The (un)importance of a name

Gov. George W. Bush's appearance with his doting parents in New Hampshire was generally judged to be a political minus.

President Bill Clinton appeared mute on the stage with his wife in Purchase, N.Y., for the official announcement of her candidacy for the Senate, and that was a dubious plus. Other factors aside, Americans generally have not taken to the idea of family dynasty.

Only one son of a president has ever been elected president. That was John Quincy Adams, with a minority of popular votes in a contested election that ended up in the House of Representatives. Only one grandson of a president has made it to the White House. That was Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of William Henry Harrison.

For the rest, Franklin D. Roosevelt was a distant cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, and FDR's two politician sons, Franklin Jr. and James, did not get further than the House of Representatives.

Robert Taft, son of President William Howard Taft, was "Mr. Republican" in the Senate, but he failed to win a presidential nomination. The closest thing to a real family dynasty we have known is the Kennedy clan. Sen. Robert Kennedy's presidential aspirations were cut short by an assassin's bullet and Sen. Edward Kennedy's by a scandal called "Chappaquiddick." So we will have to wait to learn whether there will be another President Kennedy.

In all, American presidents have had 56 sons who lived long enough to qualify for the presidency, but only John Quincy Adams made it, and his election remains under a historical cloud.

That Americans have generally not been captured by the idea of family dynasties is undoubtedly connected with this nation's republican beginnings and a Constitution that bans hereditary "titles of nobility."

In this media age, a presidential name assures you of name recognition and maybe a little free TV time, but not much more. Stephen Hess, the author of "America's Political Dynasties," says the famous name gives you "one step upward, but then you're on your own."

And the presidential association may not be an unalloyed blessing, as Mr. Bush found in New Hampshire when Mom and Pop showed up to embrace him. What Hillary Clinton's relationship to a famous - but also notorious - name will do for her candidacy remains to be seen.

But it is perhaps significant that a seasoned politician, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, introducing her under a sign that said simply "Hillary," did not refer to the president, but said, "Hillary, Mrs. Roosevelt would love you."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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