Book Review: America's first dynasty

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst  |  April 19, 2002 at 4:12 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 19 (UPI) -- America was founded as a meritocracy, not a monarchy. It has, nevertheless, produced and continues to produce a remarkable number of political dynasties.

The president of the United States is the son of a former president and the grandson of a U.S. senator. His brother, Jeb, is governor of the state of Florida. Former Senate Leader Howard Baker, R-Tenn., was at one time the son-in-law of Illinois Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen, who also served as the GOP leader.

Utah Republican Robert Bennett occupies the same seat in the Senate that his father Wallace held from 1950 to 1974. New Hampshire GOP Sen. Judd Gregg is the son of one former governor and Republican Rep. John Sununu the son of another.

Dynasties are not, however, the exclusive province of the Republicans. The Democrats have produced just as many, if not more.

There are two Albert Gores to have achieved political prominence. The first, Albert Gore Sr., was senator from Tennessee from 1952 to 1970. His son, Albert Gore Jr., went to Congress in 1976, representing the state in the House and, later, the Senate until he was elected vice president in 1992.

At least four relatives of President Jack Kennedy -- who was himself the son of a former U.S. ambassador to Great Britain and the grandson of one of Boston's legendary mayors -- have been elected to different offices around the country. Several of them will be on the ballot this fall in Rhode Island and Maryland.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is the wife of former President Bill Clinton. Democrat Christopher Dodd has occupied one of Connecticut's seats in the U.S. Senate since 1980 while his father, Thomas Dodd, held the other from 1958 to 1970.

Stewart Udall, an Arizona congressman from 1954 to 1961, served as President Kennedy's interior secretary. His brother Mo succeeded him in Congress, serving until 1991. Stewart's son Tom is currently a congressman from New Mexico while Mo's son Mark represents a district in Colorado.

Eventually, in a reflection of the cultural and economic mobility that makes America what it is, political dynasties may cross party lines. For example, Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican who currently represents Oregon in the Senate, is a Udall cousin.

More to the point, brothers Nelson and Winthrop Rockefeller, grandsons of Sen. Nelson Aldrich, R-R.I., were, respectively, Republican governors of New York and Arkansas. Their nephew, John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV represents West Virginia in the U.S. Senate as a Democrat, while Winthrop Rockefeller, Jr., is the current GOP lieutenant governor of Arkansas.

The idea of the American political dynasty is as old as the American republic. And the granddaddy, as it were, of all of them are the Adamses of Massachusetts.

In his new book "America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918," (Free Press, $25.00, 244 pages), National Review's Richard Brookhiser tells the story of four generations of a family that played a leading role in American political and cultural life for 150 years.

It is an elegant work, mercifully brief and to the point. Biographers are all too often tempted to tackle a subject like this in one or more lengthy volumes. Brookhiser confines his work to the high and low points of their lives and, more importantly, to the way the generations related to each other.

First there is John, the second president of the United States and the "Atlas of American Independence."

He does not come off in an entirely flattering way. Those who have read and enjoyed David McCullough's Pulitzer-prize winning biography may find Brookhiser's Adams to be dower, depressing and disappointing. Nevertheless, the story of the farmer's son who drove the engine of American liberty, served his nation ably abroad and, somewhat less ably, at home, remains compelling.

Adams son John Quincy was perhaps the new nation's most accomplished diplomat, outstripping in skill even the legendary Benjamin Franklin. He also became president, but in an election tainted by allegations of "a corrupt bargain" that doomed it from the start.

Like his father, John Quincy redeemed himself through his post-presidential activities. While his father became a prolific writer of letters, leaving the world an important firsthand witness of the nation's founding, John Quincy sought and won election to the House of Representatives. He served there for many years, laboring long and hard to erase the stain of slavery from the continent.

His son Charles Francis learned the diplomatic craft at his father's knee, rising to eventually serve as the U.S. minister to Great Britain. He was also, like his grandfather and father, a pamphleteer, writer and politician. He spent much of his young life carrying on the abolitionist work of his father in the period before the Civil War.

Henry Adams, the third son of Charles Francis, began his public life as his father's secretary in London. Upon his return, he became a teacher of history at Harvard, the family alma mater and, later, a writer. His semi-autobiographical "The Education of Henry Adams" remains a literary classic.

Not all of the Adams' prodigies were successes; some were downright failures, drunks who died early and the like. It is perhaps, the burden of carrying a famous name that drove them down.

"The constant companion of the Adamses. like an extra member of the family in each generation, is the idea of greatness. What is a great man? How great am I? Am I as great as my ancestors? ... These are the family questions, inspirations and anxieties," Brookhiser explains in the introduction. He then spends the balances of the book showing how each Adams, in turn, wrestled with those questions. The ones who were most successful seem to be the ones who could find answers with which they could live.

It is an insightful book, full of observations that are useful about the way families interact -- especially when they are burdened by the expectation of exceptionalism.

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