Democracy? Bah! Americans Love Political Dynasty

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These days it seems that everybody who's anybody is doing it: trying to ride the family name and connections to a coveted perch in Congress.

And, predictably, the tut-tutting from the blogosphere and pundit class has been deafening.

Caroline Kennedy entitled to a U.S. Senate appointment? A placeholder appointed to Vice President-elect Joe Biden's Senate seat until his son is available to inherit it? Jeb Bush rumored to be contemplating a return to public office, perhaps to polish a tarnished family name?

To paraphrase Captain Renault, the nightclub proprietor in the classic 1942 film Casablanca, the Washington commentariat has been shocked, shocked to find that old political dynasties are still being sustained in Washington, as new ones — the Udalls, the Salazars — are being assembled.

Barbara Kellerman finds it all a bit of a storm in a teacup — British version of the idiom intended.

"For all of our disdaining of dynasty — after all, in the 21st century, we're supposedly beyond royalty — this is not at all unusual," says Kellerman, a leadership expert at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "We are still attracted to these dynasties."

And certainly no one embodies that fascination more than Caroline Kennedy, great-granddaughter of a congressman, granddaughter of an ambassador, daughter of a president, niece of two U.S. senators and cousin of two congressmen.

But now, Jeb Bush is running a close second. Contemplating a run to replace retiring Florida Sen. Mel Martinez in 2010, the son and brother of presidents and grandson of a U.S. senator has been put on the national couch for a thorough analysis of his motivation: personal political ambition or a desire to salvage the family name?

But though the Kennedy-Bush dominance has seemed omnipresent, the contemporary family dynasties pale in comparison with those established by others, according to a study to be released soon by economics professors and, appropriately, brothers Ernesto and Pedro Dal Bo.

Forty-five percent of the members of the first U.S. Congress had relatives enter Congress after them, compared with a still-high follow rate of about 10 percent now, says Pedro Dal Bo of Brown University. They say that the rate of progeny following forebears into Congress still outstrips the rate of those who follow their parents into any other career, from medicine and law to plumbing.

That first Congress (1789-1791) launched the record service of two families. The Breckinridge family of Kentucky, whose most notable member was Henry Clay, "The Great Compromiser" who in 1820 negotiated the slavery issue between the North and the South, had 17 family members serve; the most recent, John Breckinridge, left Congress in 1978.

And the Muhlenberg family of Pennsylvania had 13 members of Congress between 1789 and 1880, including Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg, the first speaker of the House.

If appointed to serve out the remaining two years of Secretary of State-designee Hillary Clinton's New York Senate term, Caroline would become the seventh member of the Kennedy clan to serve on Capitol Hill. If Jeb Bush runs and is elected, he would follow his father, brother and grandfather, Prescott Bush, a Connecticut senator, to Washington.

But Jeb Bush has to weigh whether national Bush fatigue after his brother's two presidential terms could put the family's dynastic aspirations on ice. Lew Oliver, GOP chairman of central Florida's Orange County, said he believes the former Florida governor will run — for a couple reasons: "He wants to be back in public service, and, though I don't think he'll admit it, there will clearly be a desire to bring back the Bush name." (Eric Jotkoff, spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party, says: "To quote George W. Bush, 'bring it on.' ")

The current president's panned administration "doesn't help" his brother, Oliver says, "but I still think Jeb can win comfortably." Oliver has urged Bush to announce his intentions shortly after the holidays; Kellerman says he should wait several months to allow time for the toxicity attached to President Bush to fade.

"I do not think that the Bush name is forever darkened, whatever people think of George W. Bush," says Kellerman, who has written extensively about leadership and political kin. "His father is very much alive, well-remembered and respected by most American people."

And about Jeb Bush? "Give it a rest for a while, but, remember, Americans have very short memories," she said.

The door for Jeb Bush — and Caroline Kennedy and Beau Biden, for that matter — will most likely always be wide open, the Dal Bos conclude in their research. "Power begets power," Pedro Dal Bo says. "The bottom line of our paper is that even in a very modern democracy, past access to political power matters to current access to political power."

Despite monumental changes in political culture and communication, political royalty will remain such, and "that's what's so fascinating," Kellerman says.

"Though the popular culture has intruded terribly on royal figures and dynasties — we pull them down in a way we've never done before — we still have our dynasties," Kellerman says. "We still want them and we still look up to them."

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