Family ties play key role in 2000 presidential race

Voters find appeal in Bush, Gore lines

June 20, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When the new president moves into the White House in January, one thing seems likely. He won't get lost.

After all, the two guys trying to claim the lease on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. have been there - one a president's first-born, the other a president's first alternate. Forget wandering the halls in confusion; Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore have gotten cozy with the place.

One of the nation's enduring ideals - that America rewards bootstrap success over lineage - does not always withstand the test of history. And this year, it is more in question than ever. With the leading presidential hopefuls inheriting their fathers' political playbooks, it seems they were preparing for this moment since birth.

This campaign owes much to two political dads - without whom the presidential race might look considerably different. Bush and Gore, the children of political families, are keeping alive the idea that birthright might have as much to do with success as grass-roots campaigning.

The candidates do not always seem comfortable showing off their political families but find ways to use them nonetheless. Bush treats his father gingerly - careful not to seem to be relying on his dad as if he were a leader-in-training, but eager to hear the former president's advice, tap his experts and use his fund-raising contacts.

Gore plays down his upbringing in Washington's power circles, but he too puts the legacy to work - in his case, mentioning facets of his family legacy to better tell his story. The Democratic National Committee released an ad to coincide with Father's Day featuring the candidate with Albert Gore Sr., a longtime senator who raised his son in the shadow of the Capitol.

The unusual presence of political families in this race has experts re-examining the role of the lineage in American politics.

The truth is, presidential historians say, the people don't really like The People. We elect plenty of presidents with hard-scrabble backgrounds, but voters - given the choice - regularly reward their American aristocracy. Unlike Harry S. Truman, who at first couldn't figure out who people were talking to when they called him "Mister President," many modern candidates start learning the part long before votes are cast.

It is not just about lineage, but all that the family name entails - the political upbringing, the privileges, the high-toned education. With its Ivy League candidates, this race has the populist appeal of a Harvard-Yale game. Not since 1912 - when Harvard man Theodore Roosevelt ran against Yale man William Howard Taft and Princeton alum Woodrow Wilson - have the candidates been such academic bluebloods.

Going for the `credentials'

"We go for guys with credentials - military credentials, academic credentials, family credentials," says presidential historian Henry Graff, adding that the family name holds particular pull. "People somehow think subconsciously that this family has been tested, and that's why they're at the top of the heap. To them, that name connotes quality."

Voters want their political aristocrats decked out in man-of-the-people clothing. When it comes to electing presidents, many historians argue, the public is so conservative that it generally prefers familiar legacies over the newcomer.

Bush is a classic legacy contender. The Texas governor's grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a senator. His father, a president. His younger brother, another governor. His great-grandfathers, advisers to presidents. Even his dog, Spot, pulls rank - a direct descendant of President Bush's Millie, the springer spaniel who cavorted in the White House. Bush followed his father's road map - the same schooling at Andover and Yale, the same trek to West Texas to run for Congress and the same desire to be defined as a conservative with heart.

In this presidential race, Bush's family legacy has required some delicate public relations. Critics thought a joint appearance just before the New Hampshire primary - when the former president called his son "this boy" - hurt the Texas governor because it made him seem inexperienced.

So now, Bush usually keeps his powerful father behind the scenes, using him more subtly. When Bush spoke about missile defense last month with national security advisers from his father's era, he sought to capitalize on good will toward the former president's foreign policy. But it was the younger Bush who made the headlines; his father had been in the building but left before the event began.

"A respected family name is an entry point for candidates," says Bush pollster Fred Steeper. "But then they've got to take it on their own. They still have to prove themselves."

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