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Founders, Strivers, and Slackers

One could be forgiven, after reading this engrossing book, for wondering whether it’s better to be born the son of an incurable Las Vegas gambler or a rebel leader in Sri Lanka than the son of an American president. At least you could rebell against daddy and surely no one would tell you incessantly what you had to do in the world. Anything, in fact, but to be born the son of an American president and submitted to the ultimately vesuvian destructiveness of too many great expectations!

As Noemie Emery says toward the end of her book, which traces America’s presidential “dynasties” from 1775 to today, our country has seen 230 plus years of dynastic ambition. Taken together, four families—the Adamses, Roosevelts, Kennedys and Bushes—have given us seven presidents, three vice presidents, five senators, four governors, four ambassadors to major foreign powers, and four members of the House of Representatives. No slackers they. To Emery:

This sounds impressive, and is, until the downside is counted: one certain and one probable suicide, multiple deaths in what can be called young adulthood, numerous lives either warped or distorted, and more alcoholics and drug users than one can easily count. … All were in politics because of their fathers and families, and all belonged to that small group of people, beginning with John Quincy Adams at the birth of the country, who had been raised to believe they ought to be president, and if they weren’t, they in some sense had failed.

“Success was in that room,” Emery avers, “but there also was darkness, the result of a mixture of pressure and privilege, of ambition passed on secondhand.”

This is the story that Emery sees as she looks at America’s dynastic families. And hers is a compelling view, gratefully unencumbered by too much ideology or theology. She examines five major American presidents from family dynasties (Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush) and the often Shakespearean and on occasion “Saturday Night Live”-worthy interplay among them. She shows how the sons “of whom much is expected,” as Churchill famously put it, instead have so often fallen by the wayside, overburdened by their families’ hopes and exhausted by the demands of privilege. She unweaves the tense and often tormented skeins of the families with a skilled historian’s eye and the devilishness of the good psychiatrist. Soon enough, you find yourself happy she isn’t yours.

The sublimely moral Adamses? Of six sons in two generations, four accomplished little, and three were downright dissolute. Teddy Roosevelt’s boys? Teddy always believed that his cousin Franklin had stolen Ted Jr.’s chance at the presidency, and his second son, Kermit, shot and killed himself with his service revolver. The great Franklin Delano Roosevelts? “The Roosevelt boys,” Emery writes, “cheerfully looted their family legacy.” The Kennedys? We all know the great tragedies, but then there were the seemingly endless smaller tragedies, like David Kennedy’s dying at 29 from a drug overdose. The Bushes? Well, let’s leave them until later.

When Emery uses her delicious, gossipy, yet not unsympathetic style to analyze the “whys” of all of these dim failures, especially in light of the great expectations that they all early faced, we get a valuable look at America’s dynastic political families in toto. We see, for example, that these families have an amazing number of characteristics in common. Emery demonstrates through her own sociological Buddenbrooks of American dynasties that each moves through three major stages of increasing privilege and declining effect. First, the founders: John Adams, Joe Kennedy. Then, the privileged strivers: John F. and Robert Kennedy, George W. and Jeb Bush. Finally, and saddest of all, the inheritors, typified by the next generation of Kennedys, “who coast along in the wake of the strivers’ efforts, and it is here,” according to Emery, “that the rot—and the problems—set in.”

We see also how each family assumes that its members deserve to lead the country, insulates itself in unity against the rest of the world, and has even thought of itself as something other than a “family.” The Kennedys called themselves a “clan” or nation. The Adamses actually thought of themselves as a “race.” In the dynastic family, says Emery, “each member is expected to find personal fulfillment in advancing the family goals. … The family is sometimes seen as a fighting force, almost at war with the universe. Unconditional surrender is the goal.” In another part of the book, she speaks of “quasi courts-martial, followed by shunning when somebody fails or flunks out. Disloyalty to the family, regarded as treason, is heavily punished.”

