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Page last updated at 11:10 GMT, Thursday, 18 December 2008

Washington diary: Family ties

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

We all know that a few centuries ago America fought a bitter war to free itself from the excesses of British colonial rule and the absurdity of a hereditary system which allowed mad old King George to wear a crown and wield a sceptre.

Ted Kennedy and niece Caroline Kennedy
Caroline Kennedy may follow in the footsteps of her uncle

Dynastic rule seemed like a very bad idea when the lottery of DNA could dish up some truly bizarre choices.

As Thomas Jefferson put it in a letter: "Republican is the form of government which is not at open or secret war with the rights of mankind."

It seems strange that 208 years after he wrote that letter, we now have what seems like a rash of dynastic ambition in the Land of the Free.

The 2008 election may have advanced the threshold of history, raised the ceiling of tolerance and finally put an African-American in the White House.

But the unseemly lobbying, haggling and arm-twisting over a bunch of empty Senate seats reveals a desire to keep a few important things firmly in the family.

Green shoots

There is speculation that Joe Biden wants his son Beau to succeed him in the Delaware Senate seat that he has held for more than three decades.

Unfortunately, Beau is fighting in Iraq and is unable to fill the seat.

For now.

Mr Biden's former chief of staff has been appointed to fill the seat, some say as a means of "keeping the seat warm" until Beau can return from the front and run for office himself.

Then there is the unseemly business of the Illinois Senate seat recently vacated by Barack Obama.

Until his name came up as part of the investigation into scandal-hit Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr - son of civil rights activist Jesse Jackson Sr - appeared to be one of the frontrunners to take over from the President-elect.

He may still come out of the scandal unscathed, which could allow his father to watch a son go to the Senate - the green shoots of a new political dynasty?

I would think it was wonderful if Chelsea went into politics
Bill Clinton

Why stop there?

If confirmed, Senator Ken Salazar will vacate his seat in Colorado to head the Department of the Interior.

His younger brother John, currently a US Congressman, is being considered for an instant promotion to the Senate.

Hillary Clinton - wife of former president Bill - will be vacating her New York senate seat and Caroline Kennedy - daughter of former president John - is lobbying hard to replace her even though she has always run away from politics.

Being part of Barack Obama's tide of history is clearly just too good to miss.

Her ailing uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy, has been making calls on her behalf.

New York Governor David Paterson, whose responsibility it will be to fill the seat, is reportedly impressed.

With the tragic death of her brother John F Kennedy Jr in a plane accident, the Kennedy dynasty seemed to have hit the end of the road.

But the dynastic embers are still glowing.

I am not suggesting that Caroline is not up to the job and does not have the best public service intentions.

But would she seriously be considered for the job if she was not a Kennedy?

Starting-whistle

What about the Clintons?

Bill and Hillary's daughter Chelsea was omnipresent on the campaign trail, but studiously silent by her mother's side.

It used to be said that she had seen far too much politics than was good for any young woman of high morals.

So what did her father tell the German magazine Bunte the other day?

"Hillary and I are very proud of Chelsea because she never tried to take advantage of her position. I would think it was wonderful if Chelsea went into politics."

Sounds like a campaign starting-whistle to me - Bill Clinton has never said that before.

George W Bush (L) and brother Jeb Bush
President Bush's brother Jeb (R) was governor of Florida

And just in case you thought that the dynastic gland was a freak of Democratic Party nature, just remember who the 41st and 43rd presidents were.

The Bush family firm has not only produced two presidents in 12 years, it has also given them almost exactly the same name but for George Bush Sr's stray H.

I guess it saves on the monogrammed napkins in the White House.

And by the way, the Bush family has not run out of fresh blood yet.

The President told reporters recently that his younger brother Jeb, the former governor of Florida, would make an excellent Senator. No kidding?

Perfect solution

So what it is it about the durability of the dynastic instinct?

Does a pure Republic rub against our human desire/need for celebrity?

Do we feel comfortable with the familiar name-tags of power?

Perhaps politics is just another family business handed down from one generation to the next like running a deli or a laundry

Britain can dispense with its prime ministers with admirable ruthlessness because we have the benign continuity of a powerless monarchy.

The constitutional monarch is the perfect solution: the defanged dynasty.

As a result, we have never been too kind to the heirs of elected office or too ambitious on their behalf.

Just look at the careers of Margaret Thatcher's children and Winston Churchill's grandchildren.

The French still stick to the hallowed principles of their revolution.

There is simply too much historical grandeur at stake to mess around with dynastic twitches.

And egalitarian "Dynastienphobie" - God bless German composite nouns - is a development that Germany owes to the grotesque abuses of Adolf Hitler.

The Nazis ensured that Germany would be levelled by the rubble of war giving it a level playing field in post-war politics.

No free passes

Perhaps I am being churlish.

Perhaps politics is just another family business handed down from one generation to the next like running a deli or a laundry.

The next generation may inherit the profession but they still have to make it work on the bottom line.

After the initial leg up, there are no free passes.

The Bushes, Kennedys, Clintons, Bidens, Jacksons and Salazars may from time to time be hoisted into vacant senate seats, but they all have to run for election and re-election.

Ultimately, they have to convince the voters.

They too need to meet the bottom line.

But if you are sitting in Pakistan, India or the Democratic Republic of Congo, all of which know about dynastic rule, you may well be wondering about the perils of trusting in pedigree.

Some very clever people put some very stupid blind trust into a man called Madoff because he was a member of the right clubs, gave money to the right causes and came with such a grand reputation for making a mint.

In the same way, those observers from Pakistan or Africa could be forgiven for thinking that allowing a senate seat to be handed seamlessly to a favoured friend or family member is just a little too familiar.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).


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