Published 7/30/03 – USA Today
When he became governor of Alaska, Frank Murkowski had to decide who should finish the two years remaining on his U.S. Senate term. After a supposedly exhaustive search, Murkowski appointed his daughter, Lisa Murkowski.
Although the first U.S. senator appointed by a father, Lisa Murkowski is hardly unique among the children and spouses of politicians. For example, Vice President Cheney’s daughter, Elizabeth Cheney, and his son-in-law, Philip Perry, were appointed by President Bush to high-level positions: deputy assistant secretary of State and chief counsel for the Office of Management and Budget, respectively.
Nepotism is on the rise, both in Washington and across the nation. After decades of decreases in nepotism under good government laws, there has not just been a resurgence in the practice, but also a new boldness, if not defiance, among government officials using their offices to benefit their family members.
These officials can find support in a new book by Adam Bellow, “In Praise of Nepotism.” Defending preferential treatment based on family connections, he argues that society gains from family dynasties, which tend to stabilize government. He also believes that hiring famous names is akin to buying a quality trademark.
Nepotism, however, is one of the oldest forms of corruption — and often the first sign of eroding ethics and a lack of public involvement in government. For this reason, it is alarming to see it on the rise in Hollywood, sports, business, pop music and government, as Bellow confirms. Indeed, in the past couple of years, members of the Bush administration and Congress have openly used their offices to lobby for appointments of children, siblings and parents to judgeships and government jobs.
Some of these relatives were criticized as less qualified than other applicants or entirely unqualified, yet still got the positions. The late senator Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., secured confirmation of his son as a U.S. attorney, despite the fact that the then-28-year-old had prosecuted only seven cases on his own in his two years as an assistant state attorney. Likewise, Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., lobbied for a federal judgeship for his 35-year-old son, despite his “unqualified” American Bar Association rating.
Other relatives have found more lucrative jobs as lobbyists. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that at least 28 members of Congress have close relatives working as Washington lobbyists, some without experience. GOP Sen. Trent Lott’s son, Chet, managed pizza restaurants and played polo before becoming a telecommunications lobbyist. The family of Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., includes his wife, Linda, an aviation lobbyist; his daughter-in-law, Jill, a lobbyist for companies such as Aetna and Blue Cross; and his son, Nathan, a former labor union lobbyist.
Nepotism has always plagued our system to some degree. John F. Kennedy appointed his brother as attorney general, and Bill Clinton made his wife the head of a powerful federal commission on health care. Former House speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., made his wife, Heather, his chief of staff. Bellow points to such cases as recent evidence of a practice that has existed since the earliest forms of government. Of course, inbreeding also has a long history, but it’s hardly a model for good family planning.
The appointment of family members of powerful figures is the modern equivalent of ancient medieval marriages between families of different kingdoms. Such unions give powerful members of Congress and the judiciary vested interests in an administration’s success. The Bush administration seems especially eager to cross-pollinate its ranks with the children and spouses of politicians and judges. Elaine Chao, the wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is Labor secretary. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia’s son, Eugene, was appointed by Bush as the top Labor Department lawyer. Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s daughter, Janet, was appointed Health and Human Services’ inspector general until she left in a scandal.
Bellow argues that the progeny of leaders are likely to be more talented and dedicated — an assumption of genetic superiority that borders on governmental eugenics. History hardly supports such a sweeping assumption. For every Robert Kennedy, one can point to a Billy Carter or Roger Clinton.
Moreover, while a child of a powerful leader may have (as Bellow suggests) a special interest in succeeding, the child’s family name also makes it more difficult to criticize or remove him when he proves incompetent. For example, the conduct of Rehnquist’s daughter created a lot of controversy during her brief tenure as inspector general. But it took a federal investigation and confidential leaks to the media to finally dislodge her. No high-level Bush administration official wanted to hand a pink slip to the child of the chief justice on a court divided 5-4 on many important issues.
In Praise of Nepotism cultivates the myth of elite bloodlines. While Bellow insists that merit is an important factor in hiring, he toys with a practice that has been the scourge of good government. Unless citizens demand new rules against this ancient form of corruption, the natural impulses of procreation and politics will guarantee a new golden age of nepotism.