The Case Against Nepotism in Politics

From Kennedy to Bush to Cheney, it's time to stop rewarding the children of famous politicians.


It would be silly to make Caroline Kennedy the White House science adviser: She's not a scientist. It would be silly to name her fire commissioner of New York City: She has no background in public safety.

The standards are different in other fields. Kennedy has no previous known interest in Japan, Asia or international relations and is not a diplomat. But Barack Obama has chosen her to be the next ambassador to Japan.

Liz Cheney, likewise, is not inhibited by anything she lacks. She went to high school in northern Virginia, college in Colorado and law school in Chicago, before taking up residence in the Washington, D.C. area. Under George W. Bush, she held a couple of State Department jobs for which she had no obvious qualifications. But now she's running for the U.S. Senate from Wyoming.

You could pick a name out of the phone book and find someone with better credentials. But these names are not random. They are household names, made famous by their fathers: John F. Kennedy and Dick Cheney. So the daughters carry an aura of expertise and gravity.

They benefit from "branding"—their association with the genuine accomplishments of famous relatives. But the logic behind that appeal only goes so far. Just because you wear Nike shoes doesn't mean you'd buy a can of Nike beans. A Cheney's virtues, if any, may not be present in another Cheney.

A family connection can give clues to the policies someone would pursue. If you elect someone whose last name is Paul, you don't expect a rabid left-winger. If you vote for a Udall, you can assume he or she won't pave over Yosemite.

But it reveals nothing about their abilities. George W. Bush didn't inherit his father's knowledge of international affairs, contacts with foreign leaders or aversion to marching on Baghdad. Jack Kennedy was considered somewhat intellectual, but nephews Joseph and Patrick showed up on lists of the dumbest members of Congress.

Caroline Kennedy has impressed people writing books, serving on boards and generally burnishing the family reputation—something not all of her cousins have done. Cheney has established herself as a forceful advocate for the sort of conservative policies her father advanced. But if their names were Smith and Jones, they'd never be considered for these jobs.

What Kennedy will bring to Tokyo is celebrity and glamour, which the Japanese are said to value. What Cheney would bring to Congress is a caustic ideology straight out of Fox News, which may excite some Wyoming Republicans. You could almost forget that there are people who have spent years preparing to do the real work that goes with these jobs.

In each case, it may actually matter whether the officeholder is competent. Japan is currently embroiled in a dispute with China over some islands, and the confrontation has a genuine possibility of leading to hostilities. At a time when Obama is stressing the priority he gives to Asia, you'd think he'd want a savvy veteran to deal with the Japanese government.

The Senate has serious responsibilities that ought to be in the hands of serious people—from approving treaties to investigating government surveillance to confirming judges (and, come to think of it, ambassadors). Impersonating Sean Hannity does not really equip you for those duties. As for her knowledge of the Cowboy State, I'm willing to bet $20 Cheney never had a Wyoming driver's license before arriving last year.

At least she's been there. I repeatedly called and emailed the White House press office to ask whether Kennedy has ever visited Japan, but got no response.

Some people think her unfamiliarity with the place makes no difference. "What you really want in an ambassador is someone who can get the president of the United States on the phone," former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told The New York Times—in which case the Chinese must be hoping for Malia Obama.

Supporters note that we've had ambassadors there who were Japan novices, including Walter Mondale and Howard Baker. But they had gained knowledge of U.S. policy abroad in high-level offices—Mondale as senator and vice president, Baker as Senate Republican leader and White House chief of staff.

Kennedy, as Lloyd Bentsen might put it, is no Fritz Mondale. We've had less qualified senators than Cheney, though you've probably forgotten them. We could do worse than either, but we could easily do better.

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  1. Exactly how many people are making the case for nepotism in politics?

    1. Nobody’s for the -ism, it just comes out that way.

      1. Yeah, *someone* must be in favor of it, judging by the results.

        1. To be clearer, nobody is in favor of the principle, they just succumb to its effects, or promote its individual effect.

        2. Their relatives, I’m guessing.

    2. We all like Rand Paul and think he’s done a decent job in the Senate, no? But back when he ran, he had no “experience” and was the son of a famous father. Good enough for thee but not for me?

    3. Everyone who is “Ready for Hilary”.

  2. The rise of American aristocracy.

  3. Gee, thanks. Now maybe you can explain how this problem can be surmounted.

  4. Over 310 million citizens, many tens of millions eligible for office. How about we branch out a little? Not like these scions have proven competent or anything.

