Political Dynasties: An American Tradition

February 27, 2000

Editor’s Note: He has been around so long—he first came to Washington to work for Eisenhower—that to Stephen Hess nearly everything that happens has a familiar ring. To demonstrate the point that the more things change the more they stay the same we occasionally run Mr. Hess’s old columns. This column first ran January 22, 1978.

In Minnesota, the son of Hubert H. Humphrey is opposing the son Of Orville Freeman for a Democratic congressional nomination. In Virginia, the son-in-law of Lyndon B. Johnson has just been sworn in as lieutenant governor. Last fall in New York City a third-generation Robert F. Wagner was on the ballot. At the White House, Rosalynn Carter tells reporters that son Chip plans a career in elective politics, though “not yet,” she says.

This is an odd phenomenon, a democratic electorate’s love affair with a political royalty.

We seem to be surrounded by the scions of great political families. A second Edmund G. Brown is governor of California. There is a third Rockefeller governor, this time in West Virginia. The acting governor of Maryland, Blair Lee, is the 21st member of his family to have held elective office in America since a Lee entered the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1647.

The U.S. Senate has a Stevenson of Illinois, a Long of Louisiana, a Kennedy of Massachusetts, a Byrd of Virginia, a Talmadge of Georgia.

The membership of the U.S. House of Representatives includes another Hamilton Fish of New York, another Albert Gore of Tennessee, another Clarence Brown of Ohio, another John Dingell of Michigan, another Paul Rogers of Florida. There is also a Kentucky Breckinridge, a Virginia Satterfield, a Dodd from Connecticut, and, of course, a Long of Louisiana.

It is perhaps not very surprising that so many children of politicians go into politics. After all, it’s daddy’s business. Lots of doctors’s children go to medical school.

Nor is it remarkable that so many politicians marry the children of politicians. They move in the same social circles. Senate Republican Leader Howard Baker is married to the daughter of the late Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen. Two senators, Frank Church, D-Idaho, and Charles Mathias, R-Maryland, are the sons-in-law of governors.

The ramifications for future generations are intriguing; for example, the union of a Nixon and an Eisenhower means that the children of Julie and David will have a presidential grandfather and a presidential great-grandfather, just as had six Adamses in the last century.

The genetics of politics is strengthened by the tradition that widows of members of Congress are often appointed or elected to fill their husbands’ unexpired terms. It is for this reason that Senators Baker and Long have the distinction of having had both father and mother serve in Congress. In today’s House of Representatives, Cardiss Collins, D-Illinois, Shirley Pettis, R-California, and Lindy Boggs, D-Louisiana succeeded their husbands, all of whom died in plane crashes.

If there are explanations why certain families gravitate to political life, it is less clear why the voters choose members of the same families to represent them generation after generation. This is one type of voting behavior that cannot be blamed on television. America’s political dynasties go back to the colonial period. There have been some 700 families in which two or more members have served in Congress, and they account for 1,700 of the 10,000 men and women who have been elected to the federal legislature since 1774.

Voters may be inclined to favor political royalists because often—though not always—they are rich enough so as not to be tempted to steal from the public till. Interestingly, however, until relatively recently the immensely rich did not seek public office. Pierre Du Pont IV, now governor of Delaware, can count only one Du Pont ancestor who served in Congress. Rather, the pattern used to be that the very rich married their daughters to politicians. Vice President Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller was the first Rockefeller to run for office, but his maternal grandfather, Nelson Aldrich, was a powerful senator from Rhode Island.

It would appear that “brand name” identification is worth something in politics as it is at the supermarket. Yet how far can office-seekers go on the basis of a famous name? The answer seems to be that the voters give political royalists one “free” election. Two sons of Franklin D. Roosevelt were elected to the House of Representatives, and both were defeated when they sought statewide office. Ted Kennedy’s first election probably can be attributed to his name.

In assessing the public record of the great political families, not all have been as consistently superior as the Tafts of Ohio, nor have they all been on an intellectual level with the Massachusetts Adamses, nor have they all had the flair of the Roosevelts—but taken collectively their performance has been well above average.

The opposite traditions of political royalty and Horatio Alger have always coexisted in American politics. Washington and Lincoln, Jefferson and Jackson. Fortunately, there is also no shortage of public officials today who rose from modest circumstances. There are Moynihans and Percys in the Senate. And if Senator Percy’s daughter is married to the present Governor Rockefeller, this too illustrates the nature of American society.

The most important characteristic of our political nobility has been its fluidity. Some great names in politics—the Tuckers of Virginia, Livingstons of New York, Stocktons of New Jersey—have quietly left the field of combat. Their places are taken by new-rising talent, whether Humphreys or Freemans. A political class that remains open, mobile, and self-generating in successive generations is a healthy sign.