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Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Familiesby Noemie Emery
Synopses & Reviews
From the troubled Adams dynasty to the bitter presidential face-off between Bush and Gore family scions in 2000, political families in the United States have been pushing, prodding, and trying to shame their sons into power, with a marked effect on American history and an often devastating impact on personal lives. Spanning 230 years, these families have given us presidents, ambassadors, governors, and members of Congress. They have also spawned several suicides, numerous lives that were haunted or broken, more alcoholics and addicts than one can quickly enumerate, and a number of premature deaths.
The successes were often outnumbered by failures, and sometimes the "wrong" son would rise. John and Abigail Adams—and John Quincy after them—wanted to produce great men and leaders, and did. They also produced four alcoholics, three of whom would die young. Everyone in Theodore Roosevelt's family—and much of the country—believed his first son and namesake would follow the path of his idolized father. But his claim was usurped by his fifth cousin, Franklin, who touched off a decades-long feud.
Joe Kennedy Jr. defined the words "golden boy," propelled toward the White House from birth by his imperious, iron-willed father. But it was Jack, his shy, sickly, and overlooked younger brother who finally won it, after a difficult inner journey.
Golden boys Jeb Bush and Al Gore, sons of ambitious political fathers, were seen in their school days as possible presidents (and might still someday face each other). But it was Jeb's brother George who began life at forty, becoming the first president's son since John Quincy Adams to follow his father in office and the first one to then win two terms.
From the bad boys who made good (George Bush and John Kennedy) to the good sons who lost (Al Gore and Ted Roosevelt) to Ted Kennedy (a good son and a disgrace in one singular package), Great Expectations explores two centuries of public drama and family intrigue—a tale that is not over yet.
"What if from the minute you were born, you were trained to be president? What if you were a cousin or a brother of someone who was being polished for the presidency, but you were the one who wanted the job? Even worse, what if you craved that lofty office more than life itself and came to think you were cheated out of it? Or what if you ran and lost? In 'Great Expectations,' Noemie Emery... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) takes a look at five presidential dynastic families (including one family that — so far — hasn't gotten past the first generation) and shows, compassionately and insightfully, how these terrible yearnings and expectations play out. She shuns politics as such; her interests are human and personal. Her book is as heartbreaking as it is fascinating. The families here are: The Adamses, starting with John Adams and ending limply, generations later, with Henry Adams, who wrote books and profoundly wanted to avoid the vulgar, partisan fray. The Roosevelts, who produced Teddy, the great president, and Franklin, an even greater one and a distant nephew who drove Teddy's own son crazy with rage and grief by somehow establishing himself as Teddy's symbolic son, if not his actual blood descendant. The Kennedys, beginning with Joseph P. Kennedy, who, once he realized how socially hamstrung he was by being Irish, devoted himself to making money and grooming his eldest son, Joe Jr., to become president. But Joe died in World War II, leaving his sickly younger brother John to take office. And then there was grief-stricken Robert and, finally Edward, who settled for being a 'great senator,' as well as 'a figure of disrepute or even of ridicule, a regular feature on tabloid front pages, a constant target of late-night talk show comedians.' The Bushes, whom we know all about — or at least we think we do. 'George H.W. Bush was a transitional figure,' the author writes, 'who moved from New England to Texas and seemed more of a diplomat even while president; Jeb and George W. are pure politicians, and products of the South and the West.' Al Gore, God help him, a senator's son, expected from childhood to be president, but that doesn't look as if it's going to happen. Where 'Great Expectations' differs from conventional history is in its focus on the personal, the emotional casualties that arise from voracious expectations of driven parents with enormous political ambitions. Daughters in these families are lucky; they generally have been free from unreasonable pressure, but heaven help the sons. The Kennedys are not the only ones to flame out dramatically in the third generation. They can be matched, catastrophe by catastrophe, by sons in the Adams family. Poor John Quincy Adams 'was the ideal firstborn son for an ambitious couple: bright, conscientious, driven by duty, and terribly eager to please. As a child, he blamed himself when he wanted to play and not study Latin. At six, he had secretly cried in fear and frustration when he failed to understand or appreciate "Paradise Lost."' Yes, John Quincy Adams did become president, but he forever felt that he'd failed to live up to his father's example. As for his brothers? One died alone and in disgrace from cirrhosis of the liver; the other lived on for a while in wretchedness, then died of liver failure as well. (Not so different from the fates of some of the latter generation of Kennedys, except for their drugs of choice, the author points out.) Emery draws parallels between George W. Bush and John F. Kennedy — which probably would give both of them hives. Both were younger brothers, semi-rebellious, not explicitly chosen by their families for presidential laurels, but they rose to occasions of great responsibility. Kennedy weathered the Bay of Pigs and triumphed in the Cuban missile crisis. And the 43rd president, Emery contends, has also turned out to be decisive and strong. He invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, decided to 'extend the meaning of the new war on terror to include states suspected of backing or arming the terrorists,' declared that preventive wars were justifiable and determined to introduce democracy to the Middle East. The formerly rebellious younger son has 'avenged and surpassed his own father, having first dispatched his father's tormentors and enemies: Ann Richards in Texas; Al Gore, who attacked him as Clinton's vice president; and Saddam Hussein.' These are stories embedded in the national consciousness, stories we feel we know. Teddy Roosevelt's extraordinary derring-do, for instance, is part of our American legend, though the grief of Teddy's own son at being passed over for the presidency is not so well documented. And FDR's panache still lives in memory, while the destinies of his children remain shrouded in disgrace. The author sometimes speculates more than is proper or appropriate: Young John F. Kennedy Jr., she writes, who didn't want to be president, was doing fine with his magazine, George, until President Clinton's Monica Lewinsky scandal. Kennedy had the perfect public platform to analyze that debacle, but to do so, he would have had to deal with his own father's compulsive womanizing. 'John stepped away and doomed the magazine to irrelevance and himself to an uncertain future,' Emery writes. 'For if "George" failed, had he?' Emery pushes and pulls at her thesis — sons of dynastic families who cannot rise to their parents' expectations are, in one way or the other, doomed — to make history turn out her way. She casts scathing aspersions on Henry Adams, portraying him as a backsliding ne'er-do-well: He 'gave the words "effete snob" new weight and new meaning,' but come on! Writing the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Education of Henry Adams' isn't exactly hanging out in the pool hall. But the author's speculations don't really matter in the end. 'Great Expectations' reads like high-grade gossip and lays out some aspects of American history in a new and interesting way. You don't have to agree with everything the author says to be captivated by her performance." Reviewed by Carolyn See, who may be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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From John Adams’s sons two hundred years ago to the Bush brothers today, America has witnessed a long line of dynastic sons who have been forced into political roles by their ambitious relatives. Great Expectations examines the burden of being born into one of America’s royal families, where the choice is between achieving the pinnacle of political power—or failing miserably trying.
From John Adamss sons two hundred years ago to the Bush brothers today, America has witnessed a long line of dynastic sons who have been forced into political roles by their ambitious relatives. Great Expectations examines the burden of being born into one of Americas royal families, where the choice is between achieving the pinnacle of political power—or failing miserably trying.
About the Author
Noemie Emery is a Washington journalist who writes regularly on culture and politics for the Weekly Standard and also writes for Commentary, Women's Quarterly, and National Review. Her book reviews have appeared in the Weekly Standard, National Review, the Washington Times, and the Washington Post. Emery is the author of two biographies, Washington and Alexander Hamilton: An Intimate Portrait. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
Table of Contents
3 Kennedys: Rise.
4 Kennedys: Decline and Fall.
5 Their Three Sons.
6 Bush versus Gore versus Bush.
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