Knowns, unknowns, and what matters

Political dynasties and political newcomers both have pluses and minuses. In the end, voters must focus on the individual.


Families never stop mattering. They encourage, correct, coach, and usually give a kid a leg up in the world. Values, traditions, and interests pass from generation to generation. So do quirky smiles, nicknames, and funny stories. That’s why meeting the parents is such an important event when two people get serious. It’s when family influence can be sized up, embraced, or perhaps backed away from.

This happens around kitchen tables and on the world stage. We look at our leaders, where they came from, whom they are related to, what influenced them. Often, we do brilliantly by choosing a relative unknown. Abraham Lincoln was not a political scion. Just as often, we turn to dynasties, figuring that leadership might be a family’s unique value proposition. The Khans of Central Asia, the Plantagenets of England, the Russian Romanovs, the American Roosevelts and Kennedys – all produced generations skilled in politics and power.

So here we are in the 21st century, in a world that supposedly celebrates brains, initiative, and merit and is skeptical of privilege and bloodlines. Why do dynasties keep presenting themselves in American political life? Linda Feldmann explores that question in a Monitor cover story (click here to read it).

The Bushes and Clintons are two families that have competed for decades. They are also as chummy as Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf punching the time clock at the end of a cartoon workday. And they may go at it again in 2016. Both have skills and shortcomings that seem easy to judge because we think we know their families. Political newcomers, on the other hand, require a crash course in what shaped them and who has their ear.

As Linda notes, Americans tend to give political dynasties a break – at least once. If an earlier family member was trustworthy or valorous, maybe that’s a good sign. Sure, there can be drawbacks – scandals, entitlement, louche relatives – but there’s comfort in the familiar.

Hoping for the best in a political dynasty is not magical thinking. Every progressive society is always deciding what of the past to salvage and what of the future to embrace. I spent a few happy months recently with Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks,” which chronicles a family’s decline through the generations. That is a common problem: Generation 1 excels, Gen 2 is wayward, Gen 3 is feckless. But declinism is just one dynastic possibility. King David was a royal walk-on. King Solomon was his more than worthy heir.

There are many months of campaigning ahead – a grueling schedule of rope lines, debates, pie eating, money raising, poll taking, and all the other excesses of an American presidential race – before we will learn whether American voters want another Clinton or Bush in the Oval Office. And in years to come, we can probably count on next-generation Obamas, Romneys, and more Clintons, Bushes, and Kennedys making a run as well.

We the voters will judge the presidential prospects on everything they bring to the table: family, no family, ideas, compassion, plans, commitment. Most of all, we’ll judge what matters most: righteous judgment.

John Yemma can be reached at

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