitians approve of Baby Doc as the next “president”? Yes, they did, by a vote of 2,391,916 to zero.

Among Duvalier loyalists, a cry went up: “After Duvalier, Duvalier!” And so it was. Papa Doc died in April 1971, and Jean-Claude, at that tender age of 19, took over. Today, he is dead, but his son, Nicolas, works for President Michel Martelly. Will “Grandbaby Doc” (as I think of him) grab the top spot one day? “After Duvalier, Duvalier — and Duvalier?”

After Bush, Bush — and Bush? When forced to stop and think about it, I realize that Jeb Bush is the son of one recent president (41) and the brother of another (43). But, honestly, I think of them as individuals: three distinct men. I admire them all, but I regard them as different from one another, each his own man. And if people want to vote for them, or against them, they are perfectly free to do so. A guy has a right to run — no matter who his family is — and a citizen has a right to vote.

In Cuba, Fidel Castro has passed power to his brother Raúl. Quite possibly, Raúl will pass power on to his son, Alejandro. There are lots of dynasties in the world, including Communist ones. (Ceauşescu, in Romania, wanted to set up the first Communist dynasty, though he was having competition in North Korea. The Romanian was overthrown and shot, however, before he could enthrone his monstrous son, Nicu.)

Jeb Bush is not a dynast, except in a loose, metaphorical sense. He is a democratic politician. Yet a third Bush in the White House would indeed be pushing it. It would be . . . a little creepy. It would look bad abroad. Americans and other people in democracies should understand, but the millions and billions in non-democracies might have a harder time.

I wince at what the appearance of a third Bush presidency would be. Equally, I wince at the suggestion that a Jeb presidency would be anything but a perfectly reasonable and democratic choice.

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