Wednesday, December 17, 2008

America Is Not A Family Business

I like Caroline Kennedy, daughter of JFK and big sis to John John—two other people I have a soft spot in my heart for, may they rest in peace. On the few times I’ve heard Kennedy speak, I’ve been reasonably impressed, though it’s hard for me (for a lot of Americans) to really hear her and not her family legacy in US politics.

She’s had a remarkable life—surviving every member of her immediate family, escaping death from an IRA bomb, and inspiring a Neil Diamond hit.

Now she’s interested in taking over the Senate seat soon to be vacated by Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of Bill Clinton and soon to be Secretary of State. But she’s in competition with Andrew Cuomo, son of former NY governor Mario Cuomo and ex to Terry Kennedy, Caroline’s cousin. Ultimately the decision will be made by the current NY governor David Paterson, son of a former NY state senator.

One of the reasons (I had several) I voted for Barack Obama instead of Clinton was that, deep down, I feel that the United States of America should not operate like a family business. I could have lived with a Clinton nomination, but I really favored Obama for this reason (and several others, as well). I wanted the Bush-Clinton-Bush chain to end with George W.

I would never vote against a candidate merely because she or he has family ties to politics. But this sort of thing does figure into my thinking at election times. It is a matter of some importance to my concept of a working free democracy.

Now that the royal lines of Europe and Asia have either petered out or lost the powers of governance, is there really any need for America, where everybody is “created equal,” so we hear, to perpetuate dynastic politics past its expiration date?

Of course, the UK still has its Queen—but the governmental chief is the Prime Minister, of whom, recently, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, John Major, and Margaret Thatcher have had only remote family ties to politics—mostly descending from farmers, grocers, entertainers, educators, and clergy—and came into high office through lives of public service and/or law careers.

Aren’t there enough brainy, capable people in the United States—like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton—to fill top government positions without resorting to nepotism?

Do we really believe that bloodlines confer the know-how to lead a democratic nation? I would not want to impugn Caroline Kennedy’s, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s, or Andrew Cuomo’s political savvy or statesmanship by crediting it to genealogy or genetics. I also don’t mean to demean their individual accomplishments by assuming that everything they have achieved is due to nepotism. And yet what, apart from their names, distinguishes them from other qualified persons with political ambition?

Have Kennedy, Clinton, and Bush become brand names like Pepsi or McDonald’s? Certainly, name recognition is a selling point for politicians campaigning for elected office—but what advantage does it offer for political appointments?

Last month the citizens voted Barack Hussein Obama into the nation’s highest office in spite of his name (which, let’s face it, was no selling point, as the Republicans so often liked to emphasize). Like Bill Clinton, he was the son of a single mother—the paternal namesake being absent for most of his life. In many respects, unlike either Bush 1 or Bush 2, he represents the American dream—of assimilation, of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, of rising without the help of family or family connections.

So now that “change” seems so necessary and, for the first time in decades, so possible, why must we turn to brand names and/or dynasties for leadership?

Good luck to you, Caroline, and if you make it to the Senate next year, I hope it’s because you’re the best person for the job—and not just because of your tragically romantic name.

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