    1. How many of those eligible are willing to subject themselves to the lifestyle of a public official? It requires a special type of sociopath.

  5. If you look at brief or even medium-length bios of most successful politicians, you never really get an explanation of how they got their foot on the bottom rung of the ladder. In the case of family, we know. So maybe this is instructive, telling us that the initial sorting that takes place to select someone for the poltical class is completely arbitrary, revealed in the case of family cx and implied as just as trivial in most of the others.

    1. Yes. Talk about arbitrary, I wonder if Caroline Kennedy even likes Japan. Better than her free suites at various compounds, her Long Island mansion and Manhattan office? Does she prefer Pocari Sweat and traffic jams? I know that a diplomat can live in a bubble, but Caroline strikes me as such a New Yorker/Washingtonian, the Japanese embassy almost seems like exile. “First prize, one year as Japanese ambassador. Second prize, two years as Japanese ambassador.”

  6. W. did inherit his father’s willingness to spend like a madman and undue everything Reagan accomplished.

    1. Reagan spent as a madman too. Reagan gets far better press than he deserves.

      1. tarran| 8.5.13 @ 10:55AM |#
        “Reagan spent as a madman too. Reagan gets far better press than he deserves.”

        In defense of RR, the majority of the increases were in defense, under the theory that defeating the USSR would mean they were temporary expenses.
        Thereafter we were to get the peace dividend.

    2. Bush also had the contacts to assemble his cabinet- a set of well respected functionaries from multiple administrations. When they were announced, it was a big deal (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell) and it is unlikely that Bush would have gotten these people onboard if not for his family.

      I know that those people are not well respected among Libertarians, but among much of the country they were. And so Bush’s name helped earn him a presidency.

      The fact of the matter is, we all make decisions based on others Vouching for the quality of a product or a person. This is nothing different.

  7. We ain’t seen nothing yet… [i.e. Chelsea]

    1. The soccer team? I find that unlikely. To begin with, they’re not American.

      1. Seriously?? You knew I was talking about Chelsea Handler…

        1. I dunno, I’d prefer Chelsea to Man. U. As a president, I mean.

          1. A soccer team as president? Fuck me – might as well elect a “community organizer”, whatever THAT is.

            Chelsea Grammar would be a better choice. Wait….wait a second…what?

    2. As much as I hope people would remember Chelsea’s seven-figure wedding (and her investment banking career), I don’t think I’ll have that confidence in them when she enters into the family business.

      1. It’s inevitable. She’s just killing time and filling the resume. She’ll be in public office of some sort before the decade’s out.

  8. Only three things matter in politics:
    1. Looking good in a suit.
    2. Raising money from donors / owners
    3. Uttering polite nonsense to voters

    Real people in the phonebook have to accomplish real things in order to earn money.

    1. #2 is where nepotism’s going to have its main effect. People don’t like to waste money (or their volunteer time). Most endeavors in life aren’t winner take all the way a campaign for office is. Since it is winner take all, you’d like to have your influence felt early enough to make a diffference, but at the same time not shoot your wad early on someone who wound up well out of the running. So you’re looking for any indication that you’re backing someone with a shot. Recognition of practically any kind, such as a family name, is one of those indications.

      The problem is something like one my dead friend David Lindelof posed to me: Suppose two strangers were offered a big prize for meeting each other somewhere in the world at a particular time, and were told the time but not the place, and were not allowed to communicate beforehand; not being told the identity of the other person would take care of that? Where would you go? The commonest answer given is, under the Eiffel Tower. More people think of that place than any other as being the place more other people would think of than any other place.

      1. It is the result of campaign finance reform. You have to raise money in $1000 chunks. That means only people who have connections to huge numbers of donors can run. And the only way to have that usually is to have a parent in politics who already has such connections. Campaign finance makes it very hard for anyone outside of the political class to break into politics.

        1. Textbook example of the Bootleggers and the Baptists.

        2. Bingo!! Perhaps the LP should start looking for people with the last names of famous politicians…so it can double or triple its low single digit results.

        3. It is the result of campaign finance reform. You have to raise money in $1000 chunks. That means only people who have connections to huge numbers of donors can run.

          I’m actually hopeful. With the success of various kickstarter projects, I can imagine campaign fundraising being accomplished in a similar fashion in the very near future, which would revolutionize the way we hold elections.

        4. That may have exaggerated the effect, but it doesn’t account for why it went on long before there was campaign finance reform, or for why it goes on in jurisdictions and elections to which campaign finance reforms have never been applied.

