We Will Have a King over Us
Is George W. just a brand name, or part of another political
By Charles Krauthammer
September 6, 1999
Web posted at: 10:17 a.m. EDT (1417 GMT)
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
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
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.
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Cover Date: September 13, 1999