America’s Top Political Dynasty?

September 13, 2009

Stephen Hess conducted an online interview on September 15 to discuss the following article on American political dynasties.

Click here to read the full interview »

American public life is saturated with them. Kennedys. Bushes. Clintons. Powerful individuals connected to one another by blood or by marriage who, deservedly or not, take on that most paradoxical of American labels: dynasty.

The passing in August of Sen. Ted Kennedy — and his nephew Joseph Kennedy’s decision last week not to run for the vacant seat — set off debates over whether the “Kennedy dynasty” was over, and whether the family embodied the last and greatest dynasty in American politics.

But just glance at today’s Senate and count those whose parents were once members of Congress, or governors, or in a presidential Cabinet, and you’ll see potential dynasties in training: Evan Bayh, Bob Bennett, Bob Casey, Chris Dodd, Judd Gregg, Mary Landrieu, Lisa Murkowski, Mark Pryor, the cousins Mark and Tom Udall; add Jay Rockefeller, nephew of a vice president.

The Constitution states that “no title of nobility shall be granted by the United States,” yet it seems political nobility is as American as apple pie.

But were the Kennedys truly the greatest dynasty our nation has seen? What about the Bush or Roosevelt families? The Adamses? The Rockefellers? The Tafts? When The Washington Post’s Outlook section asked me to devise a ranking of America’s dynasties, an honor roll of political families, it sounded like an irresistible exercise.

My infatuation with political dynasties began in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1957, when, as a bored private in a peacetime army, I wandered into a library and discovered the “Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.” Who were these Bayards, Muhlenbergs and Frelinghuysens, I wondered, with five or six names apiece in the directory? I counted 700 families in which two or more members had served in Congress. I eventually explored these questions in a book, “America’s Political Dynasties,” published more than four decades ago.

Since then, what has fascinated me most is the constant shifts in America’s dynastic politics, with new families emerging and older ones leaving the field of combat. For instance, I didn’t include the Bush family in my first book because, well, there was no Bush dynasty in 1966 — just one former backbench senator from Connecticut. But what happened to the Stocktons, Tuckers, Lees and Livingstons?

While the study of dynasties necessarily looks back into history, it also reflects new forces in American politics, such as the rising roles of women and ethnic and racial minorities. Once a woman’s route to Congress was through widowhood or, in the classic title of Diane Blair’s learned article, “Over His Dead Body.” Today House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has far exceeded the congressional career of her father. Now we see the Sanchez sisters, Loretta and Linda, daughters of Mexican immigrants, representing California districts in the House; and the Diaz-Balart brothers, Lincoln and Mario, sons of a Cuban politician, representing Florida districts.

My ranking of the greatest American dynasties of them all is not simply my list of favorites in descending order, but the result of a simple mathematical formula I developed, accounting for three key elements: succession, family and power. Succession means that a dynasty must have at least three generations to qualify (this leaves out the Longs of Louisiana, for instance). Family means blood relations (the Kennedys get no points for Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California, for example). And power is measured by allocating points for each office the dynasts hold, multiplied by the terms they were elected to it. (A fuller methodology is available below.)

Of course, you may disagree with the results; such debates are part of our fascination with dynasties. Yet we should not let such appeal distort dynasties’ relatively limited scope. Our greatest presidents — Lincoln and Washington — were part of no dynasty, nor were Madison or Jackson. And while the dynasties we have had deserve high marks for their collective contribution to our politics and society, we should not forget that their ranks include some mediocrity, even scoundrels. That said, the winners are . . .

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