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Bush, Clinton, Bush--Clinton? It sounds like the War of the Roses.

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110009593 CAMPAIGN 2008 Battle Royal Bush, Clinton, Bush--Clinton? It sounds like the War of the Roses.
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 29, 2007
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      CAMPAIGN 2008

      Battle Royal
      Bush, Clinton, Bush--Clinton? It sounds like the War
      of the Roses.

      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).
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