Jared Kushner, Bobby Kennedy and the history of nepotism

Donald Trump’s campaign was very much a family business, making frequent use of his children and other relatives. It makes sense then that he is attempting to bring his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, into the White House as a special advisor.

However, Democrats claim that this violates anti-nepotism laws. The idea is that politicians shouldn’t reward their family with well-paying posts once they’re elected. This makes sense – but many believe that the law came about not out of high-minded principle but simple revenge.

The instance of nepotism that supposedly inspired the law was John F. Kennedy’s appointment of his brother Bobby to the post of Attorney General in 1961. Like Kushner, Bobby had been closely involved with his family member’s campaign, and both were politically inexperienced. RFK had no legal experience, which his brother noted when he quipped: “I can’t see that it’s wrong to give him a little legal experience before he goes out to practice law.”

Bobby Kennedy became extremely influential in government, both carrying out his duties as Attorney General and advising the President. This brought him into conflict with the man who was officially the second most powerful man in the country, the Vice President Lyndon Johnson. (Allegedly, Robert had tried to cancel his brother’s offer to put Johnson on the ticket.) The two loathed each other, with Johnson once commenting: “I’ll cut his throat if it’s the last thing I do.” (This from people who were supposedly on the same side.)

Although Bobby had the upper-hand in their confrontations, this changed in November 1963. When the elder Kennedy brother was assassinated, Johnson immediately assumed the Presidency, and Bobby now worked for him. Johnson called Bobby right after his brother’s death, not to console him but to rub in the new power dynamic.

Their feud grew worse than ever, particularly with Bobby still serving in a role that Johnson believed he’d got thanks to his family connections. While some of JFK’s inner circle left, Bobby stayed on, as if determined not to let Johnson have his way. He felt that Johnson’s continually stole JFK’s legacy.

Bobby eventually left to run for Senate in 1964. Johnson still despised the entire Kennedy clan and worried that Bobby – or even his younger brother Teddy – would challenge him in future.

In 1967, an amendment was added to a bill (apparently at Johnson’s behind-the-scenes urging) which would prevent public officials from naming their relatives to posts. This prevented dynasties like the Kennedys from giving each other positions to help promote their career.

In the end, the amendment wasn’t needed for its intended purpose. Bobby was also assassinated in 1967 and Teddy’s Presidential campaign fell short.

There are a number of loopholes that might let Jared Kushner take his job. Some say that son-in-law is too distant to count under the relatives clause, while others have argued that the law doesn’t apply to the President’s own staff. Interestingly, as the parties fight it out over the legal wording, it seems that something hasn’t changed over the years – the law is still something to beat political opponents with.


Making History Great Again

As long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by American political history. I read about politics as eagerly as others consumed sports. I devoured stories about Lincoln, FDR and Reagan, while others followed… and now my metaphor falls down, because I can’t think of any famous sports people.

No office looms as large over the American political landscape as that of the President. For over 200 years, everything the person in the Oval Office has said has been transcribed and meticulously analysed. As well as being the most powerful person in the world, they’re also arguably the most interesting.

You may not know this, but soon America will have a new President. His name is Donald Trump. Excitingly for history fans, he promises to govern as unconventionally as he campaigned. Countless books will surely be written about him, but for for the moment, we’re at the Ground Zero of history, watching as it unfolds live before us. For political geeks like me, that’s like four years of Christmas.

This blog will aim to track the unfolding events while putting them into context. Trump may be radically different to anyone who’s come before, but that doesn’t mean he can’t learn lessons from his predecessors. 

As we count down the days to his Inaugeration, I have a few recommendations to make which will hopefully wet your appetite. The first is John Dickerson’s podcast Whistlestop, which is transitioning from focusing on campaign curiosities to the question of Presidential greatness. His velvety voice, narration and insights really make it a must-listen. The other is The Twelve Caesars by Nigel Hamilton, charting the fortunes of the 12 pre-Obama presidents who have been the leaders of the Free World. It’s both detailed and covers a huge scope with wonderful writing.

Donald Trump will be sworn in on 20th January, however I’m sure I will have some posts before then. Thanks for joining me on this momentous and probably rather rocky ride through the next four years of history!