Clinton, Bush, Kennedy - Let's Face It, The U.S. Has More Royal Families than It Knows What to Do With
Last week, when Prince William and his wife, Princess Elsa from Frozen, visited the United States, Piers Morgan – the self-appointed British commentator on America – proved how little he understands the US when he wrote an article saying that the royals’ popularity with its citizens proves America should have its own monarchy.
In fact, the US already has more monarchies than it knows what to do with, from the faded glories of the House of Kennedy to the glittering Court of Clinton and the defiant Dynasty of Bush. (“The Dynasty of Bush” sounds like a terribly disparaging term for Linda Evans, Kate O’Mara and Joan Collins. I must stress that I would rather eat my own hair than ever disparage Queen Joan.) Here are families who, with varying degrees of merit, exist in a world of gilded celebrity, who consider power and money their God-given right, purely because of their surname – the very definition of a monarchy.
This perfectly obvious fact was underlined yesterday when – like President James Madison taking his feather quill to stress an article in the US constitution – Jeb Bush wrote on Facebook: “I am excited to announce that I will actively explore the possibility of running for president of the United States.” You really do have to love that distinctly Bushian use of English – “actively explore the possibility … ” You could take out 15 words in that sentence and it would still mean the same thing.
As the late and much missed Robin Williams once said so wisely of the Bush dynasty, it’s hard not to applaud a family “where the smart brother is named Jeb”. (Incidentally, Jeb is not short for Jebediah, as you might have reasonably assumed – it’s an acronym for John Ellis Bush, like Arrested Development’s Gob Bluth is an acronym for George Oscar Bluth.)
Anyway, as Facebook status updates go, announcing a maybe possible consideration of running for president of the United States seems, at first, marginally more interesting than someone telling you how much traffic they encountered on their way to work. Until, that is, you remember it came from a Bush, at which point it takes on the stale flavour of weary inevitability and utter predictability.
Any suggestion that the American political system is democratic is so outdated it has taken on the quality of an ancient myth. Outliers – such as Barack Obama, for one – are the exception, and the norm is dynastic families. As my colleague Gary Younge pointed out in this paper last month, the midterm elections were more dependent on family names than the British aristocracy.
Now, this is hardly unique to the American political world – Britain has its Benns and Johnsons and Straws; and India, well, let’s not even get started on that. But what’s especially noticeable about American political dynasties is how they play up their familial connections. The midterm candidates frequently referenced their political parents when on the stump, and we can certainly look forward to plenty of emotional speeches from ol’ Bill for Hillary and references to George HW from Jeb, if perhaps fewer to George W – but not necessarily none.
Which brings me to perhaps the key factor in US dynasties: brand recognition. Whenever people write about America’s love of political dynasties, much is made of how ironic this is considering it goes against the ideals upon which America is built: meritocracy! Bootstrap-pulling! But it is, quite clearly, precisely because it is so un-American that America can’t help but be fascinated with familial dynasties. We always want what we don’t have and so America, a country founded at least partly as a reaction against the idea of a royal family, can’t help but create royal versions of its own.
But there is something else going on here: brand familiarity. America loves brands. Hell, Malcolm Gladwell once wrote a 5,000-word essay in the New Yorker about why Americans refuse to use any ketchup besides Heinz. Go into any supermarket in the US and you will see seemingly infinite items in a series of minute variations all from one single brand. (Paul Newman’s salad dressing, for starters, comes in 25 flavours.)
Now that running for office in America is so ridiculously expensive, only those with brand recognition are likely to appeal to, and have access to, wealthy fundraisers and lobbyists. Who has more wealthy Democrats on speed dial than the Clintons? Who has more access to the Republican party than a Bush? This is where sentimentality and lazy thinking combine to meet practicalities. Even if the political brand is tainted, as the Bush one certainly is and the Clinton one arguably is, this doesn’t necessarily outweigh the reassurance of familiarity.
The one voice in the Republican party suggesting America might have had enough of the Bush family is Jeb’s mother, Barbara; the only real criticism voiced about him is that he’s a bit “centerist” on education and immigration. Other than that, no problem: release the Bushmobile!
The prospect of a Bush v Clinton election for 2016 feels like the inevitable end point for a country that is increasingly stagnated by social immobility, coupled with a national fascination with famous families, from the Clintons to the Hiltons.
But there is something else to consider here. Perhaps it is time for the most truly famous family in America, the most powerful dynasty in the western world, to make its first run for political office. For 2016 I have a vision, and it’s a vision in which Clinton and Bush lose to the independent candidate, who seizes control of the White House and her family holds on to it for at least the next century. Greetings, President Kim Kardashian.