And then there is the internal competition—physical, political, and psychological. According to Emery, “Theodore Roosevelt led children and guests on obstacle courses that were exhausting and dangerous. The playing fields of Hyannis became an American version of Eton’s—a trying locale for the building of character. … What went on in the Kennedy compound was not very different from what went on at Walker’s Point in Maine, where the large, driven Bush clan went for its revels,” and where it’s credo, “that life was essentially broken down into a series of competitions that had to be won at all costs,” emerged.

Which brings us to the Bushes, a more modern, more mercantilist, more exploring kind of dynasty, and a family that may well go down in the history of great expectations, despite the first President Bush’s admirable administration, as the one real failure among America’s dynastic families. Emery tells the now well-known story of how “little George”—George W.—was, from childhood, always expected to be second to his far more intellectual and capable brother, Jeb. George W. tried to excel but always fell short of his father’s accomplishments. And just as John Kennedy had done in the shadow of Joe Jr., his older brother, George W. Bush, says Emery, “began to concoct a rebel persona and for much the same reason: to depreciate the standards he wasn’t sure he could meet.” As he grew into adulthood, he dreamed of a big oil strike he christened “the Liberator” that would free him from financial and family strains. But it was all make-believe. Drinking, carousing, insulting people, he was becoming, as Emery puts it, “an embarrassment, a study in failure.”

Then in 1985, the 39-year-old George W. happened upon the Rev. Billy Graham in Maine, with whom Emery says he found “the antidote to the dynastic dynamic and its ongoing pressures and claims”—namely, faith. And faith, she says

posed a new set of standards. If the dynastic creed claimed ambition was everything, faith said there was something above and beyond it. If the dynastic creed measured a life by public accomplishment, faith said there were other ways of proving one’s value. If the dynastic creed said he had disappointed his earthly father and mother, faith maintained that there was a still greater father in heaven, in whose eyes he had worth.

Therein lay the magical metamorphosis of George W. Bush.

Great Expectations suffers because Emery’s assessment of the second Bush’s presidency is too equivocal, considering the fact that his administration has eroded America’s civil liberties, squeezed America’s middle class, and refused to end a disastrous war that couldn’t be won in the first place. But Emery does make an excellent comparison of Father Bush’s view of the world and George W.’s. Here she quotes Jeffrey Bell of The Weekly Standard:

There is an alternative Bush I view of the world that is now engaged in a death struggle with Bush II. It has a micro, not a macro, interpretation of what happened on 9/11. It sees Osama and Islamism as limited and aberrational. It mildly supported the invasion of Afghanistan, but would favor no other significant military actions, backing mainly police actions geared toward catching Osama. … In the Islamic world, Bush I favors economic development through trade and internal, top-down reforms. While it does not oppose attempts to achieve democratic reforms in Islamic countries, it has little hope that this will be much of a factor in the immediate decades ahead.

And that is just about right. For the prodigal son, who in the second half of his life hates his father’s moderation and rationality, this is pure poison. At the tips of George W.’s fingers are now stretched glory, empire, revenge, unfettered power, and the rebuke of his old friends who never appreciated him enough anyway. Anyone who reads Emery’s book will have no doubt whatsoever that George W. Bush, the single most unexpected president of all of the dynastic families, will never, ever give up on his glory-filled dreams—which may be the greatest American tragedy of all to come out of all of these intense family stories.

So many interesting questions. Will George W. Bush take us into a regional or world war, spurred on by his early feelings of inadequacy? Will women like Hillary Clinton become the new stars of the dynastic galaxy? Or is it time we get tough, mount the American Coliseum, and give thumbs down to the “great dynasties”?

You can bet which way Noemie Emery tends. “Public life as an option,” she says, “to be picked up at will or discarded, is one thing, and not always a bad one. But great expectations, pushed too hard with too little regard for individual difference, have given us desperate men.”

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist and the author of Guerrilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro.

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