Q: Rep. Patrick Kennedy says he won't run for re-election, raising the possibility that his family's political dynasty has come to an end. To what degree do family connections and famous names fuel success? By giving up his political power and status as keeper of the Kennedy legacy, is Patrick Kennedy letting down his family and followers?
America's love affair with political dynasties is as old as the Adams Family -- John Adams and his cousin Samuel were significant leaders in the American Revolution, and their family tentacles reached far and wide.
John became the second president of the United States. His son John Quincy Adams followed the family tradition in politics, holding numerous elected and appointed positions in the young republic, eventually winning election as the sixth president of the U.S. Other Adams relatives served with distinction in numerous state and federal offices.
Long before the Kennedys captured the public imagination, the Roosevelts dominated the political landscape in the early-to-mid 20th Century. Theodore Roosevelt was a larger-than-life political figure --- 26th president of the United States, vice president, governor of New York, as well as an explorer and conservationist whose legacy in today's national parks system is huge. His cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd president, dominated the Depression and World War II eras, earning a reputation as one of our greatest presidents.
By contrast, the Kennedys have a more modest place in American history. President John F. Kennedy, the 35th president, held office for only three years before his tragic assassination in 1963. In many ways, his election had an impact on American culture that was far more significant than any one of his political decisions. JFK's election was a bright line separating modern American life from the World War II era. In his inauguration address, his allusion to his modernity -- "born in this century" meaning the 20th century --- signified a clean break with 19th century social ideas.
The Kennedy legend grew with terrible tragedy. President Kennedy's murder was a traumatic national event with ripples extending even to today. His brother Robert Kennedy was a champion for civil rights and social justice when he served as attorney general and U.S. Senator, and his assassination during the 1968 presidential campaign added solemn weight to the family's tragic history. Ted Kennedy's long service in the U.S. Senate made it possible for him to have the most impact on law and public policy, particularly through his legislation on civil and human rights, education and health care.
But the tragedies prevented the Kennedys from exerting the same kind of political power that other family dynasties held through generations. The Bush family, for example, held the presidency for 12 of 20 years in the 1990s and early 2000s -- "41" and "43" as father and son George H.W. and George W. are known. Jeb Bush won two terms as governor of Florida during the same period.
While the American democratic ideal says that any citizen can rise to high office --- Barack Obama's election as 44th president affirms that notion --- treating politics as a family business has helped numerous elected officials. Great family names decorate the political landscape --- Udall, Romney, Bayh, Daley, Landrieu and many more.
Proving that the "old boys' network" can be gender neutral, many women who have won election to state and national office are the daughters of politicians. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is the daughter of the late Thomas D'Alesandro, Jr., a member of Congress and mayor of Baltimore. Her brother also served a term as mayor. Secretary of Health and Human Services (and former Kansas governor) Kathleen Sebelius learned the art of politics from her father Ohio Governor John Gilligan who also served in Congress.
Given the size of the Kennedy family and the very favorable history of political dynasties in the United States, the chances for another Kennedy in Congress or other high office are considerable. Rather than seeing Patrick Kennedy's retirement as the end of an era, I believe his decision is a very wise move, given his many personal challenges. The rising generations of Kennedys will benefit by having some space and fresh air between the 20th century arc of the Kennedy legend and the realities of contemporary politics.
Somewhere out there is another Senator Kennedy and maybe even another President Kennedy. Expecting those future leaders to be just like their famous relatives would be a great mistake and very limiting. The hiatus will give them time to craft a fresh image and new political agenda for the Kennedy legend.
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