          1. In fact, just in elected offices in the USA, nepotism seems to occur most often with the lowest level offices, and these are the ones there’s least likely to be any donation limits applicable for (or limits so high in relationship with what people would give that they don’t matter). Plus, campaign laws are irrelevant to appointed offices, which after all are the ones for which the term “nepotism” was coined.

          2. But it was never that common until the last 30 years. You only remember the Adams and Kennedys and Roosevelts and such because they were the exception to the rule and such generational power was so uncommon. Not anymore.

            1. It’s always been common here in NY. What did increase it a bit, though, was term limits in NYC. Offices the incumbent would’ve been re-elected for instead were occupied by relatives.

        5. This might be a factor, but this predates campaign finance reforms. Think of the Adams family among others.

          1. Why do you hate Morticia Addams???

            1. If you are going to hate an Addams, Wednesday’s your girl. The others are content to enjoy life in a retiring way and are relatively harmless. Wednesday is the one who is the one who delights in watching people squirm in excruciating pain. She’s the dangerous one.

  9. Ever since Michelle Nunn announced her candidacy for the US Senate, the state party and the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee have decided to ignore two other candidates for the nomination, even going so far as to encourage Georgia Democrats to take a GOP ballot and vote for Karen Handel, the one Republican candidate that Nunn could conceivably win against.

  10. We’ve had less qualified senators than Cheney, though you’ve probably forgotten them.

    I can remember at least one…

    1. I have lived in MA, CA, and NJ – so I can name six off the top of my head.

    2. I can think of about 90 that currently hold office…

    3. I can remember at least one…

      Don’t forget her former boss in that big white house.

  11. To paraphrase the Blues Brothers

    Illinois legacy politicians

    I HATE Illinois legacy politician.

  12. Next from Steve Chapman: The case against lung cancer

    Really going out on a limb there, Steve.

    1. Well at least it’s not “The Libertarian Case for Obama” or even worse “the Libertarian Case for Obama’s reelection.” Those were Chapman masterpieces.

      Though my personal favorite Chapman fallacy is either “The libertarian case for the highest drinking age in the world” or “The libertarian case for federally guaranteed loans to any jackoff that stumbles into a bank.”

      These are my own titles, mind you.

    2. If any one word defines Steve Chapman, it’s “risk”.

  13. I don’t usually like Chapman’s pieces but this one is just great. Some sarcasm, a little bit of witty nastiness – the “Impersonating Sean Hannity” line is a nice touch – well done Steve.

    1. Don’t feed the hacks.

  14. Japan is currently embroiled in a dispute with China over some islands, and the confrontation has a genuine possibility of leading to hostilities.

    Regardless of last name, anyone who believes this is also unqualified to be ambassador to Japan.

  15. Hmmmm, not so fast.

    Evil Dubya did have a relatively successful business career and was judged on the whole to be a successful governor (with the exception of the residents of Austin who would have preferred Chairman Mao).

    And as for experience, what are you talking about. The vast majority of congress critters have zero real life experience and a JD.

    Foreign Policy experience is the biggest joke. Who has that? Who has ever had that?

    Nepotism may not be justifiable but graft, greed, corruption, and being an outright sociopath are the traits evidenced when name recognition can’t get the job done.

    This is ‘Murica. Hells to the YEAH.

    1. “Evil Dubya did have a relatively successful business career…” — It takes real talent to start an oil company that can’t find oil and then get bailed out by your fathers friends.

      “was judged on the whole to be a successful governor” — Given that the governor of Texas is like the 17th most powerful person in the state, you can’t really attribute any success to him.

      1. Name the 17. I’ll gift you the lt. Gov.

  16. We’ve had less qualified senators than Cheney, though you’ve probably forgotten them.

    I haven’t forgotten; I am from Delaware.

  17. Libertarians should bravely reject nepotism and choose some random libertarian candidate over Rand Paul, because the latter isn’t libertarian enough.

    The Paul dynasty, if you will, is growing too powerful.

  18. Being against nepotism doesn’t mean that one should always discredit the relative of another politician. Rand Paul is not Ted Kennedy.

  19. But if it happens in the private sector, they’ll write a five-page essay about why it’s great.

  20. Anybody here voting for Jeb?

  21. Nope, Rand Paul keeps it on the road (or bridge).

  22. Since when was nepotism a bad thing????
    Are we to ban nepotism? Outlaw family business’, prohibit working with friends?
    This is a fucking stupid article that belongs in the Washington post or New York times.

  23. Politics makes incestuous bedfellows.

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