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Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail
Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

David Shribman

American politics, the family business Add to ...

The outpouring of tributes for Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts was only in part for a man of triumph and tragedy who has been part of the American political scene for nearly a half-century. We have been marking more than the passing of the youngest Kennedy brother, who is to be buried tomorrow. We have also been marking the end of a period in which members of the Kennedy family served in the U.S. Senate (with a brief interregnum after John F. Kennedy's election to the White House) for a quarter of the life of the United States.

Although racked with adversity, the Kennedys were also a dynasty. And in a country that marinates itself in the rhetoric of democracy, there is a persistent dynastic quality to the politics. It is not only the Kennedys. Nor only the Bushes. Nor the Clintons. From the start, American political life has been populated by dynasties that have dominated its conversation and civic culture.

The Kennedy family accounts for a presidency, an ambassadorship, three House members and three senators, an impressive record by any standard. But for a country that prides itself on its openness and its opportunities for all, the astonishing thing is that the Kennedys are only part of a remarkable parade of dynasties. Consider these families: Adams (two terms as president, one as vice-president, one as secretary of state, one in the House); Roosevelt (two presidencies, one vice-presidency, one failed vice-presidential nomination, two governors of New York); Bush (two presidents, one vice-president, two governors, one senator, one chairman of the Republican National Committee, one head of the CIA, one ambassador); and Clin ton (a president, governor, senator, secretary of state). That's not counting the marriage of Elizabeth and Robert Dole, which alone comprises one House member, two senators, one chairman of the Republican National Committee, one presidential nominee, one vice-presidential nominee and two cabinet positions.

Some of these political dynasties began in modesty; Bill Clinton, the first member of his family to go to college, was reared in tucked-away Hope, Ark., by a grandfather and a mother who was an alcoholic and a victim of domestic abuser. Bob Dole's father ran a cream and egg station in remote Russell, Kan. By contrast, the Adams family was prominent even before there was a United States - John Adams and his cousin Samuel Adams were prominent revolutionaries - and the Roosevelts, Kennedys and Bushes had established wealth before their young men went into politics, although John Kennedy's grandfather, the storied John (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald, was elected mayor of Boston more than a century ago.

What these dynasties have in common is that they set out to make American politics the family business.

Joseph P. Kennedy was a real-estate investor, movie maverick and bootlegger - he was known for smuggling booze into Prohibition-era America from Canada and at one point owned the U.S. distribution rights for Canada's Schenley distillery - but he applied his steely determination to creating a political dynasty, first for the oldest son, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., who perished in the Second World War, and later for surviving sons John, Robert and Edward Kennedy. In like manner, the young Franklin D. Roosevelt deliberately patterned his life after his fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt. For that reason, he jumped at the chance to take an otherwise unremarkable position, assistant secretary of the Navy, a position his cousin had assumed 16 years earlier.

While the Bushes were conservatives, the Kennedys, Roosevelts and Clintons will be remembered largely as liberals. But in all these families, the notion of service - first perhaps as a ladder of social mobility, later growing out of a sense of noblesse oblige - was part of the family dinner-table conversation. "The old adage that education begins at home is like many adages, very true," says David McCullough, who has written two Pulitzer-winning presidential biographies, including one of John Adams. "If your father and grandfather spent dinner talking about politics or service in the government and to the country, the chances are pretty good you might catch that."

But to that sense of service each of these families added an appealing narrative. "They all had Hollywood scripts for families," says L. Sandy Maisel, who directs Colby College's Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement in Maine. Indeed, both Roosevelts overcame physical adversity, the Kennedys possessed an instinct for glamour and an uncanny ability to shape it for their times, and the Bushes sculpted a western image to complement their Connecticut cultivation.

All this resonated because the United States has always had a mass culture, and a mass culture demands - and creates - celebrity. Americans love to talk about democracy, but they also love to gawk at celebrities. The ultimate mass society requires larger-than-life figures, and since the modern U.S. political system didn't come fitted with them, the way the Royal Family of the British system (and, in earlier days, by extension, the Canadian system) did, U.S. politics had to create them. For that reason, this week, Americans truly are bidding farewell to one of their own.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his writing on U.S. politics.

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