American Royalty – Nepotism in Politics and Media

Glenn Greenwald laments the rise of “American royalty.”

They should convene a panel for the next Meet the Press with Jenna Bush Hager, Luke Russert, Liz Cheney, Megan McCain and Jonah Goldberg, and they should have Chris Wallace moderate it.  They can all bash affirmative action and talk about how vitally important it is that the U.S. remain a Great Meritocracy because it’s really unfair for anything other than merit to determine position and employment.  They can interview Lisa Murkowski, Evan Bayh, Jeb Bush, Bob Casey, Mark Pryor, Jay Rockefeller, Dan Lipinksi, and Harold Ford, Jr. about personal responsibility and the virtues of self-sufficiency.  Bill Kristol, Tucker Carlson and John Podhoretz can provide moving commentary on how America is so special because all that matters is merit, not who you know or where you come from.  There’s a virtually endless list of politically well-placed guests equally qualified to talk on such matters.

Some of the examples are more egregious than others.  Murkowski is the most outrageous; plucked out of nowhere to be appointed to fill her father’s vacant seat by her father. Arguably, at least, those elected to public office to follow in the footsteps of famous fathers have to stand the scrutiny, such as it is, of the voters.  And Chris Wallace at least legitimately worked in the news business for years before getting tabbed to host a show.  Jenna Bush and Megan McCain seem to be celebrities solely because of who their dads are.

Liz Cheney is an especially odd case.  She is genuinely well qualified to comment on a variety of issues owing to having served for years in very important public policy posts.  Alas, it’s doubtful whether she’d have been appointed to said posts were her last name Smith or Jones.

I’m also a bit dubious of the inclusion of Goldberg, Kristol, and Carlson on the list.    Carlson and Goldberg had ever-so-modestly famous parents who presumably helped them get a foot in the door.  But it’s doubtful that Carlson got on TV based on who his parents were. Nor is it obvious why being a literary agent is of great help in launching a son as a conservative pundit. Kristol’s father was a giant and certainly helped launch his son’s career but he’s not in the same category of Podhoretz, who essentially inherited his dad’s magazine.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. IanY77 says:

    or Goldberg got hired by the McCain campaign based on who their parents were.

    One small issue with an otherwise good post. It was Michael Goldfarb, not Jonah Goldberg, who was hired by the McCain campaign (as communications director IIRC).

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    The phenomenon is something I’ve complained about myself at my place from time to time. To place it in perspective my alderman is the daughter of the former alderman, my mayor is the son of a former mayor, the president of the county board is the son of the previous chairman, until he was impeached the governor was the nephew of a prominent Chicago alderman, and the last president was the son of a former president.

    That nepotism is at work is obvious.

    However, I do notice a peculiar omission from Mr. Greenwald’s list. I note that the name “Kennedy” does not appear in it. Perhaps he feels that it would be indelicate to mention that at this time.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @IanY77: Thanks for pointing that out. Post corrected accordingly.

  4. sam says:

    On politics…well, it ain’t new: John Adams and John Quincy Adams. I think it’s a matter of branding, in the end, and we should expand the meaning of “retail politics” to reflect this.

  5. sam says:

    Ah, found this delicious piece –CAMPOS: To the manner born:

    Which brings me to this charming vignette, courtesy of blog commenter Harry Hopkins:

    “I remember back in the late 1990s, when Ira Katznelson, an eminent political scientist at Columbia, came to deliver a guest lecture. Prof. Katznelson described a lunch he had with Irving Kristol during the first Bush administration.

    “The talk turned to William Kristol, then Dan Quayle’s chief of staff, and how he got his start in politics. Irving recalled how he talked to his friend Harvey Mansfield at Harvard, who secured William a place there as both an undergrad and graduate student; how he talked to Pat Moynihan, then Nixon’s domestic policy adviser, and got William an internship at the White House; how he talked to friends at the RNC [Republican National Committee] and secured a job for William after he got his Harvard Ph.D.; and how he arranged with still more friends for William to teach at Penn and the Kennedy School of Government.

    “With that, Prof. Katznelson recalled, he then asked Irving what he thought of affirmative action. ‘I oppose it,’ Irving replied. ‘It subverts meritocracy.’ “

  6. In re: Goldberg–I am insufficiently aware of his exact career trajectory, but to what degree was his mother’s prominence in the Lewinsky affair the catalyst for his career? My vague sense is that was a key element to his career.

    Beyond that, his mother was more than just a literary agent, yes? Didn’t she have long-term connections in DC?

  7. Brian Knapp says:

    sam beat me to the point. It’s more akin to branding than royalty, but that’s royalty to America in a sense.

