Stephen Hess is the author of the newly updated America's Political Dynasties: From Adams to Clinton. His many other books include The Professor and the President and Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters, 1978-2012. He is a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, and he is based in Washington, D.C.
Q: Why did you decide to update America’s Political Dynasties, and what are some of the most noteworthy changes in this edition?
A: This book was first out 50 years ago, and I was thinking about that last year. I thought, 2016 may be a significant year in the history of American political dynasties. We may even have a context between a Bush and a Clinton, and it would be fun to revise it. The Brookings Press liked the idea.
I thought it wasn’t going to amount to very much work. When you reach your 80s, you’re not looking for major exercise! The idea was that I would put in what happened in the last 50 years, and with the exception of the Kennedys, the answer would be, not much.
[But] I recognized that that wouldn’t make a serious…book—and a lot had happened. Take the Adamses. They hadn’t been in politics for 150 years. They may not have been around, but historians studying them had.
One of the most interesting changes in the book is that Abigail Adams turned out to have been a great businesswoman. John went off to France to represent the country, and Abigail had to run the farm. It wasn’t easy because all the men were off at war.
She went into trade. John, in France, when he knew a friend like Lafayette was going to be in the U.S., would ask, Do you mind bringing scarves to Abigail? She would sell them. She wrote: John, that’s retail—we should be in wholesale…if we lose two of three ships, we would still make a profit. Once they did it that way, she could adjust to the market.
John Adams never worked for anybody [after that point] but the U.S. government—that was not a lot of money. What she made kept the family solvent. This was not in the first edition, but it is in this edition.
Historians have been at work, but other things clearly had happened. With the Roosevelts, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt had five children. I had interviewed most of them 50 years ago, and I gave them passing grades.
Fifty years later, they don’t get passing grades...Elliott Roosevelt had to testify before an investigative committee. Franklin Jr. [was working for] Trujillo. It had to be rewritten.
The purpose of the book had changed too. When I wrote the book 50 years ago, I stumbled on the fact that in addition to the Adamses [and other prominent families], there were some I’d never heard of, like the Frelinghuysens and the Muhlenbergs.
The first edition 50 years ago was really to tell Americans, who had very little exposure to the story, [about it]. It wasn’t the story of the United States. Dynastic families accounted for 6 percent elected to the U.S. Congress. But it was interesting. That was really all I was doing.
The second time around, dynasties had become controversial because of the Clintons and the Bushes. I was trying to make the point that dynasties will always be with us. The point was, while dynasties will always be with us, it’s not always the same dynasties. Dynasties are born, and dynasties die. That’s the story I set out to tell in the second edition…
The death of dynasties is really interesting. The Adamses had three great generations and then stopped. Why? They were rather unpleasant people. After a while, Americans didn’t want to elect these people. What we expected of politicians had changed.
It’s interesting—the Livingstons, who were very rich, after a while didn’t want to appeal to the riffraff, the populace. In a sense, the Adamses were rejected by the populace, and the Livingstons rejected the populace.
Q: You write, “A nice irony is that while the Clintons are not a dynasty but would like to be one, the Bushes are a dynasty but deny that they are one.” What accounts for their attitudes about dynasties?
A: When I set out to write the 2016 version, I had to expand the book by two families. The fact is, the Clintons didn’t fit my rigid definition [but I included them]…With the Bush family, what could you possibly say that hadn’t already been said? There were two Bush presidents, and so much had been written on them.
I had to think of new angles. One was their founding father, Prescott Bush. In the first [edition], the Bushes didn’t rate [as a dynasty]. As I retold the story of the Bushes, all of them lost elections before they won one. This showed something of their fortitude. It was unusual for a family doing well in oil, or owning a baseball team—they didn’t have to keep [trying].
With the Clintons and the Bushes, the book was aimed to the 2016 election. I couldn’t talk about the election; the book was put to bed six months ago.
What to do with the Clintons? They’re not a dynasty, they’re husband and wife. They’ll become a dynasty if their daughter or granddaughter gets elected! I’m rethinking the story of Bill and Hillary—while it was not a dynasty, it was a partnership. They met at Yale Law School—that’s unique in American politics.
Q: You describe the “curse of the presidential dynasty,” the inability, so far, of dynastic families to have more than two presidents. Do you think it will be broken?
A: Certainly at this moment, Jeb Bush isn’t doing very well. You can’t count him out, because he’s still in. What’s so interesting about the Bushes is that they have another generation coming up behind them. Jeb’s son is an elected officer in Texas, and his mother is Mexican-American. It’s conceivable the first Hispanic American president will be named Bush. The story goes on.
Undoubtedly, if there’s to be a 2017 edition coming out, we’re going to have to take into account whether we have the first woman president, or the first three-president dynasty. It’s historic. Maybe we’ll have neither. I may be connected to dynasties longer than I thought when I first had the idea when I was in the Army!
Q: You mentioned the Kennedys. What do you see looking ahead for the Kennedy family’s younger generations?
A: There was a brief moment where there wasn’t a Kennedy in Congress. People started to write them off. That was a foolish thing to do with the Kennedys. They have politics in their DNA, and there are so many of them. Now there’s the sixth Kennedy in Congress.
It’s remarkable; the first one was elected in 1947. Even there, the fifth or sixth would not have been in Congress if Ethel and Bobby hadn’t had 11 children. There is a Kennedy in Congress now, and his press clippings are pretty darn good. He seems relatively modest by Kennedy standards. There will be Kennedys after him…
Q: Why do you think some of these dynasties remain famous while others become more obscure?
A: It almost divides between presidential dynasties and non-presidential dynasties. Ones that get a president get written up in our history books. It’s ironic—the Harrisons produced two presidents. They weren’t great presidents. They wouldn’t have been noticed at all [as a family] without the presidents.
By and large, dynasties have a state base. They’re well respected where they come from. If they cross a border, there’s more ambition than can be held in one state. An example is the Kennedys. There were too many ambitious Kennedys than could fit within Massachusetts.
One of the most fascinating families in the book is the Washburns. They started in Maine. Their father was a bankrupt shopkeeper. There were four sons elected to Congress from four different states, three serving at the same time. It’s so unique.
The Frelinghuysens—there were six in Congress, all from New Jersey, from the same plot of land where the first one landed… The current one, Rodney, is probably the most important of any Frelinghuysen. He’s been there long enough now that he’s the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Pentagon spending.
That too can be something that comes of a dynastic impulse—if you stay long enough, over time, you can become powerful. The answer in part is that their ambitions were modest, and never exceeded their own talent. They never got swelled heads [as opposed to] the children of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
A great name may be worth one step up on the political ladder. If your father’s in Congress, you may win [a seat on the] city council. If your father’s the president, you may get to the House of Representatives.
In the case of FDR’s sons, one was a House member from California and one from New York. They were both safe Democratic seats. In each case, when they sought higher office, both were defeated. Their advantage was [useful] for one election, and then they were on their own. That’s the dynastic rule of thumb.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Stephen Hess, please click here.