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Rodney Frelinghuysen’s (R-NJ) office is different from most that you might visit in Congress. It’s the same size and shape, but unusually has the air of a political museum. On the wall behind the desk is a huge campaign flag that once flew for his ancestor in the epic Presidential contest of 1844, when Henry Clay and Theodore Frelinghuysen clashed, unsuccessfully, with Polk and Dallas.

There are political cartoons from the nineteenth century around the walls. The whole effect is one of supreme confidence and a sense that this Congress is as much Freylinghuysen’s as anyone else’s.

Rodney Frelinghuysen is the eight term New Jersey 11th District Representative in the U.S. House of representatives. A mere slip of a youth he has some way to go yet to equal the eleven terms served by his father Peter Frelinghuysen. Father and son have served a collective 36 years in Congress which might account for that built-in-with-the–bricks feel his office can give but its only a fraction of the time his family as a whole have wandered the corridors of power.

The Frelinghuysens have managed to rack up so many oligarchical appearances in Washington that as a family they rank seventh in the “dynasties” of America just behind the Adams (at five) and the Bushes (at six).

The Freylinghuysens are old, old America, coming first from Germany in 1720 to the British Colony with Theodore, a Dutch-Reformed minister during a period of religious revival called “The Great Awakening”. His grandson fought in the American revolution rising to Major General in 1794 during a Whiskey Rebellion. He banked the kudos converting it into political capital as a delegate from New Jersey to the Continental Congress of 1799 and rose steadily to US Senator and the US District Attorney for New Jersey. His family have drawn on this bank ever since.

A total of four of the family have been Senators. A couple of generations later Frederick Theodore Frelinghuysen was by turns States Attorney General, US Senator, and Secretary of State.

Theodore’s brother John another General, married a Mercer, one of a family connected to the later Bushes. Another relative was father-in-law to Henry Cabot Lodge junior. Making Rodney and George Cabot Lodge (delegate to Republican National Conventions) third cousins.

Not that Rodders says he feels particularly privileged. He believes that his pal Tom Kean, the former New Jersey Governor’s family are more illustrious.

The family have never been spectacular, never ones for the front page, or the gossip column, never jet set types. They get by, though through the age old political practise nowadays called “earmarking”. A very American term this, which sounds so much nicer than “pork barrel politics”, it is simply the practise of diverting as much federal cash as possible into your constituency even if it might be better spent elsewhere.

In 2010 Rodney Frelinghuysen sponsored or co-sponsored 39 “earmarks” totalling $75,700,000, giving him a pork ranking of 20th out of 435 representatives.

They get by, by being “moderate”, being useful, and never being the types to rock the boat.  They deliver. They slide by under the radar because they don’t get into scandals, or shock people by having their family arguments broadcast through “Vanity Fair” or “US People”. The nearest old Rodders got to anything controversial was when in 2000 that scruffy oik Michael Moore decided to feature him in the film “The Awful Truth” pointing out that so many of these old oligarchs stand unopposed time and time again. “We think” he declaimed “that it’s time to point out to the Frelinghuysen family that we live in a democracy not a dynasty”. The only thing wrong here Michael is – its oligarchy not dynasty!

Quietly oiling the local interest groups, keeping a low profile and one’s nose clean has kept Rodney and his ancestors firmly in the boss man’s seat, making them one of New Jersey’s – and America’s- longest serving political families and a solid element of the oligarchical “dark matter” that holds the American political cosmos together.

Rodney will be seeking his ninth term this year.

Copyright 2010 David Macadam

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