    Of course, in relative terms, I much prefer the branding to royalty for at least the individuals themselves are still responsible for their performances. Also, it doesn’t mean necessarily that they aren’t qualified to do what they do either. In some cases, they are held up to a higher level of scrutiny.

  8. kth says:

    Goldberg’s case is indeed one more of the happenstance of his mother’s central role in the Lewinsky scandal, than of his mother generally being so plugged-in (she is, but into black helicopter circles more than DC’s Republican establishment).

    Here’s a Salon backgrounder that is less egregiously unfair than you might expect given the source.

    On the general topic of nepotism: I find myself untroubled by the examples Greenwald cites, especially considered on a case-by-case basis. I think it would be more constructive to disabuse ourselves of our naive conception of merit, than to try to salvage it by rooting out the instances of nepotism.

  9. marjorie says:

    This is a good post to show the strengths and weaknesses of Joyner’s whole approach.

    Greenwald is clearly writing with an undertone of anger and contempt for Republican hypocrisy.

    Joyner responds to the forest by studying the leaves. “They’re not all the same, this one’s gratuitous, this one’s less so…”

    By the time you’re done with James’s post, all the anger has been drained out of the issue, and a milquetoast pedant has neutralized the real point.

    While it is indeed helpful to realize the differences among the examples, James seems resigned or indifferent to what it really means. It means the GOP is full of s**t, that they don’t practice what they preach and never have. If that isn’t worth getting angry about, I don’t know what is.

    James probably thinks it’s mature and scholarly to be so aloof and blase about it all. A realist: “This is the way of the world.”

    This is what makes his posts so maddening to read; he’s uninvolved, detached. If you can’t express even a hint of emotion in a blog, where can you?

    It’s just not his personality to get angry about anything, no matter blatant the hypocrisy. But he should be upset about these examples, instead you get the nonchalance.

    James really doesn’t say that Glenn is right, either. He just iterates through the list and comments one by one, escaping any commentary on the trend, which was Glenn’s whole point. He leaves the overarching lesson implicit.

    This makes James seem a dull, journeyman thinker. No real brilliance in his writing or in his insights. Just a plodding mule. I like his ability to deflate hyperbole and demonstrate the out-of-fashion virtues of sobriety and prudence, but here it does him a disservice.

    His posts have no bite, and rarely leave the reader with any flash of insight. Typically, his posts leave you with a tedious “this position has benefits and weaknesses” vibe. Disappointing.

  10. PD Shaw says:

    Murkowski is the most outrageous; plucked out of nowhere to be appointed to fill her father’s vacant seat by her father

    Murkowski was more brazen; Lipinski more cynical. Lipinski resigned his seat just after it was too late for a primary competition, throwing the Democratic nomination to the machine bosses, which included not only Lipinski, but people like Daley, Hynes, and Madigan, all of whom have unclean hands when it comes to nepotism. Lipinski’s son, who had not lived in Illinois for fifteen years, was the only name presented to the Democratic committee, and now he has the seat for life.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @marjorie “Greenwald is clearly writing with an undertone of anger and contempt for Republican hypocrisy.”

    I think he’s just talking about a general trend. After all, most of the people he’s talking about are Democrats.

    Further, where’s the hypocrisy? What Republican claims that connections don’t help?

    As to the issue of differentiating the examples, it strikes me as important. Do mediocrities get ahead because of connections? Of course. But many of these people genuinely achieved once given the opening and it’s unfair to tar them with the “nepotism” brush when they climbed most of the rungs themselves. And again — that applies to Bayh and others.

    Do I love that Meghan McCain became a well-known pundit overnight based on her father’s name, good looks, and a willingness to shoot at Republicans whilst ostensibly in the tent? Nope. But it’s not a case of Tina Brown and others trying to curry favor with John McCain but rather the fact that we live in a celebrity culture. I don’t fault young Meghan for taking advantage of that.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    While I agree with sam’s point above, that nepotism has been a feature of American politics for some time, I think that the problem is particularly egregious now or at least it looks that way from where I’m sitting.

    The case of Dan Lipinski, mentioned by PD Shaw above, is illustrative. The reason it’s a greater problem than in the past is that there are so many “safe seats”. Among other reforms we need anti-gerrymander laws.

  13. Alexandra Pelosi?

    I think Nepotism is even worse on the state level. Here in Missouri we have the Carnahans on one side of the fence and the Blounts on the other.

    And it’s even worse again on the local level. Rather than focus on names no one would know in St. Louis, I’ll revert to the days of my youth and mention two words: Richard Daley.

