What's in a name?

Upon the death of the scion of America's greatest political dynasty, a quick survey of American politics reminds us how much it helps to have a famous name.

Published July 21, 1999 4:15PM (EDT)

I happened to be in Boston when John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane went down in the waters off Massachusetts. For many Bostonians -- especially, but not only, the children and grandchildren of Irish immigrants -- hearing Jack Kennedy take the presidential oath was like hearing their own voices from the podium, and his assassination was experienced like a death in the immediate family. Among strangers sharing the news of this latest calamity in a public restroom, or sitting talking in subdued voices in a coffee shop with eyes on the television in the corner, two facts were immediately evident. First, this was genuine sadness, not just morbid celebrity-obsession. Bostonians, even more than the rest of the country, had felt some personal investment in the entire span of this young man's life (the first public life broadcast and recorded, from birth to death, on television), even though his father's hometown barely figured in it.

And second, for many Americans, the Kennedy presidency -- the Kennedy brand name -- still represents not just glamour, not just Camelot, but an aspiration to a politics of idealism and possibility. The fact that the Kennedy White House, and various Kennedys themselves, so often betrayed that aspiration is beside the point. Older Bostonians remember in their bones that Jack Kennedy's election, overcoming naked hostility to the idea of a Roman Catholic president, seemed to blast open an order that had once declared, "No Irish Need Apply" and that in 1960 still preserved the upper reaches of power and finance as bastions of Brahmin privilege.

An airplane crash has no politics. But the political yearnings aroused by the Kennedy dynastic name emerge in a summer of unprecedented dynastic campaigning, into which JFK Jr's death intrudes so violently. The United States has always had political families, from Sam, John and John Quincy Adams to the Roosevelts to Huey and Earl Long. Yet never have the heirs to political fortunes placed such a chokehold on the electoral process. This all may go back to the day Jack Kennedy signed up his brother Bobby as attorney general. But today's dynastic regime is ubiquitous and relentlessly bipartisan.

Start the list, of course, with a dynasty in the making, Hillary Rodham Clinton's U.S. Senate campaign. Her mad-dog strategist Harold Ickes is the son of a New Deal cabinet secretary and advisor to Eleanor Roosevelt, giving the Clinton-for-Senate campaign a sort of liberal dynastic blessing.

In the presidential race, George W. Bush Jr. and Al Gore each count as triple dynastics: Bush has his Florida-governor brother Jeb, his former-president father George and his grandfather, the late Connecticut Sen. Prescott Bush; Gore is not only Clinton's political heir, but also the son of a fabled Senate majority leader and scion of an old Southern political family. In the presidential race, Elizabeth Dole brings up the dynastic rear.

It is not only at the Olympian heights of the presidency that royal families rule. Mayor Richard M. Daley runs Chicago with support wider even than that enjoyed by his father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, without whose clout there would have been no Kennedy White House in 1960, while brother William Daley perches in the Clinton White House as Secretary of Commerce. In California, former Gov. Jerry Brown is now mayor of Oakland; his sister, Kathleen Brown, ran for governor against Pete Wilson; both are idealistic and idiosyncratic actors; both are children of former California Gov. Pat Brown.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., constitute the recognized face of African-American politics (and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference just raised its profile with the installation of Martin Luther King III as director). Pat and Bay Buchanan (a one-generation sibling dynasty) rule the conservative airwaves and primary-ways. Christopher Dodd, chairman of the 1996 Democratic National Convention and a short-list 2000 vice-presidential prospect, is the son of fabled Cold Warrior Sen. Thomas Dodd, censured and evicted from office in 1970. Andrew Cuomo, son of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, is secretary of HUD with a long political career in the cards, and his wife is a Kennedy -- Kerry Kennedy Cuomo.

And, then, naturally, there are the rest of the Kennedys: Sen. Edward Kennedy and former Rep. Joseph Kennedy of Massachusetts; Lt. Gov. (and soon, perhaps, governor) Kathleen Kennedy Townsend of Maryland; and Rep. (and Democratic National Congressional Committee chairman) Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island.

Some of these dynasty members are liberal, some conservative; some are vigorous and principled public servants, some opportunistic louts who prefer to be known as brand names rather than for tough and clear political postures. But they are together the beneficiaries of a great, too-little-noted narrowing of American politics and power.

In part, this narrowing goes directly back to the Kennedy White House. Whoever occupied the presidency in 1961 would have had the same opportunity, but Jack Kennedy learned especially well the lessons of Hollywood, and understood in a profound way the radical new power that television would give incumbent office holders. He wrote the book by which media politics are still played. It was with the Kennedy White House -- and later, with Robert Kennedy's anti-war presidential primary -- that the terrain of American politics began its seismic shift from the smoke-filled room to the television screen. Today's dynasty members like Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush are incumbents in the only office that really counts: the media spotlight.

It was the Kennedys, too, who created the office-holding family as glamorous celebrities and established the country's long fascination with the Kennedy children, first seen playing under their father's desk and then standing mute at his graveside. It was the drive of Robert and Edward Kennedy, and later some of their children, to follow Jack into the electoral arena, that made the whole idea of a political dynasty safe for public consumption. In that sense, Hillary, George, Al and Liddy are all Jack Kennedy's children.

If there is one major generation gap between today's political sons and daughters and their parents, it is the shift in power from those old smoke-filled room to the corporate conference room. In 1960, Mayor Daley, the father, could deliver to JFK, the father, the presidential nomination and the White House through the power of his Chicago patronage machine. Patronage still matters, but the patronage that matters today is the campaign contribution. Mayor Daley, the son, spends the kind of time hobnobbing with Chicago bankers that Mayor Daley, the father, spent with neighborhood precinct captains.

If the Kennedy-inspired media spectacle is the engine of dynastic elections, its fuel line is the campaign-finance system established in the 1970s that turned the democratic vehicle of politics into a money-guzzling limo for the wealthiest political donors and interests. Large-scale campaign contributors are investors, and, like Goldman-Sachs, they prefer to risk their money on blue-chip stocks.

The campaign-finance system, in turn, only reflects an even deeper and more ominous development: a great concentration in power and wealth upward. It is this concentration that makes possible the huge, steaming heaps of campaign cash accumulated by the Bush campaign -- so much money that he is already rejecting federal campaign aid and the restrictions that come with it. JFK Jr's grandfather, Joseph Kennedy, was a bare-knuckle millionaire, but I doubt that in his wildest imaginings he could conceive of a country in which Bill Gates alone controls as much personal wealth as the bottom 40 percent of the population.

The great irony is that the dynastic politics of this summer turn upside-down what the Kennedy name once seemed to promise. The shift from candidates representing issues and constituencies to political brand names advertised like aspirin or automobiles narrows political engagement and puts power even more nakedly into the hands of wealthy donors and media brokers. Brand-name politics makes more distant the promise that many of those who mourn JFK Jr. this week once heard in his father's oratory on civil rights and economic justice, and later in the passion of Robert Kennedy's final crusades.

The debris washing up on the shores of Martha's Vineyard is no metaphor, for politics or anything else. Three people are dead. But it would be a mistake to write off the public response to JFK Jr.'s death as just another ghoulish dance around celebrity catastrophe. In that response, instead, lies both solace and warning: solace that the embers of Kennedy-era idealism still stir some loyalty and emotion; warning that the politics of dynasties and dollars, rooted in the Kennedy years, now are closing off like steel barriers the very avenues whose broadening the name "Kennedy" once seemed to represent.

By Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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