With President Bush exiting the stage in less than a month and Ted Kennedy in uncertain health, two of America's most enduring and powerful political dynasties are seemingly at a crossroads.
It's hard to remember a time when a Bush or a Kennedy wasn't a player on the national scene. In fact, since 1956, when Sen. John F. Kennedy was given strong consideration as Adlai Stevenson's running mate at the Democratic National Convention, a Bush or Kennedy has sought the presidency or vice presidency in all but four elections ('64, '72, '76, '96)—a staggering testament to their reach and staying power.
But dynasties don't last forever. Few, in fact, have survived more than two generations, as Charles Francis Adams found out following his unsuccessful presidential candidacy for the Free Soil party in 1848. His defeat brought an end to our nation's first dynasty, the progenitors of our second and sixth presidents.
For pure longevity, the Tafts remain the benchmark. Beginning with Alphonso Taft in the 1860s, five generations of Tafts have held prominent office, including President William Howard Taft; his son Sen. Robert Taft, whom many consider to be among the finest to ever serve in that body; Bob Taft Jr., who also served in the U.S. Senate, and his son Robert Taft II, who recently completed a two-term stint as governor of Ohio. It's uncertain where the line goes from here.
While wealth is a prerequisite for dynastic ambitions, it doesn't necessarily guarantee longevity. When it comes to resources, it's hard to top the Rockefellers. At the time of his death, J.D. Rockefeller's net worth reached $330 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, making him the richest person in U.S. history. But for all that money, the dynasty has produced only a vice president (Nelson), a governor of Arkansas (Winthrop), and a U.S. senator (Jay Rockefeller, the current senator from West Virginia). Not bad, but not overwhelming, either.
Like money, a famous last name helps, too, though it's certainly not a dynasty maker. If that were the case, we'd be talking about the long line of Roosevelts who have dominated American politics, but aside from Theodore and Franklin (distant cousins), there have not been any save FDR Jr.'s brief stint in Congress in the '40s. In some ways, the Roosevelt name has an anachronistic feel, similar to one of those companies that ceased doing business decades ago, like American Motors or U.S. Rubber. We're used to reading about the Roosevelts, not voting for them; seeing one on the ballot would feel a bit like a novelty gift—interesting, but not for me. Perhaps no family has done more with a single name than the Stevensons of Illinois. Three generations of Adlai E. Stevensons have left their mark on the national scene, beginning with Adlai E. Stevenson, who served as vice president to Grover Cleveland; his grandson Adlai E. Stevenson II, a one-term governor of Illinois, a U.N. ambassador, and twice the Democratic nominee for president (twice defeated by Dwight Eisenhower); and his son Adlai E. Stevenson III, who served in the U.S. Senate during the '70s. There are both an Adlai E. Stevenson IV and V, so the political line may continue, though Adlai V is too young to vote, let alone run for anything. And what lies in store for our nation's two most prominent political dynasties? Where do they go from here? The question for the Bush family is a simple one: Has President Bush irreparably harmed the family name, and in doing so has he soiled it for future generations? With the president's approval rating in the mid 20s, it's hard to imagine how the Bush brand could actually help the presumptive heir apparent, Jeb Bush. The former governor of Florida could probably get elected to the Senate (if he were so inclined), but rallying the Republican faithful behind a "Jeb for President" movement in either 2012 or 2016 is another matter altogether.
There's a palpable feeling among many Republicans that they're suffering from a severe case of "Bush fatigue," and that it will be a long while before another Bush is on a national ticket. Which may, in an odd way, play into the hands of Jeb's son, George P. Bush, who many think could be the next Bush to enter the family business. He's young, articulate, and Hispanic, and more important can wait two decades before seeking office—a luxury his father does not have.
The Kennedys face a different challenge—one of succession. For a while it seemed Joseph P. Kennedy II, Robert's oldest son, would become the torchbearer, but his political career fizzled after a failed gubernatorial bid and a high-profile divorce. Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend looked like a possibility, too, but her gubernatorial defeat in 2002 seems to have stalled her career. Rep. Patrick Kennedy has had a steady if not understated career in Congress and presumably will seek higher office someday, though it's unlikely he'll become a lion of the Senate like his father.