  14. On a side note, parents have always wanted to help their children along as best they can and they always will. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But when the family business is politics, well, this is what you get. Nobody expects Joe the Plumber to not favor his children in his own business. The problem is that the government isn’t “their” business, even if they do seem to treat it as though it belongs to them.

    All in all, it seems to me to be yet another good argument for keeping government as small as possible.

  15. kth says:

    Alexandra Pelosi is actually a good example of how this seems to work. A documentary maker and journalist, the younger Pelosi probably had no doors opened to her directly by virtue of her mother’s political station. Similarly, iirc, one of Al Gore’s daughters was a writer for the Simpsons spin-off Futurama. It’s not that the family name gets you the job, it’s that the proximity to the center of power means simply that, from a networking perspective, there are far fewer nodes/hops to the really cool jobs.

    The very ubiquity of connected people, the lack of competitive downside to not taking the absolute best and brightest applicants, only means that even in the most coveted jobs, people are far more interchangeable and replaceable than is usually appreciated.

  16. molly bloom says:

    Marjorie made a small error. Marjorie is probably correct about

    Greenwald is clearly writing with an undertone of anger and contempt for …… hypocrisy.

    However, the anger and contempt is for conservative hypocrisy not merely Republcan.

    While all national Republican politicans and probably 90% of all other Republicans are conservative, not all conservatives are Republican. Some are members of the Democratic party. They are usually called Bluedogs these days.

    Other than Jay Rockefeller, there is no one on the list who isn’t a conservative and Jay ain’t exactly a Ted Kennedy liberal.

    Interestingly Joyner missed this other (and obvious) connection in Glenn’s list.

  17. RW Rogers says:

    the younger Pelosi probably had no doors opened to her directly by virtue of her mother’s political station.

    Oh, please! She’s as much a poster child for nepotism as Kristol et. al.

  18. PD Shaw says:

    Dan Lipinski has a 54.7 liberal rating from the National Journal, meaning he votes for the liberal position 54.7% of the time. That may make him a relatively conservative Democrat, but not a conservative. (The Republican with the highest liberal score in the House is Michael Caste of Delaware with a 46.2% liberal rating)

  19. Rick l says:

    Greenwald is clearly writing with an undertone of anger and contempt for Republican hypocrisy.

    Democrats always have great contempt for Republican hypocrisy. And they always seem totally oblivious to their own hypocrisy. It’s almost hypocritial, isn’t it?

    It means the GOP is full of s**t, that they don’t practice what they preach and never have.

    So, do the Democrats really “preach” their devotion to inherited power and privilege? I could have sworn they they pretend to be a very different party.

  20. Dave Schuler says:

    charles austin:

    You’re a St. Louisan? Where’d you go to high school?

  21. kth says:

    Oh, please! She’s as much a poster child for nepotism as Kristol et. al.

    Really? How do you know this? Unlike Kristol (and most of Greenwald’s examples from both parties), Alexandra Pelosi isn’t in the same line of work as her mother.

    Besides, my argument was that most supposed examples of nepotism probably work in the same indirect way (might even be true of Kristol for all I know). As far as I know, none of the cited examples was simply hired as a favor to the powerful person, especially not the ones who were elected to those positions. Whatever “in” Evan Bayh or Harold Ford had, they still had to persuade a majority of their constituents to vote for them.

  22. Furhead says:

    But it’s doubtful that Carlson got on TV based on who his parents were.

    Personally I believe it’s the bowtie.

  23. Although I have resided in St. Louis for eleven years now I did not grow up here. Your question indicates that you have some passing familiarity with the local culture, so, uh, what high school did you go to? My answer to your question is East Aurora High School, which, incidentally, is why I mentioned Richard Daley.

  24. pylon says:

    Whatever “in” Evan Bayh or Harold Ford had, they still had to persuade a majority of their constituents to vote for them.

    Or in the case of Bush 2000, a slim minority 😉

  25. Dave Schuler says:

    Your question indicates that you have some passing familiarity with the local culture, so, uh, what high school did you go to?

    SLUH. One branch or another of my family has been in St. Louis since before there was a St. Louis. Indeed, a distant relative was standing on the banks of the Mississippi selling real estate when Chouteau and Laclede landed.

  26. Fascinating. SLUH is a pretty good school, but you already know that.

  27. Dave Schuler says:

    In the days before the glaciers receded and dinosaurs ruled the earth (when I went there), it was even better. That was before DeSmet opened.

  28. An Interested Party says:

    I think it would be more constructive to disabuse ourselves of our naive conception of merit, than to try to salvage it by rooting out the instances of nepotism.

    So…cutting someone a break because of his lineage is just fine, but cutting someone else a break because of his ethnic background is bad? Interesting…