The National Catholic Review
'The phenomenon is not just about two ambitious families, but about a political culture.'
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With good reason, guardians of republican virtue are sounding alarms over the prospect of another Clinton presidency. Should Hillary Clinton return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2009, this time as the principal tenant, and should she receive an extension on that lease, the Clinton and Bush families will have monopolized the White House for 28 years.

This magazine was among the earliest voices to express concern about two-family rule. Many other observers have echoed the sentiments in recent weeks, as the caucus and primary season got underway.

The prospect of two families dominating the presidency over such a long period is a serious matter indeed for a nation that prides itself as a republic of merit. It smacks of Old World privilege and exclusion, at odds with Americas founding ideals and its current passion for diversity at the highest levels of power. What will historians a century from now say about us and our times if the roster of presidents from 1989 to 2017 reads like a printing mistake: Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton?

They might well make an observation that ought to be obvious to us without the benefit of historical perspective. Our political campaigns have become so dependent on massive amounts of private funds that candidates with name recognition have a huge advantage over their lesser-known competitors. Contributors are more likely to give to candidates whose names they know because of family accomplishments or simple celebrity, just as consumers are more likely to purchase brands they recognize regardless of the products merits or drawbacks.

A realist might argue that we should hardly be surprised to see politics treated like any other family business or trade. Sons and daughters follow their parents into medicine, police work, professional sports, entertainment, evenperish the thoughtjournalism. Why should political families be any different? Indeed, they are not, and that has been true since the republics founding. The Adams family is but the most obvious example from the nations early years; the Kennedy family is the best example in modern times. Three Kennedy brothers ran for president in the space of two decades. The republic did not fall. Two Harrisons, grandfather and grandson, won the presidency in the 19th century. Two cousins named Roosevelt held the presidency for 20 years during the first half of the 20th century.

While it is true that the United States has never lacked for ruling families, the possibility of a Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton succession has raised important questions about our commitment to republican principles, our conflation of fame with accomplishment and our belief that the nations highest offices are open to anybody with ambition and talent. If our choices are limited to members of a few politically active families, and if politics begins to attract the same old names year after year, we surely are in deep trouble.

From a spectators point of view, it is hard to know what would drive the child or spouse of a successful politician to have a political career of ones own. Politics can be a tough way to make a living, and it is tougher still on children and spouses, who often must endure long absences and frequent lack of attention. Beware politicians who talk about family values. If they have been in office for any prolonged period of time, chances are they have missed more soccer games or recitals than theyve attended. After all, there is always another lobbyist to greet, another contributor to meet. Children or spouses might be expected to resent a profession that seems to place so little value on genuine family values. No doubt some do.

Nevertheless, we do seem to be producing a political class based on blood lines and intermarriage rather than on republican merit. George W. Bush is, of course, Exhibit No. 1: He is not only the son of a president, but the grandson of a U.S. senator as well. Even the presidents most fervent supportersa group that, curiously, does not seem to include the current crop of Republican presidential candidateswould have to concede that his career was built on name recognition.

And, of course, he is hardly unique. Hillary Clinton might well have emerged as a political force on her own if her husband decided to teach high school history after graduating from Georgetown University. She is smart, ambitious and focused. But her marriage, not her merits, propelled her to election to the Senate in 2000 and then to the top of the presidential polls this year. She clearly is a hard-working senator, and her positions certainly reflect mainstream Democratic policies and thought; but Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd also are conventional Democrats who work hard and who have far more experience than Mrs. Clinton. Their polls and fund-raising tallies could not overcome Clintons celebrity in Iowa.

The Clinton-Bush phenomenon is not just about two ambitious families, but about a political culture that worships instant name recognition as the quickest way to the hearts and wallets of those who fund our election campaigns, from the presidential level on down. Until we can figure out a better way to finance our campaigns, the trend is likely to continue. Many political consultants and financial backers simply believe that the public is too lazy and unmotivated to give new faces a chance.

The next few weeks will tell us whether the cynics are right. Sadly, their track record in recent years has been awfully good.

Terry Golway is the curator of the John Kean Center for American History at Kean University in Union, N.J.

Comments

Marie Rehbein | 1/14/2008 - 1:54pm
"What will historians a century from now say about us and our times if the roster of presidents from 1989 to 2017 reads like a printing mistake: Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton?" Whatever they say, it will likely be better than what they would say based only on the current roster of Bush, Clinton, Bush. One might comment on the fact that Hillary Clinton's candidacy as the spouse of a former president is unprecedented, if one cares to make note of the connection at all. It has little in common with the list of father-son candidates that constitute a dynasty. It might be argued that name recognition in this case is as much a hindrance as a help to Mrs. Clinton.

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