An American Trend: Political Dynasties From Bush to Kennedy

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

With the Clinton and Bush names both being discussed for a second and third  round at the presidency, more and more people are eying the American executive, raising an eyebrow, and asking: What role do political dynasties play in the U.S., and are they a bad thing? How big a deal are they really? Some argue that stretching back to the birth of our nation, dynasties have been abhorred, and rightly so; the transference of political power via relation and nepotism entirely bucks the idea of equal opportunity and the everyman president. As Barbara Bush said in an interview with C-SPAN, “If we can’t find more than two or three families to run for office, that’s silly, because there are great governors and great eligible people to run.”

That said, family dynasties have stretched back nearly to the beginning of government — the Clinton and Bushes may be the most recent family powers, but they are hardly the first — and technically, the Clintons are a couple, not a dynasty. Why, though? Why do we see so many familiar family names crop up in politics? Some could argue that running for a political position takes two things on top of drive and education, and that’s money and connections. Having family that has already gone before you makes for an easier pathway to political success.

A study published in The Review of Economic Studies back in 2009, written by Ernesto Dal Bo, Pedro Dal Bó, and Jason Snyder, posits a similar theory. Specifically when it comes to Congress, the study finds that “political power is self-perpetuating,” meaning that the more power one individual person holds, the greater the likelihood that his or her power will be passed on to family. “Political power in democracies becomes inheritable de facto for reasons other than permanent differences in family characteristics,” reads the study, also noting that the preference of such individuals is not a result of their skills, but rather “contacts or name recognition may play a role.”

While we’re discussing the logic behind such dynasties, let’s take a look back in history and consider three examples of American families in politics.

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

1. Bush Family

The Bush family almost needs no mention, as everyone is aware of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush’s time as presidents, while most have probably heard the speculation on a possible presidential run for Jeb Bush. But the family’s involvement in politics goes beyond those three. There’s George Prescott Bush, Jeb Bush’s oldest son, who is the GOP’s candidate for Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office this year, making for three generations of Bush family members in politics.

The Bushes are, according to Bill Minutaglio, author of First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty, have “one of the most powerful political Rolodexes in American history.” When new candidates like George P. Bush run, “he is not running alone. He is running with the full support, muscle, of the inherited Bush dynasty,” he told NPR.

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Ohio’s first lady Hope Taft.

2. Taft Family

The Taft family stretches back a bit further in history, proving that the political dynasty in America is indeed a tradition. First came President William Howard Taft, then his son Robert A. Taft took a Senatorial position with hopes for the presidency — which were ultimately unsuccessful.

Then, later, his son Robert Taft Jr., grandson to William Taft, took a seat on the state legislature of Ohio, and eventually made it to Congress. Considering the original Taft took office in 1908, it’s impressive to consider the career in 2005 Ohio state Governor Bob Taft, his great-grandson. This latest Taft has been perhaps the least successful, facing scandal in office for violating ethics laws and admitting to having left certain gifts and outings unreported, which he was then fined $4,000. He was unable to run a second time, according to The Washington Post, and dealt a fair amount of damage to his fellow Republicans at the time.


Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

3. Kennedy Family

Unlike the Bushes, the Kennedy family leans far more left as a whole, while the Bush family was either center-right or far right. When it comes to the list of family members holding a public office, it’s considerably longer than the Bush family or the Taft family put together. President John F. Kennedy’s grandfather, John F. Fitzgerald, held a mayoral office in Boston and served in the House of Representatives. Then, Joe Kennedy served as an ambassador to Great Britain in 1937, and his son Joe Jr. was set to begin his own political career before he was killed during World War II. John Kennedy was a U.S. Representative and then later a Senator before eventually taking his place as president in 1960. His brother Robert Kennedy acted as his attorney general, and was running for president after John was killed.

Their younger brother Edward Kennedy was a Senator until his death in 2009, and Robert Knnedy’s daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, became the lieutenant governor of Maryland in 1995 while her brother, Joseph Kennedy, was a member of Congress for 12 years. Edward’s son Patrick also took elected office for the state of Rhode Island. NBC has an interactive family tree which illustrates, rather overwhelmingly, just how far those branches stretch into the political world.

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