Kennebunkport vs. Hyannis Port

When it comes to political dynasties, the Bushes are more praiseworthy than the Kennedys.

Published November 1, 2000 12:28AM (EST)

Will Hillary Clinton be the next senator from New York, extending the Clinton legacy another six years? Will son-of-a-senator Al Gore solidify his own family's claim? (Win or lose, his daughter Karenna's own congressional run can't be more than five years in the offing.) Will a Republican president put Liddy Dole, the wife of a man, Bob Dole, who was sort of almost president, back near the top of the chain of command? Or will a Democratic president prolong the ascent of the Cuomo boys, Andrew and Chris, whose father Mario happened to be governor of New York? Andrew now serves as HUD secretary while Chris is a Friend of Leo kind of ABC News camera-candy and Bobby Kennedy-in-waiting.

Whether or not we admit it to ourselves, Americans have hidden anti-republican (note the lowercase "r") tendencies. We like to boast about how anyone can grow up to be president, but deep down we long for some sense of legitimacy from our leaders. Maybe it's the last vestiges of our colonial heritage, a soft spot for our monarchical past, but we do like political families, and we reward them with more political support than they objectively deserve. Every political family, that is, except the Bushes.

One of the most effective lines of attack against George W. Bush -- and, of course, poorly utilized by the hapless Gore -- has been the idea that he's only running for office because his daddy was president. Both Bill Clinton and Al Gore have alluded to W.'s "legacy problem," as did his Republican opponents in the primaries. In the third debate, the vice president referred derisively to "Bush's dad." When he appeared on Oprah, Bush himself identified it as an obstacle to his campaign.

The Clintons, Cuomos, Doles and Gores all get extra points for legacy, yet it's a minus for the Bushes. This is strange because, if you like dynasties, the Bush family is the embodiment of modern noblesse oblige. When you look at the facts, the Bush family is the most exemplary political family since the Roosevelts. By their very essence, the Bushes are what we pretend the Kennedys were.

Let's examine the family myth: The story of the Kennedys is a classic tale of immigrant elbow grease turned golden, with Joe P. Kennedy scrapping his way to the American dream, raising one of the country's richest families and bringing forth a trio of sons who made a lasting impression on America.

The niggling details: Joe Kennedy was a man with close business ties to the Mafia and reputedly with tremendous sympathy for the Nazis. He made money by shorting Czech stocks days before Hitler's invasion and was no friend of minorities. After he failed to rise to president, he spent his winter years pushing each of his sons to claim the office.

In comparison, Prescott Bush, a child of privilege, became a mild-mannered senator and a great proponent of civil rights. He left office to become the Connecticut chairman of the United Negro College Fund and inculcated in his family the idea of Waspy noblesse oblige, teaching them that since they had been born to privilege, they had an obligation to serve society.

Jack Kennedy served in World War II with distinction. So did George H.W. Bush. While Kennedy was cruising the Pacific in PT-109, Bush flew 58 combat missions, twice returning to combat after being shot down. Once JFK took office, his term was short and his only real victory was in the Cuban missile crisis. Bush presided over the end of the Cold War before leading the first successful post-Soviet era conflict in the Gulf War.

The rest of the Kennedy legend is a sordid affair. Jack was a philanderer who famously humiliated his wife with his adultery, as did Bobby. Ted may or may not have been responsible for the death of a woman at Chappaquiddick, Mass., in addition to his own affairs. One cousin was accused of rape while another is suspected of bludgeoning a girl to death with a golf club. And who could forget Joe and Michael Kennedy, the famed "poster boys for bad behavior"? Joe tried to have his marriage of 12 years annulled; Michael had an affair with his family's 14-year-old baby sitter.

To be fair, the Kennedys have had more than their share of honest tragedy: Joe and Rose Kennedy losing daughter Kathleen in a plane crash and son Joe Jr. in World War II, and of course Jack and Bobby to assassinations. In this generation, the loss of John Jr. seemed to continue the bad luck. But so much of the rest seems like a series of self-inflicted wounds.

The Bushes have seen tragedy: George Sr. and his wife Barbara lost their eldest daughter, Robin, to leukemia when she was just 4 years old, an ordeal which they rarely discuss. And it's that reticence that largely defines the clan. George W. - his brief, "wild" youth aside -- has kept a low-profile private life. He is married to a librarian, sent his daughters to public school and doesn't drink. His brother Jeb married his college sweetheart, a Mexican-born woman named Columba, worked with the Urban League in Miami to found a charter school and then taught there. He's now the very popular governor of Florida.

The rest of the Bush children are almost comically lily white. Marvin is active in the United Ostomy Association. Dorothy married a former aide to Richard Gephardt, and spends her time raising money for charities. The dauphin, George P., is building a record of public service working in inner-city schools in Florida. The closest thing there is to a Bush scandal is Neil's bumbling with the Silverado Savings & Loan.

Our national affinity for the Kennedys, but not the Bushes, doesn't speak particularly well of us. It points to an unsettling, if accepted, fact of modern life: Fame trumps noblesse oblige. Other current political families, the Clintons, Doles, Cuomos and Gores, aren't so much political dynasties as they are celebrity dynasties which happen to play in politics. Think of Mrs. Clinton's campaign signs ("Hillary!") and Bob Dole's unsettling Viagra commercials and Chris Cuomo's pals and Karenna Gore's endless glossy magazine profiles. These are famous people, first and foremost, moving effortlessly from one media outlet to another. And the Kennedys, who started out as a political dynasty, have morphed into celebrities. They are Arnold and Maria at the Oscars and JFK Jr. posing nude in his politics-as-show-biz magazine. Jack Kennedy's performance in the Cuban missile crisis is less remembered than Marilyn Monroe's performance of "Happy Birthday."

While the Bush family has been building a dynasty on 1950s values and an aristocratic sense of noblesse oblige, they've missed the boat. They don't realize that the trick of modern politics isn't to be John Foster Dulles, it's to be Princess Di. Honor, service and fidelity don't make you famous.

And here is the saddest thing: Our obsession with fame doesn't just reward undeserving people, it also obscures past triumphs. There was a time when the Kennedy family did help America. But no one remembers that. We don't remember the anti-communism and latter-day civil rights struggles. We remember the celebrity trappings: a toddler's sad salute, Jackie's marriage to Aristotle Onassis, front-page court cases -- just like O.J.! -- and paparazzi following them around at movie premieres. The biggest change in modern cultural sensibility is that fame now has an absolute value sign around it. Notoriety is the same as celebrity and both trump political legacy.

None of which bodes well for the Bushes. After all, just try imagining a Bush with paparazzi.

If George W. Bush is victorious next week it will be because Bill Clinton's fame wasn't as transferable as his foul odor; Gore is an unsuccessful understudy who has neither his predecessor's 100-kilowatt charm nor the moral stature to avoid associations with Clinton's scandals.

So we head onward to a Senate most likely with Hillary!, a House with Karenna and a politics cluttered with Viagraed Doles and Leo-nized Cuomos. It's not good for the Bushes; it's even worse for us.

By Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is a reporter for The Weekly Standard.

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Al Gore Bill Clinton George W. Bush Hillary Rodham Clinton