Bush, Clinton, Bush--Clinton? It sounds like the War of the Roses.
Bush, Clinton, Bush--Clinton? It sounds like the War
of the Roses.
BY MICHAEL BARONE
Monday, January 29, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST
Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton. It sounds like the Wars
of the Roses: Lancaster, York, Lancaster, York.
To compare our political struggles to the conflicts
between rival dynasties may be carrying it too far.
But we have become, I think, a nation that is less
small-r republican and more royalist than it used to
be. Viscerally, this strikes me as a bad thing. But as
I've thought about it, I've decided that something can
be said for the increasing royalism of our politics.
And whether you like it or not, you can't deny it's
there. Not when the wife of the 42nd president is a
leading candidate to succeed the 43rd president who in
turn is the son of the 41st president. The two George
Bushes are referred to in their family, we are told,
as 41 and 43. If Hillary Clinton wins, will she and
her husband call each other 42 and 44?
Evidence for my case comes from the recent set-to in
the White House press room after reporters had learned
that Laura Bush had made no public announcement when
she had a skin cancer routinely removed. When Press
Secretary Tony Snow said it was a private matter,
reporters spun out theories why Mrs. Bush had a duty
to disclose this minor surgery to the American
public--even though she is not a public official and
even though the operation had no impact on the
operation of government. But reporters instinctively
sense that the doings of Mrs. Bush are as newsworthy
as their British counterparts regard those of the
royal family. And they have some reason to. Her
husband started just about every campaign speech by
praising his decision to "marry up." Her high approval
ratings take some of the edge off his low ones.
"Royalty," wrote Walter Bagehot in his 1867 book "The
English Constitution," "is a government in which the
attention of the nation is concentrated in one person
doing interesting actions. A Republic is a government
in which attention is divided between many, who are
all doing uninteresting things." He went on to note
that the Monarchy (his capitals) was not just one
person but several. "A family on the throne is an
interesting idea also. It also brings down the pride
of sovereignty to the level of petty life." So we have
columnists writing that the current president's
policies are a sort of oedipal rebellion against his
father. And we have endless speculations on the
dynamics of the Clintons' relationship. The personal
has become the political. In Bagehot's England they
were separate: The Monarchy was personal, the
Palmerstons and Gladstones and Disraelis political.
Now political reporters are getting ready to grind out
pieces about the families of the 2008 presidential
There was always a risk of royalism under our
Constitution, with the president both head of
government and head of state. But for a long time
politicians struggled against it. George Washington
turned down a crown. John Adams did not make public
the scintillating intellect of his wife Abigail. For
half the time in the first 40 years of the 19th
century there was no first lady at all: Thomas
Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren were
widowers when they took office. After the Civil War,
politics revolved so much around parties rather than
presidents--can you name all the presidents from
Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt?--that in the
1880s the future President Woodrow Wilson wrote a book
called "Congressional Government."
The drift toward royalism is a 20th-century
phenomenon. At first it was concealed. Theodore
Roosevelt and William Howard Taft had strong-willed,
intelligent wives and broods of children who went on
to impressive achievements. But they didn't make much
of this public. Woodrow Wilson's first wife, a
Southerner who died early in his presidency,
reportedly pushed for racial segregation in federal
building cafeterias, while his second wife effectively
ran the White House while he was incapacitated by a
stroke--neither something you'd want to talk about
even now. Lou Henry Hoover, an engineering school
classmate of her husband, directed her public energies
to promoting the Girl Scouts. With Eleanor Roosevelt,
we come to the first first lady with a political
identity of her own. But she was just one of many
courtiers in her husband's White House, and not
necessarily the most influential.
Harry Truman did not bring Bess Truman to Potsdam; she
spent much of his presidency at home in Independence
with her elderly mother. Mamie Eisenhower said that
"Ike runs the country and I turn the pork chops." But
ever since John Kennedy made a point of bringing his
French-speaking wife to Paris, where she charmed the
seemingly uncharmable Charles de Gaulle, most
presidents and presidential candidates have made a
habit of showcasing their wives. And most of their
wives have made a point of taking up some public cause
or other, some of them controversial. First ladies
increasingly became public figures and, given the
considerable talents and charm of presidential wives
since that time, political assets.
Now we have our first first lady to run for president.
She brings to the race a formidable asset that few
presidential candidates can claim: a first-hand
knowledge of the operations of the White House. But
then Queen Elizabeth II, who has had weekly audiences
for 55 years with 10 prime ministers from Winston
Churchill to Tony Blair, would probably be a pretty
good prime minister were she eligible for the office.
(She's not: By law, she can't set foot in the House of
Commons.) Sen. Clinton was more involved in making
public policy than any other first lady except
possibly Sarah Childress Polk, who was her husband's
chief secretary and worked alongside him in his
office. But there is something bizarre--something
royal--about the vision of the wife of a former
president becoming president herself, although those
of us who voted for George W. Bush are poorly
positioned to complain about it.
And perhaps we shouldn't. Because the royalism of
republican politics is not just an American
phenomenon. You see it in other very large republics.
India for 37 of the 42 years after independence had
members of one family as head of
government--Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv
Gandhi, grandfather and daughter, mother and son.
Rajiv Gandhi's widow is now head of the governing
party. Indonesia elected as president the daughter of
a former president. So did the Philippines. Maybe
there is a reason for this. It's hard in a very large
democracy for voters to judge a potential leader. They
can gather some information on his or her positions on
issues, but they rely on an inevitably imperfect (and
often biased) media. If they are strongly on the side
of one party, they can vote for that party's
candidate; but in the United States at least they have
some voice (at least if they live in Iowa or New
Hampshire) in determining who that candidate is. They
have a hard time ascertaining the ability and
character of candidates. But in making judgments about
those things, it helps if you know the family.
Not that anyone assumes that family members are all
alike. It would not do for candidate Bush in 2000 and
for candidate Clinton today to claim to be clones of
his father and her husband. Rather, candidate Bush
made comments about his mother's fearsomeness, and
candidate Clinton's "let's chat" suggests that she is
more of a listener and less of a nonstop talker than
her husband. So the trend to royalism may not be all
bad. It does give some candidates an unfair advantage
over others. But let's face it: Only four of the 300
million living Americans has been president and
probably only 10 or 12 more ever will be. We need as
much knowledge of our presidential candidates as we
can get and, if we get some of it by knowing their
families as closely as we know the families of recent
occupants of the White House, so be it. As Bagehot put
it, "The best reason why Monarchy is a strong
government is, that it is an intelligible government.
The mass of mankind understand it, and they hardly
anywhere in the world understand any other."
In any case, it's no sure thing that a Clinton will
follow a Bush who followed a Clinton who followed a
Bush. But keep the following in the back of your mind.
George P. Bush will be eligible to run for president
in 2012. Chelsea Clinton will be eligible to run for
president in 2016. So will Jenna and Barbara Bush, who
will turn 35 several days after the election. And Jeb
Bush, who had a fine record in eight years as governor
of Florida, will be younger in 2024 than John McCain
will be in 2008 or Ronald Reagan was in 1984. Royalism
may be here to stay.
Mr. Barone is a senior writer at U.S. News & World
Report and coauthor of "The Almanac of American
Politics" (National Journal Group).