Barack Obama is a happy, happy man today. He trounced his rivals for the Democratic nomination yesterday in South Carolina, and has the wind at his back as the rest of us all trudge toward Super Tuesday.
Tenured Radical has a post up that notes Caroline Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama this morning in the New York Times. The Radical one writes, “If the Kennedy family hits the campaign trail for Obama, it’s all over but the shouting, friends.” If the whole family–Senator Edward M., Congressman Patrick, and Lieutenant Governor Kathleen–you know, the Kennedys who are actually in politics–hits the trail for one candidate, that would make a statement. But, seriously: does anyone really care who Caroline Kennedy thinks should be the next President? (I suppose the title of CK’s op-ed piece should clue us in as to why her opinion should matter: “A President Like My Father.”) But, is being (tragically) the only survivor of your birth family something that should make your opinion matter? (It may matter to baby boomers and older people, but I don’t think she matter to my generation, or certainly to anyone under 30.)
Obama’s campaign benefits from the notion that he represents a break with the past, and from the tedious royalism of Bush-Clinton, Bush-Clinton that looms with the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Hauling out the genealogical blessing of Caroline Kennedy is trying to have it both ways (although it may be a canny maneuver because Clinton’s support tends to come from those who are 45 and older). But I thought that the Republican party was the party that celebrated and naturalized unearned privilege. Shouldn’t Democrats get over this worship of blood and family? Allons, enfants de la patrie…
UPDATE: Tenured Radical has a new post up noting that Senator Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama is confirmed, and she comments on Paul Krugman’s column this morning in which he comments on the lessons of 1992 for any Democrat elected president this year. Personally, I’ve never believed that Obama actually believes that he is a uniquely non-divisive person who can “unite the country.” This has always seemed like a shrewd way to differentiate himself from Senator Clinton, but I think (I hope?) he’s too smart to fall for his own rhetoric. Bill and Hillary Clinton were not divisive, their “sin” was that they won–in 1992, and again in 1996, and again in the failed impeachment of 1999. If he is elected, he and Michelle will be Public Enemies #1 and #2 in the right-wing playbook anyway, and Krugman’s column reminds us all that any new Democratic president had better understand that and be ready to swing for the fences on progressive policy.
Historiann regrets that my comments about Senator Clinton’s “Chatelaine” status might mark her as unusual. However, a speedy review of the history of the U. S. Presidency suggests that of course, as ususal, it’s men who benefit far disproportionately from nepotism. The Presidency has been marked by father-son and other intrafamily male Presidential dynasties: John Adams and son John Quincy Adams; William Henry Harrison and grandson Benjamin Harrison; Theodore Roosevelt and distant cousin (and nephew by marriage) Franklin Roosevelt; John Kennedy and his brothers and would-be presidents Bobby and Edward M. Kennedy. And, of course, George Bush and son George W. Bush. (Am I missing any others? I went only for the low-hanging fruit of identical surnames.)
So, if she wins the nomination and is elected, Hillary Clinton would be the first wife to succeed a husband to the presidency, but only the latest in a long line of presidents who have benefited from brand-names. (Check out Crayzee Chris Matthews’ latest theory about Hillary Clinton’s political success: the Senate seat is her jilted-wife consolation prize! If he’s right, then I wonder why Barbara Bush isn’t a Senator from Texas, or why Newt Gingrich’s two exes aren’t the Senators from Georgia, or why Mrs. Larry Craig doesn’t run for her husband’s soon-to-be-vacant seat in Idaho? I think we could fill the Senate with women married to politicians who have been steppin’ out.)
Question for the demos: why do you think that it’s only bad or mediocre (or short-lived) presidents who get a family mulligan in the presidency? It’s interesting to consider that many of the most important presidents had children or grandchildren who did something else with their lives (or, they didn’t have children at all.) George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan were all the end of their bloodlines in the political mojo department.
