2016: The UK, the U.S. and political dynasties

Published 10:25 am Wednesday, February 18, 2015

by John Railey

Families are always rising and falling in America.
— Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables

We’re hearing a lot of talk about political dynasties in the long run-up to the 2016 presidential election. The idea of these dynasties rightly grates on the American soul.

Dynasties strike many Americans as a throwback to the monarchy system our ancestors came here to escape. Many Americans don’t want certain families to dominate the political landscape too long, be they Bushes or Clintons.

Powerful dynasties are sobering and sometimes scary, especially today when Big Money rules elections. But, as onerous as our system has become, it’s still uniquely American.

That point was driven home to me as I read a fine book that came out last year, “When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys,” by Thomas Maier. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a great man and great writer who, with fellow aristocrat President Franklin Roosevelt, led in World War II, keeping us free. But Churchill was very much a part of the old world of the UK, even with its relatively modern system of constitutional monarchy.

Jack Kennedy and his father, Joe, created their own political dynasty. But long before it came to fruition, as depicted in a fascinating passage of Maier’s book, JFK was a skinny young congressman visiting Ireland, the land of his ancestors, respectfully meeting his relatives of modest means.

Some think of JFK’s family generation and the ones that followed as spoiled brats. Joe was indeed an unscrupulous businessman who made a bundle and brought up Jack and his siblings in grand style. But it’s useful to remember that just a few generations before JFK, his family was composed of poor immigrants. JFK, a World War II hero and a big fan of Churchill the Boer War hero, knew full well that England had savagely subjugated his people, but he was as enamored as his father of the British blue bloods, to finally be accepted as equals by them.

The Kennedy immigrants had come a long way. Here is how Maier puts it in the Churchill/Kennedy book:

What happened to the succeeding generations of Kennedys would be nothing less than miraculous. They became emblematic of the rise of Irish Catholics, as America’s first large wave of immigrants who redefined their adopted nation. Rather than the British class cism and the Democratic Party, to gain power in New England … Nothing defined the differences between American and British society more starkly than this social ascendancy through Yankee ambition rather than noble blood and class distinctions. The Kennedys’ climb to the top proved “the hardest and longest move of all – inching up the rungs of the class ladder until the Kennedys stood near the top and could look as equals on the dukes and the earls whose ancestors had ruled their native land,” JFK’s earliest biographer, James MacGregor Burns, explained.

Maier’s book lays out, in intriguing detail, how closely intertwined the Churchills, the Kennedys and their closest friends became. They were tied by power and wealth, but the book makes clear the Kennedys’ power and wealth was earned all on their own.

Winston Churchill’s children didn’t create a dynasty for him.

But a long generation ago, JFK’s clan seemed poised to start a dynasty that would long reign. As horrible as the assassinations of JFK and his brother Bobby were, those murders didn’t end the Kennedy reign any more than the natural death of their little brother, Sen. Ted Kennedy, did in 2009. The next generation of Kennedys ended the strong dynasty. They lack the spark and the drive. Today, none of the family serve as governors. Only one serves in Congress, in the House.

Hawthorne nailed it about families always rising and falling in America.

So maybe we shouldn’t worry that much about the threat of a new political dynasty. Should Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton take the White House in 2016, American history says that his or her family dynasty won’t last that long.

New family dynasties will have their time, but not forever. One, or both, of President Obama’s girls might rise — along with Hispanic dynasties. We are the ever-changing U.S.A., wonderfully different from our motherlands.

John Railey, who grew up in Courtland, is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, which originally published this column.