The dynasty project is not faring well. Two relatives of three of our most recent presidents have faced early woes in their succession plans, despite layers of aides, networks of backers going back generations, and extravagant levels of cash. On June 11, a front-page story in the Washington Post described the first six months of Jeb Bush’s campaign as a “political operation going off-course, disjointed in message and approach, torn between factions and more haphazard than it appeared on the surface . . . defined by a series of miscalculations.” The campaign’s backers said “strategic errors were exacerbated by unexpected stumbles by the would-be candidate, and internal strife within his team.”
If this sounds familiar, it should. It is not only the story of Bush, trying to follow his father and brother as president, but also of Hillary Clinton, who is trying to walk in the tracks of her president husband, and also, too, of Edward M. Kennedy, who in 1979 became the last of three brothers to run for that office. Each began with the highest of great expectations, tripped coming out of the gate, and endured a tough slog while attempting a reboot. Each struggled also with legacy issues, which proved in the end a more than mixed blessing and some part of which each would be forced to disown.
As is true of the rich, dynastic families are not quite like the rest of us, in a number of obvious ways: They live in a world where the White House was a family residence, access is assured to most things and most people, and nice things—invitations and offers to make money in business—somehow keep coming their way. Bushes and Kennedys have been millionaires (Prescott Bush and Joseph P. Kennedy), ambassadors to serious countries (George H. W. Bush and Joseph P. Kennedy), elected officials (Senators Prescott Bush, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Governor George W. Bush of Texas), and, when their fathers or brothers hadn’t themselves been president, they were people whose calls he would take.
But while it took the Bushes and Kennedys a number of generations to get to the big time, the Clintons managed to do it in one generation, with Bill and Hillary together racking up a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars and holding no less than five major offices—governor of Arkansas, president, first lady, senator from New York, and secretary of state—between them and all by themselves. But however it came or how long it took, dynastic family members share the idea that the White House is reachable, and, if they have or are told they have talent, they may think it is what they deserve. Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton were told from a young age how brilliant they were, and they seemed to believe it: Jeb was the Phi Beta Kappa who finished school in two and a half years, and Hillary Rodham was told—even before she set eyes on Bill Clinton—that she could and should seek the big time herself. No one ever told Ted Kennedy how brilliant he was (and certainly never his brother the president), but by the time his two older brothers had both been murdered he had been turned into a sacred vessel of sorts by the people around the family, the very last prince of the blood left standing, and their last chance to hold power again. If this leads to swelled heads it is hardly surprising. And there is one other element to be reckoned with: When a family has held power for a long enough time, it accumulates an army of aides, friends, and donors—a court party—whose purpose in life is to care for the family interests. The upside of this may be self-evident, but the downside is that these loyal retainers are unlikely to question the queen or young master, or to tell them they’ve made a mistake.
Is the world better off than it was eight years ago?
Is the Middle East? Is Iraq? These questions, echoing the one asked by Ronald Reagan in his debate with Jimmy Carter just before the 1980 election, should be posed by all Republicans until the polls close in November 2016. Added to these are a few other things . . .
For a brief moment last week, The Scrapbook felt a twinge of compassion for President Obama. The setting was Berlin. Readers will remember the extraordinary (and extraordinarily peculiar) sight in 2008 of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama speaking to a throng of 200,000 worshipful Berliners in the Tiergarten. No American candidate had ever before campaigned in a foreign country—especially one where spectacles of mass enthusiasm revive instructive memories.
Dallas President Obama is not known for his graciousness. But the occasion—the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum—called for kind words about his predecessor in the White House. So he said that if immigration reform passes Congress this year, “it will be in large part thanks to all the hard work of the president, George W. Bush.” Bush had “restarted” the drive to overhaul our immigration system seven years ago, Obama said.
On Wednesday night, former president Bill Clinton assured us that nobody could have managed the Great Recession better than Barack Obama. He compared Obama’s tenure to the period between 1993 and 1996, when the economy was recovering but people were not yet feeling it. He assured us that, soon enough, we will feel this recovery.
In happier times, the firm had been celebrated as a harbinger of the future. The political connections it enjoyed were the fruit not only of well-placed contributions but of a self-imposed ideological mission: It was going to deliver cheap energy in amazing ways. Top executives had dismissed accounting irregularities. The normal rules, it was said, did not apply.
Whether he wins the nomination or not, Rick Perry’s August charge into the top echelon of GOP presidential hopefuls marks at least this turning point: In national Republican politics, Texas is the new California.
Right after Easter, the irrepressible evangelical-left activist Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine announced a new “spiritual battle” against cuts to sacred federal programs in the 2012 budget. Enlisting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the Salvation Army, Wallis proclaimed their “Circle of Protection” around federal poverty programs.