Fascinating Political Families
Reading Destiny and Power, I was surprised by how engaged I was by the story of George Herbert Walker Bush and his family, from his 19th century ancestors to his high-profile offspring. On the flamboyance scale, the Bush family registers pretty low – the family’s twin modes, Meacham writes, are “disguised ambition and ritualistic self-effacement.” But to me, political families are fascinating. They reinforce the idea that certain traits and preferences actually run in families.
That brings up my first book – a fabulous discovery called American Political Dynasties by Stephen Hess.
Hess is a long-time fellow at a Washington think tank, the Brookings Institution. He first published a version of this book 50 years ago. Then, after 50 years of studying government in the heart of the nation’s capital, he revised and updated his masterwork.
This is a big, official-looking volume, and I expected it to be some sort of dry reference text. Not true! Hess tells the story of 18 separate American political family dynasties, whose stories stretch from the Revolution to today’s presidential race.
Hess includes families everyone knows about, like the Bushes and the Kennedys, but there are others most of us have never heard of, such as the Bayards of Delaware. Then there are those that stand out for their sheer flamboyance and larger-than life personalities, such as the Longs of Louisiana (as in Huey P. and Earl).
These families have produced lines of presidents, vice presidents, Congressmen, governors. Pretty amazing stuff for a country like ours that claims not to have an aristocracy. Hess doesn’t just chronicle the winners – he tells the losers’ stories too. And Hess gives credit to the spouses – think of Eleanor Roosevelt, Barbara Bush, or Hillary Clinton, who at the moment is aiming to be the first First Lady to become a president. If you have a political junkie in your family, run out and buy them this book.
Now – here are some books about presidents well worth your time.
Our first president didn’t found a political dynasty, but he was one hell of a guy, and Ron Chernow wrote one hell of a book about him. Washington: A Life, the biography of our first president, is an immensely readable, deeply researched book. Chernow tells everything worth knowing about George Washington, from his youth as a young military adventurer to a leader who almost singlehandedly brought this country through some very tough times.
The thing that sticks with me about this book is Washington’s ordeals during the Revolutionary War. He struggled, for years on end, to get enough money from Congress to buy them shoes and fill their stomachs – something of a snob in his younger years, Washington developed a deep emotional bond with his troops. This book knocks down the stiff profile most of us have of Washington to reveal a brilliant, complicated and determined man.
Speaking of political dynasties – the Adams family is my all-time favorite, a line of politicians and thinkers, from the firebreathing New England revolutionary Samuel Adams, to father and son presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, to Henry Adams, one of the great writers of the 19th century. I have mentioned it before, but I have to bring up David McCullough’s great biography, John Adams, truly one of the best books I have ever read.
I think it helps, if you are a biographer, to really like your subject. It’s obvious that McCullough did. John Adams was a piece of work – a politician, statesman and diplomat, Adams really did not seem to care whether he was popular or not! Nevertheless, Adams ensured the survival of the young republic –as a diplomat, he managed to cut favorable deals with both the French and the British, who just a few years earlier had considered Adams a traitor. As a president, he helped the young country weather one crisis after another. One more wonderful aspect to this book – John Adams’ lifelong love affair with his wife, Abigail, an incredibly resilient woman who protected their family for years on end, while her husband was overseas or in Washington.
Abigail’s son, John Quincy Adams, was a terrific politician and statesman in his own right. John Quincy Adams: American Visionary by Fred Kaplan, tells the story of a very unusual man.
John Quincy first sailed to Europe with his father while he was twelve years old. At fourteen, he was dispatched from France to St. Petersburg to become secretary to the American minister to Russia. This involved a 55-day, 2,500 mile carriage ride, traveling through a wild and primitive landscape, one that opened the young man’s eyes to the harshness of the Old World. In Poland, he wrote in his diary, “all the farmers are in the most abject slavery, they are bought and sold like so many beasts.”
John Quincy got a lot of experience under his belt fast – he would need it, because his term as U.S. President was one of the toughest any president has ever endured.
Finally, I want to circle back to the man who made John Adams a one-term president – Thomas Jefferson, the subject of Jon Meacham’s 2012 biography Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.
Jefferson and Adams could not have been more different. Adams was blunt and uninterested in charming people – Jefferson excelled at it. They fought bitterly over many issues, but they founded the country together. They wrote back and forth for years – 158 letters in all – and finally made up as they aged.
They died on the same day – July 4, 1826, within five hours of one another – two patriots, whose passing signaled the end of the revolutionary age.