Published January 11, 2012
Despite the “log cabin, humble beginnings" myth of popular American folklore, the politics of the presidency have revolved around just eleven families since the 1888 presidential election.
Since then the immediate members or relatives of the Harrison, Stevenson, Bryan, Roosevelt, Wilson, Taft, Eisenhower/Nixon, Kennedy, Dole, Bush, and Clinton families have achieved an unprecedented dominance among those countries around the world that claim to lack a "royal" class.
A member of one of these families won the White House in 1888, 1904, 1908, 1912, 1916, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004. That's simpy an astounding 60% victory rate.
When not winning the White House, these families settled for the vice presidency in 1892, 1900, 1980, and 1984.
Let's do the math: in 23 of the last 31 national elections – more than 70% of time -- one of these families has been in national office.
If this isn’t royalty, what is? Such a situation over six generations would easily qualify as an oligopoly under the anti-trust Act!
Moreover, in the election cycles where a member of one of these families didn't succeed there's even further proof of this unique, counter-to-the-log-cabin, humble beginnings myth.
In both 1920 and 1924, President Woodrow Wilson's son-in-law, William Gibbs McAdoo, led on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention. He lost each time. However, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was selected as the party’s vice presidential candidate, the third of his royal family’s seven nominations on either Democratic or Republican ticket.
In 1924, Democrats chose another royal family member for their V.P. candidate, Nebraska Governor Charles Bryan, brother of the party’s three-time presidential nominee.
Robert Taft, grandson of President William Howard Taft, finished second at the 1948 Republican Convention to Thomas Dewey as he would four years later to D-Day legend Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike picked Richard Nixon as a running mate, whose daughter Julie would later marry the former General’s grandson. The WW II hero defeated Democratic Party nominee Adlai Stevenson, grandson of the vice president, both in 1952 and 1956.
After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the overwhelming sentiment among the faithful in the Democratic Party supported his brother, Robert F. Kennedy as their 1964 vice presidential candidate. That didn't happen because President Johnson deftly maneuvered to keep his adversary off the ticket. Future chief executive Richard Nixon led the polls at one time for that year’s GOP presidential nomination.
In 1976, former French Ambassador Sargent Shriver, the 1972 Democratic vice presidential nominee and brother-in-law to the Kennedy brothers, failed in his bid for Democratic nomination.
The losing GOP ticket that year had Bob Dole in the second spot. The Kansan would ultimately try three times to win the party's presidential nomination, finally achieving his dream in 1996. His wife Liddy then emerged as a major contender in the next cycle, only to lose to George W. Bush, son of President George H.W. Bush.
In 2008, Senator Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, started as the big favorite to win the Democratic nomination, only to lose in the closest primary battle in party history.
And that brings us to the most amazing statistic of all: In the last 120 years of American democracy, a handful of royal family members either won presidency, the vice presidency, a major party nomination for one of those posts, or proved to be leading contender in all but ONE ELECTION CYCLE: 1928.
Now comes 2012.
On the Republican side, the person leading in the national polls is former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. His father George had once been the leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 1968.
On the Democratic side, the person running the best in the polls against any possible Republican standard-bearer is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Republican and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, brother of Bush 43 and son of Bush 41, is being discussed as a possible V.P. choice in 2012.
There's no doubt that as Americans we love the “log cabin" myth of yore, and the claim that anyone can grow up to be president. But the facts tell a different story.
The election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 is considered the beginning of our "log cabin" democracy, as the popular vote played the determining role in picking a president.
From 1828-1884, no family member or close relative of any previous president won the White House or claimed the vice presidency.
But as the country matured, and the age of mass communication grew from national magazines, the wire services, radio, television and now our 24/7 wired-world, the power of political royalty has grown with it.
Now come the Romneys, the latest of America's political royalty. While we are the greatest democracy in the world, this astounding control of national power by the political elite defies our self-image and suggests a troubling acceptance of a political caste system.
Paul Goldman is the former chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, an attorney, and the former co-host of the Richmond radio show "The Political Watchdogs." Mark Rozell is a professor of Public Policy at George Mason University and a recognized expert on the presidency. Their columns on the current presidential election have appeared regularly in USA Today on Politico.com and elsewhere.