Farewell to the Log Cabin

Colin Kidd

  • The Royalist Revolution by Eric Nelson
    Harvard, 390 pp, £22.95, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 674 73534 7

The notion that toil, ability and ambition might be enough in themselves to propel the humblest of citizens from log cabin to White House is a vital ingredient in the American Dream. Indeed, it has served as a powerful anaesthetic against the inequalities of American society. But for how much longer? A rampant dynasticism – verging on royalism – threatens the efficacy of this opiate.

The tragedies that befell the house of Kennedy in the 1960s served to fend off – indeed to render distasteful – any suggestion that the unobtrusive political entitlement of the glamorous First Family might constitute an offence against the ethos of the republic. Although only John F. Kennedy held the presidency, there were several attempts to restore the family to the office. JFK’s brother Robert was assassinated after his victory in the California Democratic primary in 1968. The immediate chances of a third brother, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, were scuppered after the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969 – when a young female aide drowned in a car he drove off a bridge. However, when it was revealed that the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee for 1972, Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, had been treated for depression, Sargent Shriver, who was married to Edward Kennedy’s sister Eunice, replaced Eagleton as George McGovern’s running mate. The Shrivers’ daughter Maria was later First Lady of California as the wife, subsequently estranged, of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Edward Kennedy thought his moment had come in 1980, when an opportunity seemed to open to topple the sitting president, a weakened Jimmy Carter, from the Democrat slate. Kennedy took 11 states in the primaries, but Carter was buoyed by incumbency and saw off the challenge.

Since 1980 members of the extended Kennedy family have held state positions in or have represented Massachusetts, Maryland and New York, but there have been no more attempts on the presidency. Not that the presidency is safe from dynastic usurpation. Two new quasi-royal families have emerged to contest the office. In 1980, George H.W. Bush, the son of Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut, ran as Ronald Reagan’s vice-presidential running mate against Carter, succeeding to the presidency when Reagan’s term expired in 1989. Bush was a one-term president, defeated in the election of 1992 by Bill Clinton, who, though coming from humble origins himself, has founded a third dynasty. Clinton served two terms, but his own vice-president, Al Gore, lost the 2000 election in very controversial circumstances to Bush’s son George W. Bush after bitter litigation over the result in Florida. It is worthy of note that Florida’s then governor was George W. Bush’s brother Jeb. After the younger Bush’s two terms as president, Clinton’s wife, Hillary, a senator for New York, was narrowly defeated for the Democratic nomination by Barack Obama. She went on to serve as Obama’s secretary of state during his first term. The 2016 election looks as if it might see a dynastic collision between Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Jeb Bush for the Republicans. Log cabins are so last year.

A century and a half ago real power resided in Congress, and in the decades after Lincoln a long succession of nonentities occupied the presidency. The growing importance of international affairs in the 20th century, and the rise of an ‘imperial presidency’ during the Cold War, transformed the office and its holders. A more intrusive media, preoccupied as much with personality as with policy, consolidated this shift. In addition, the outrageous costs of presidential campaigning and the importance of name recognition – not least to financial backers – reinforce the significance of dynastic connections. Surely it wasn’t meant to turn out like this? The tinselled second coming of an Old World phenomenon seems a stark betrayal of the Founding Fathers.

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