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As Adams once said (and without a blush too) “But in my country you know here is nothing hereditary in public affairs”.

Over Christmas I treated myself to a copy of American Political Families by Stephen Hess. Hess is described as a senior fellow emeritus in Governance Studies at Brookings. Brookings Institute is a think-tank in Washington specialising in Social Studies.

We might remember that Hess was, at the beginning of his career, a speech writer to President Eisenhower, and worked with President Nixon and later a Research Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.

So he should know what he is talking about.

Indeed he originally wrote this book nearly fifty years ago way back in 1966, and now at age 88 he has returned to it, duly updated, perhaps as a last hurrah, perhaps to boost his pension.

Eighteen families ranging from the Adams, the Bayards of Delaware, the Breckenridges and Mullenburgs up to and including the Bushes and the Clintons are all here.

Their stories are not new, indeed there is precious little here that is new, but Hess still manages to roll out the old stories with some style and a journalist’s eye for the telling little anecdote, the personal quirks and mannerisms that define a man and his family.

Hess’s main sin in my eyes is that he depicts these families as portraits following each other as in a gallery. Solid, stout, sternly individual. Indeed the back cover insert shows them as just that – portraits sitting on a mantleshelf.

Which somewhat misses the point.

Certainly he sees that seventy five families have contributed over three members of their numbers to the upper reaches of public office. What he fails to discern that they exist in a landscape of interlocking, interconnected political families competing for the Consulship of the Republic. He does see that these families contribute Senators, Governors, Ambassadors and Representatives, generation after generation, but fails to make that final leap.

Hess fails to see, or if he does see then he fails to tell the reader, that they are mostly genealogically inter-related and form a distinct political sub group. An Oligarchy. Indeed 27 of the 43 Presidents (and it IS 43 as Grover Cleveland served in two non-sequential administrations) are related by blood, marriage or adoption.

In my own research I have found this oligarchical tendency is not something we see only in the early days of the Union when a small tightly knit population coupled with the obvious difficulties of travel would lead one to suppose a greater interconnection of elite families. We can see this trend continuing on, up to, and throughout the twentieth century so that by the early twenty-first century even after unprecedented levels of immigration by such disparate groups as Germans, Irish, Jews, Scandinavians, Hispanics and Armenians not to mention the black Americans of slave origin -it is surprising to find that Calvin Coolidge is as near as third cousin to John Adams, or that Herbert Hoover is fourth cousin to Franklin Pierce.  Carter and Hoover, usually considered the archetypical outsiders, are still sixth cousins. Despite the humorist’s jibes about peanut farming, man of the people’s Jimmy Carter’s ancestry is as plantation blue as any. In today’s United States of 310 million people George W Bush was, and is, related to 22 previous presidents and is as close as fourth cousin to James Garfield, president in 1881.

So better use of genealogical trees and other graphical representations would have been a great aid here. It might have brought out some of the above. Sadly we are left with a few (very few) genealogical trees which are “bare-bone” at best. This is poor,  it is an opportunity lost.

For all his skill, and his background in Social Science, Hess gives no explanation as to why in 2016 we may end up only having a choice between two families, Clinton or Bush, who have been in power over the last thirty years.

Nor does he even go near, far less give an explanation as to why the last time the Republicans won a Presidency WITHOUT there being a Nixon or a Bush on the ticket was 1928.

George HW Bush appointed US Ambassador to the UN by President Nixon.

George HW Bush appointed US Ambassador to the UN by President Nixon. June 12, 1970 Courtesy: George Bush Presidential Library and Museum

A good read certainly, and one I would recommend you get, but by no means the whole story.

Copyright David Macadam 2015

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