In Praise of Nepotism

Americans censure nepotism on the one hand and practice it as much as they can on the other. There's much to be said for "good" nepotism, the author argues—which is fortunate, because we're living in a nepotistic Golden Age

For almost two years leading up to the November 2000 elections, expectations focused on Vice President Albert Gore Jr. and Texas Governor George W. Bush. Both were the sons of important political families. Their rivalry sparked an immediate interest in the "return" of political dynasties.

Gore, an able and hardworking politician, was described as a child of privilege whose public career had begun literally at birth, when his father persuaded the local paper to carry the news on its front page. After twenty-four years of government service Gore had compiled an impressive record. Bush, too, was a talented politician, a two-term governor who had smoothly assumed control of his father's political network. Yet he suffered even more from the "silver-spoon" label. Following closely in his father's footsteps without equaling his accomplishments, Bush seemed derivative, uncertain: a bad copy of his father. For many, he was aptly described by a comment aimed at the senior Bush in 1988 by the Texas commissioner of agriculture, Jim Hightower, now a radio personality: "He is a man who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple."

Many people were offended by the idea that the presidency could be claimed as a birthright, as though it were family property. But others saw in Bush the authenticity Gore lacked, suggesting that the rebellious youth who eventually accepts mature responsibilities is better liked and trusted than the dutiful son who suppresses his true inclinations in order to please a demanding father. In effect, then, the 2000 election was a referendum not on the validity of dynastic succession in a democracy but on which kind of successor we prefer. The Prodigal Son won out over the Dutiful Son. The glad-handing frat boy defeated the humorless wonk.

No sooner had Bush taken office (thanks partly to the decision of a Supreme Court dominated by Reagan-Bush appointees) than he began doling out appointments to relatives of other leading Republicans. Michael Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, became chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Elaine Chao, the wife of Senator Mitch McConnell, became Secretary of Labor. Chao's chief labor attorney, Eugene Scalia, is the son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice William Rehnquist's daughter went to Health and Human Services. Elizabeth Cheney, the Vice President's daughter, became a deputy assistant secretary of state, and her husband became chief counsel for the Office of Management and Budget. In a crowning act of nepotistic chutzpah, Bush acceded to Senator Strom Thurmond's request that he appoint the twenty-eight-year-old Strom Thurmond Jr. U.S. attorney for South Carolina.

Helen Thomas, the former UPI Washington correspondent, declared in a column that the Bush Administration had become "a family affair, reeking of nepotism." (Nepotism is often said to reek, as though it were a pile of dirty laundry.) "You'd think an administration headed by the son of a former president might be a teensy bit leery of appearing to foster a culture of nepotism," Andrew Sullivan wrote in The New Republic. Sullivan produced a long list of people who had gotten jobs in Washington through such connections, and concluded, "All this nepotism is a worrisome sign that America's political class is becoming increasingly insular."

The 2002 midterm elections greatly strengthened this impression. All over the country sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, wives and widows of elected officials were strongly in evidence. Most prominent was Florida's governor, Jeb Bush, re-elected by a healthy margin. In Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, son of the former Michigan governor George Romney, became governor. In New Hampshire, John E. Sununu, son of a former governor and presidential chief of staff, beat the sitting governor, Jeanne Shaheen, for a U.S. Senate seat. In Arkansas, Tim Hutchinson, whose brother Asa was a congressman and is now an undersecretary in the Department of Homeland Security, lost his Senate seat to the state attorney general, Mark Pryor, son of the former Arkansas governor and senator David Pryor. Lucille Roybal-Allard, who occupies the California congressional seat once held by her father, was also re-elected. And in North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole, the wife of Bob Dole, won a Senate race against Erskine Bowles, a former Clinton chief of staff (and the son of a state politician). Meanwhile, the position of House minority leader was claimed by Representative Nancy Pelosi, the daughter of a five-term Maryland congressman and Baltimore mayor, who had risen swiftly in California politics in part through her skillful use of dynastic connections. Pelosi was opposed by Harold Ford Jr., a young black congressman who had succeeded to his father's seat in Tennessee.

The widespread perception of a tilt toward nepotism is correct: the American political class, along with other sectors of our society, is increasingly filled with the offspring of established parents. This phenomenon has gone largely unnoticed or has been apprehended in a piecemeal fashion. The few who have commented on it have voiced alarm that we are returning to a society based on hereditary status, complete with a corporate aristocracy and a political House of Lords. Where I differ from these critics is in not seeing the trend as an ominous departure from American principles. Occupational traditions within families are very much a part of our national fabric—much more so than most people realize. Their eclipse since World War II has been the exception in American history, not the rule, and their return is an encouraging sign, not a cause for alarm. Indeed, this is the kind of nepotism of which this country needs not less but more.

Presented by

Adam Bellow is an executive editor at large for Doubleday. This article has been adapted from his book, In Praise of Nepotism, to be published in July by Doubleday.

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