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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

We Will Have a King over Us

Is George W. just a brand name, or part of another political dynasty?

By Charles Krauthammer

September 6, 1999
Web posted at: 10:17 a.m. EDT (1417 GMT)

TIME magazine

When Edward M. Kennedy first ran for his brother John's Senate seat in 1962, his opponent famously said of this youngest, least distinguished Kennedy, "If his name were Edward Moore, [his] candidacy would be a joke." In this season of George W. Bush, a pleasant enough Governor of modest achievement, one is forced to ask, "If his name were George Walker, would he be a presidential candidate, let alone the runaway front runner for the Republican nomination?"

A nation can abolish monarchy, as America did with zest in 1776. But it cannot so easily abolish the dynastic impulse. The American fascination with royalty shows itself most flagrantly in our obsession with the Kennedys, but familial succession permeates American political life. Look no further than the glamour races for election year 2000. The top two Republican candidates are the son of a former President and the wife of the party's last presidential candidate (joined at the top by the son of a famous plutocrat).

Even more impressive is the aura surrounding Hillary Clinton's Senate bid. It has been widely noted how her "listening tour" of New York State resembles the periodic descent of Britain's Queen among the commoners--taking tea, giving chat, laying on hands. Mrs. Clinton evokes the starry-eyed hem touching that one associates with royal visits, and once associated with the campaign of another dynastic candidate, also descended upon New York State in pursuit of its Senate seat. In 1964 excited crowds tore at the outstretched arms of Robert Kennedy, often coming away with pieces of royal raiment.

By no means, however, is the dynastic impulse a purely American phenomenon. In Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri led her party to victory in the recent elections. She came out of nowhere. She has no political experience. And her political views are almost unknown. No matter--she is the daughter of Sukarno, founder of the Indonesian state.

In India, an Italian woman who did not even become an Indian citizen until her mid-30s has suddenly been elevated to head of the Congress Party and leading candidate for Prime Minister. Yet Sonia Gandhi is not even a member of Parliament. Her chief qualification? Choice of spouse. Her late husband was Rajiv Gandhi, slain Prime Minister, himself the most recent example of India's experiment in monarchical rule within a democratic shell. The line is almost unbroken. The first Prime Minister (Nehru) begat a Prime Minister (daughter Indira) who begat another (son Rajiv). His children being too young to reign, India's Congress Party is proposing what in the Middle Ages was called a regency: let the widow rule for now.

Sonia, however, is no pioneer of spousal succession. Corazon Aquino and Violeta Chamorro, both widows of assassinated opposition leaders, became Presidents, respectively, of the Philippines and Nicaragua. They did not, however, get there by default. They ascended by courageously making themselves the rallying point of a revolution. The one who did ascend for no other discernible reason than having shared the great one's bed is one Mrs. Peron of Argentina. Not Evita, who became a saint after her death but never actually ruled--no, the sorriest modern case of rule by consort is Peron's third wife, Isabel, a cabaret dancer he met during one of his exiles in Spain, who turned in one of the most disastrous presidencies in Argentine history.

With so many republics turning so slavishly to blood and bed partners for political salvation, it is refreshing to find places like Jordan and Morocco, which are open and honest about the whole thing. The leader dies; the eldest son becomes leader. No muss. No fuss.

Of course, totalitarian states do dynastic succession best of all. Assad of Syria and Saddam of Iraq are currently grooming sons to succeed them. In North Korea, Kim Jong Il sits upon the throne of his god-dad, Kim Il Sung. But dictatorships are so much less interesting. Rulers always want their heirs to rule, but why do the ruled want it too? Why is the dynastic impulse so popular, so powerful in democracies?

Perhaps in advanced capitalist countries like the U.S., the attraction to a Bush or a Dole has less to do with bloodline than with branding. The scions and consorts of the great carry trusted names. You buy Diet Pepsi because you know and trust Pepsi. You figure that if the Pepsi people are making a diet soda, it is bound to be O.K. People know and like--particularly in late-Clinton retrospect--Bush the elder. Knowing the Bush brand, they are willing to try Bush the younger.

Well, perhaps. But the branding rationale lets us all off too easily. After all, monarchy long predates capitalism. The dynastic impulse in the modern world is less an expression of advanced consumerism than a recrudescence of the most primitive political impulse: "Nay, but we will have a king over us" (I Samuel 8: 19). Here in America we only lend the throne, for a four- or eight-year stretch. Progress, I suppose, from the endless tenure of the Henrys and the Edwards, when your pig in a poke was for life. But less progress than we think.


Cover Date: September 13, 1999

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