Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Strange how the fascination with dynasties continues...

It’s amazing how difficult it is for us to rid ourselves of belief in the power of “blood” as the main determinant of anyone’s qualities. We all know it isn’t true, but we still somehow believe that mere birth will make someone better qualified than anyone else to lead, or to rule, or just to lord if over everyone around.

I mean, look at Prince Charles. You want proof that high birth doesn’t guarantee high qualities? Look no further.

The prejudice clings on even in a country where deliberate steps were taken to put an end to this preposterous notion. “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States” claims the Constitution of that fine nation. And yet the sixth president, John Quincy Adams, was the son of the second, John Adams. Just as Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd, was the grandson of William Henry Harrison, the ninth. Even the two Roosevelts, though not closely related, were distant cousins.

The dynasty that never fulfilled its promise was the Kennedys. Bobby and Ted both held high office, under or in the wake of their brother JFK, but both were cheated of going further by death: in Bobby’s case his own, in Ted’s that of Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned when he drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick.

These instances of keeping things in the family weren’t always bad. John Quincy Adams, for instance, strikes me as rather a fine fellow. He was defeated at the end of his second term by a cruel, bigoted and authoritarian successor, Andrew Jackson, the man who drove the Cherokees and other native Americans away down the “trail of tears” and had far less than enlightened views of the role of African Americans (he felt slavery was right for them). 

Undeterred, Adams got himself elected to Congress where he served 17 years, up to his death. And he appeared as a lawyer for the (successful) defence of the rebel slaves of the Spanish ship Amistad when their case went to the Supreme Court.

William Henry Harrison.
Distinguished only by the shortest presidency
And having a grandson who also achieved the office
Many of these blood relatives, however, were a pretty sorry bunch. William Henry Harrison’s presidency was distinguished only by being the shortest ever (32 days until his death from pneumonia); his grandson Benjamin’s presidency is undistinguished by anything at all.

But when it comes to sorry dynasties, we have to come forward to the present day for the sorriest. With Jeb Bush declaring his interest in the presidency, we have in prospect for the first time ever a candidate who is not merely the son of a President but the brother of another. And yet the father was unprepossessing in office, the brother lamentable.

Now this kind of thing can happen in a monarchy, as in Britain. George III lost his mind by the end of his reign; he was succeeded by his vainglorious, self-indulgent son George IV; and then by a younger son, William IV, who though slightly brighter, was never going to set the Thames alight.

Surprisingly like the Bush bunch.

Now, that this can happen in a monarchy is sad but understandable. But in a strongly established republic? With two or three hundred million people to choose from? It seems amazing.

What’s particularly striking is that every presidential election between 1980 and 2004 – seven of them – had at least one Bush or Clinton on one of the tickets, running either for President or for Vice President. And 1992 pitted one of each against each other: Bush the father against Clinton the (erring) husband.

Well, if Jeb Bush gets his way, and Hillary Clinton gets hers, 2016 could see a re-run of that battle of the dynasties. Proof if any were needed that, whatever the Constitution says about actual titles, notions of aristocracy run as deep in the US as they do anywhere else.

Hillary Clinton: a more inspiring representative of dynastic politics
Besides, she's not really a member of the dynasty
To be fair, one of the possible outcomes would again prove that this kind of dynastic politics doesn’t always have to be bad news. A Hlllary presidency could be a great result, and not just because she would be first woman president, after the first African American, but because Hillary is even brighter than the other half of the Clinton duo – and in any case, she wasn’t a Clinton by birth, only by marriage.

Which naturally brings to mind the old story about the couple. Skip it if you know it, but in case you don’t, it bears repeating here.

The Clintons were filling up with petrol – gas, I should say – at some miserable filling station in the wilds of Arkansas. Bill was struck by the strange looks passing between his wife and the station attendant.

Once they were back on the road, he asks what that was all about.

“Oh, we dated for a while back then when we were in High School,” she explains.

Bill laughs.

“Well, just think what a different life you’d have had if you’d married him! You wouldn’t have got to the White House.”

“Oh,” replies Hillary, “if I’d married him, he’d have been its occupant.”

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