Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The family business

I'm halfway through Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Franklin, I learn, was at the vanguard of "compassionate conservatism" and "trickle-down economics." While he believed that consumption by the rich boosted the productivity (and prosperity) of the poor, somewhat ironically Franklin was also a founding member of the emerging American middle class and a devotee of the myth that hard work and frugality are the cornerstones of American success.

Had Franklin looked looked more objectively at his own career, and those of the hard-working poor, he might have arrived at a more balanced, accurate belief. Certainly hard work (including staying up all night to set type after a plate was broken) and his wife's frugality (if not always his) contributed to the success of his business and helped him and his family to live comfortably as stolid middle-class citizens. For many that is success of a kind. Franklin, however, was a success because in entrepreneurial fashion he saw, seized, and created opportunities, and, more than once, rolled over and sometimes drove out less astute or less ruthless competitors. He also built networks of like-minded men who could help each other and lend support to their respective businesses and interests. Like a modern-day self-made man, and with his appointment as postmaster, he could retire at a relatively young age—not wealthy, but not in debt, either.

When he saw his son, William, pursuing position instead of business or work, he advised him on the virtues of effort and frugality. Perhaps lacking the entrepreneurial spirit, William accepted appointment as the royal governor of New Jersey—a post that elevated him above his father and his middle class. Ultimately, Benjamin would side with the rebellious colonies while William remained a Loyalist.

The divergent paths of father and son and their mutual interest in politics reminded me of something I'd been thinking about since George W. Bush became president and later when Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president.

Although there's nothing to prevent it, and my feeling disregards that the candidate may be as or more qualified than anyone else, it bothers me that American politics is dominated by a handful of families—perhaps most famously the Kennedys, and more recently the Bushes and Clintons. We've had father-and-son presidents, and almost a husband-and-wife set. We've had Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Beginning in 1989, George H. W. Bush was president, then one son became governor of Texas in 1995, another the governor of Florida in 1999. Joe Biden's son, Beau, serves as attorney general of Delaware. And Caroline Kennedy is itching for Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, representing New York.

Here in Illinois, we have the Madigans, among others: Speaker of the House Michael and his daughter, Attorney General Amy (not to mention Governor-for-Now Rod Blagojevich and his father-in-law, Chicago Alderman-for-Life Richard Mell). Cook County Board President John Stroger managed to pass on the baton to his son, Todd, whose performance to date has underwhelmed even those with the lowest expectations of him. More locally, Chicago Mayor-for-Life Richard J. Daley fathered Chicago Mayor-for-Life Richard M. Daley. In a nation of 305 million souls and in a city of nearly 3 million, the same names keep popping up. Where are the fresh faces of new leadership?

A friend tells me that I'm looking at this the wrong way. She points out that politics is a family business like any other and that members of each younger generation may choose to follow in the older's footsteps, just as, for example, some children grow up to become doctors, lawyers, or coal miners like their parents. Certainly, many of the Kennedys seem to see themselves as devoted to public service, and for all I know so do the Madigans, Strogers, and Daleys.

Unconsciously, Benjamin and William Franklin (and perhaps Samuel and John Adams) were among those who helped start the American tradition of politics as family business. It may have made sense in the small world of the 13 colonies, in which Philadelphia (population 23,000) was their largest city and when American-style democracy was still years off. I am not so certain that it's still a good model, or the best, for a complacent, celebrity-obsessed society more interested in names than accomplishments and looks than abilities. To succeed in politics requires money, influence, backing, name recognition, and personality—something both Franklins would have understood.

I think, or wish, we could do better than that.

As Spock of Star Trek says, “There are always possibilities.”

And opportunities.

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