Just before break we discussed the idea of the U.S. as being a place where any citizen over 35 can really become president. Influence and money seem to be important ingredients in political success -- but not everyone has equal access to these commodities. Here are a few examples:
* Caroline Kennedy appears poised to assume the Senate seat left vacant by Hilary Rodham Clinton. Jeb Bush has expressed interest in running for the Senate seat in Florida, the state he ran as governor.
* When Alaska's two senators take their seats in the new Congress next month, their names will be familiar to most voters in that state.Senator Lisa Murkowski and her soon-to-be colleague, Mayor Mark Begich of Anchorage, are the daughter and son of two Alaskans who squared off in the 1970 race for the state's sole House seat. And just think of the Clintons, the Cuomos -- the Daleys in our fair city!
Adam Bellow (son of the late Noble Prize-winning Saul Bellow!) sees nothing wrong with nepotism. In his recent book In Praise of Nepotism: A History of Family Enterprise from King David to George W. Bush argues that "[Capitalism] in essence is a family enterprise. Most businesses were and still are started by family members."
Others, including Brown University economists Pedro and Ernesto Dal Bo, are a little more concerned. They argue that in the U.S. -- as in every other country -- "power begets power." And it's been this way since our country was founded. According to the Dal Bo brothers, "Forty-five percent of the members of the first U.S. Congress had relatives enter Congress after them, compared with a still-high follow rate of about 10 percent now. They say that the rate of children following their forebears into Congress outstrips the rate of those who follow their parents into any other career, from medicine and law to plumbing."
That first Congress (1789-1791) launched the record service of two notable families. The Breckinridge family of Kentucky, whose most notable member was Henry Clay, "The Great Compromiser" had 17 family members serve; the most recent, John Breckinridge, left Congress in 1978. And the Muhlenberg family of Pennsylvania had 13 members of Congress between 1789 and 1880, including Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg, the first speaker of the House. (New York Times)
Regarding money, I was struck by a recent article in Forbes magazine. The article quotes Edward Pessen, author of the book The Log Cabin Myth who writes, "One thing is clear, the popular assumption that most of the presidents were of humble birth is wrong." In fact, at least a third of the presidents he examined were in the top 1% of the wealth and class indexes. Who was the richest president (adjusted for inflation, of course)? George Washington. Here's his top ten:
George Washington 1789 to 1797
Thomas Jefferson 1801 to 1809
Andrew Jackson 1829 to 1837
Zachary Taylor 1849 to 1850
Theodore Roosevelt 1901 to 1909
Herbert Hoover 1929 to 1933
Franklin D. Roosevelt 1933 to 1945
John F. Kennedy 1961 to 1963
Lyndon B. Johnson 1963 to 1969
George W. Bush 2001 to present
The article singles out Abraham Lincoln as being the biggest beneficiary of the self-made man myth. Mary Todd, his wife, was extremely wealthy, and Lincoln represented railroads and major corporations among his clients.
Last point here: Over this break I also read a book called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In this book Gladwell argues that successful people work hard and make the most of their opportunities, but that not everyone gets an equal opportunity to succeed. Notable celebrities such as Bill Gates and the Beatles seem to grant this point immediately. Jeb Bush, brother of the current president, is one celebrity who refuses to believe this idea, indulging instead in what Gladwell terms "fantasies about being a self-made man." Bush claims that his success is only the result of "his own pluck and work ethic" and that he was actually at a "disadvantage" having a grandfather who was a senator and a father who was president!
Is the self-made man idea uniquely American? Why do we hold on to it so dearly even in the face of a mountain of contradictory evidence?