Gloria Steinem’s op-ed in the New York Times couldn’t be timelier. It appears the day after Senator Clinton’s emotionally honest moment in New Hampshire, when she changed in one moment from a frosty, Tracey Flick-like know-it-all bee-yatch to being an embarassingly menstrous wreck, at least in the eyes of the press corps. Steinem argues persuasively that a woman with Barack Obama’s resume would never have been taken seriously as a presidential candidate, let alone a front runner. On the day after Senator Clinton was taunted by heckers carrying a sign and screaming, “Iron My Shirt,” Steinem asks, “so why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one?”
However, I have to question Steinem’s version of American history, in which “black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter).” This is factually correct, but shorn of all important context. While the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870, and the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, white women were generally (if grudgingly) permitted to vote without incident from 1920 on, whereas there was virtually no Federal law enforcement of voting rights for African American men and women from 1870 until at least the 1960s (and arguably again in the 2000s), not to mention the violent extralegal intimidation and assaults enacted almost exclusively on black bodies that were seen as having disobeyed the customs of the American racial caste system. This context is important to Steinem’s overall point: it may be that because white women’s enfranchisement and greater opportunities for education and economic advancement weren’t met with the kind of organized political violence that met African Americans, this allows more Americans (and sadly, most liberals) to deny the significance of sexism even while they recognize and sometimes even work to atone for the corrosive effects of racism.
One last item: let’s pick up Steinem’s line about the “possible exception of obedient family members” that a few connected (white) women benefited from. This is another point on which I (think I) disagree with Steinem, who makes a decent case for Clinton’s experience. While she has a long career in public service, Senator Clinton has only been in elective office herself since 2000. Her claims to experience have a whiff of the Chatelaine about them–I’m loathe to compare her to George W. Bush, but the differences between them are more in degree than in kind. Both of them are coasting on someone else’s name and experience (although I think it’s clear that Hillary Clinton was much more of a political partner with Bill than George W. ever was to his father.) I’m with Katha Pollitt and Digby on this issue, and in general on the screwed-up discourse on gender and power in the United States. Senator Clinton wasn’t my candidate, but I would really hate to see her lose like this, amid screeches of “Iron My Shirt.”
Despite about fifteen minutes of anti-aristocratic rhetoric in the 1770s and 1780s, American politics, letters, and the arts have always been characterized by nepotism. This of course has almost always meant fathers and sons, rather than mothers and daughters, mothers and sons, or fathers and daughters, and thus has served not just to perpetuate class privilege but also masculine hegemony as well. And predictably, American families that have dominated politics, letters, and the arts usually don’t get better across the generations moving forward-sometimes the second generation sees an improvement (as in the case of the Winthrops), but by the third generation, the grandsons are for the most part living off of their grandfathers’ and fathers’ names. (Think of the Mathers, or the Adamses, or the Kennedys. Or the Bushes-and consider that Senator Prescott Bush was no John Adams.)
While in the twentieth-century nepotism fell out of fashion for a while, and mechanisms like the S.A.T. and the G.I. Bill served to open up even elite colleges to the masses, it appears that the twenty-first century in America is awash in primitive blood-tie fetishism. The children of famous mid-twentieth century writers were first on the bandwagon of necrotic memoir typing (yes, I’m talking to you Christopher Dickey and Susan Cheever. Martin Amis gets a pass, not because he’s English but because he’s an even better novelist than his father was, and arguably the best novelist of the late twentieth century in the English language.) Sofia Coppola is a good director, but is she really that much better than film school grads whose last name isn’t Coppola? And what else can explain Rufus Wainwright? Don’t look now, but there are new and almost certainly unimproved Bushes, Gores, Kennedys, and Romneys sure to run for national office in the next couple decades, and what an edge on fundraising and media attention that will be over their plain Jane and common Jonathan opponents.
Historiann thinks Perry Miller got it mostly right back in 1939 and 1953 with his discussion of declension-the founding generation has the zeal (or in the cases I’m talking about, the talent, such as it is) and succeeding generations try to replicate their successes but only engage in ancestor worship. These pampered sons are not living a man’s life, but that of a boy playing dress up. The perversity of rewarding this kind of behavior can only be explained by primitive blood-worship.