TT: Inheriting Power — Or At Least Names

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and take a peek at how my subconscious works.  Then come and join me and Alan as we totter through the convoluted question of inheriting power.

Bush I and Bush II

Bush I and Bush II

JANE: So, Alan, the U.K. has a new royal.  As time has passed, I found myself wondering a few things.  Can I ask you?

ALAN: Righto!

JANE: First, this child’s dad is a prince, but does he have a title?  Is he a duke or something?

ALAN: Ah – we’re back to the crazy world of British titles. As always, the answer is both yes and no. By birthright he is a British Prince and must therefore be referred to as his Royal Highness. He also has a territorial designation derived from one of his father’s titles and so he may also be referred to as Prince George of Cambridge (his father, Prince William, is the Duke of Cambridge).

JANE: Wait a minute!  It sounds as if the son trumps the father?  How can that be?

ALAN: No, no! His father is His Royal Highness Prince William the Duke of Cambridge. George is His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge. Notice the missing word “Duke.” It makes a lot of difference…

JANE: Arrrgghh!  I will never figure this out!

ALAN: If it makes you feel any better, neither will I!

JANE: I had the general impression that Prince William and his wife (what is her title, anyhow?) couldn’t follow the trend made so beloved by movie and rock stars, and name their child any odd thing they like.  So if this little boy grows up to inherit the throne, we won’t have King Zowie or King Summer Night’s Passion.

What were the restrictions on the name?  Why do you think they chose George?

ALAN: Kate is the Duchess of Cambridge, a title she obtained by marriage. As far as the names of the child are concerned, in theory he could have been called anything (and like you I think I’d have rather enjoyed an eventual King Moon Unit, or something similar). In practice however the choices were probably restricted by family pressures. George is actually named for his great, great grandfather (if I counted correctly) who was King George VI, the father of our current Queen.

Most families, I think, tend to name their children after fondly remembered relatives, so there’s nothing odd there.

JANE: Absolutely!  My own sister and brother are named for our grandparents, female and male.

Still, in the case of the royal family, it’s nice that George has such good resonances for the relatives.  I’ve read that the current queen deeply respected and admired her father.  From what I have read about George VI, I think I would have, too.  He took on a difficult job he never expected to hold and performed admirably.

Are there names of former monarchs that wouldn’t work as well?

ALAN: Indeed there are. Social pressure, rather than anything else, tends to restrict the names of the male members of the family to a rather small pool, and almost invariably the chosen names will be those of a previous generation of Kings. So we get a recurring mixture of Edward, William, Charles and, of course, George. Interestingly we haven’t had a Henry since the sixteenth century, I don’t know why.

But certain names are a little frowned upon. Richard is out of favour because Richard III brought the name into disrepute when Shakespeare turned him into a blackhearted villain. And John tends to be avoided because the only King John we ever had made a total mess of the job. He lost Wales and much of France and, because he was forced to sign Magna Carta, his reign is generally considered to mark the start of the long decline of monarchical powers which has led to the current situation where the royal family are largely figureheads. No, we definitely don’t want another King John. Who knows what horrors might result?

JANE: Indeed!  I suppose that having some restrictions on the names you can give your son is a small price to pay for the opportunity of having him grow up to be a king within such a fine tradition as that held by England in specific and the UK in general.

Still, inherited positions of power seem a bit odd to this American (United States sub-variation).

ALAN: New habits for the new world, I suppose. But, here in the old world, we just take this kind of thing for granted.  Inheriting positions of power from your parents has always been part of life for as far back as recorded history goes (and it goes back a long way). So it just seems natural to us. But even the new world is not completely immune to the practice – what about President Bush I and President Bush II?

JANE: My dear, if you weren’t a friend, I’d suspect you of being obnoxious.  Elected offices are not inherited in this country.   However, certain families definitely have chosen politics as a family business.  Following your parents’ profession is fairly typical.

Let me give an example.

Law seems to be the default profession in my family.  My maternal grandfather was a lawyer, so were both my parents.  Thus, when one of my sisters (who worked for various environmental groups) was told that she really should consider an advanced degree (she already had a B.A.) in either law or biology, she naturally went for the field she knew.  I have a brother with a law degree, too.  My other sister seriously considered law.  I think I was the only one of the four of us who didn’t!

ALAN: I wasn’t really meaning to be obnoxious at all about the Bush family, and I wasn’t seriously proposing that offices are inherited in any formal sense – I was just pointing out that America does have the concept of the inheritance of power, albeit in a much less formal manner than we do (or did). And anyway, it’s fun to put Roman numerals after people’s names, even if (or perhaps especially if) the numerals are not supposed to be there.

Weren’t there several Roosevelts as well?

JANE:  Not “several,” just two.  Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Moreover, they weren’t all that closely related.  They were fifth cousins!

ALAN: That’s interesting. I’d always assumed they were much closer than that. How about the Kennedys?  They seemed well on their way to becoming a political dynasty until fate intervened in the worst possible way and cut that dream short.

JANE: They did, indeed.  However, if you look at the facts, rather than the legend, you’ll see that the seed was hardly planted.

Although many expected Bobby Kennedy to capitalize on his brother John’s success, the question is, would Bobby have actually done so?   He could be a very strong personality…  I don’t know this first hand – I was very young when both John and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated – but I have heard stories from people who knew the Kennedys.  (Remember, I grew up in D.C., my grandfather was in politics, and many of the people I grew up with were directly or indirectly connected with politics and worked on “the Hill.”)  I met John Kennedy when I was very small, though I don’t remember doing so!

ALAN: I remember both assassinations, and I vividly remember thinking “Oh, no! Not again! How can this be possible?” when Bobby was killed. It really shook me up despite the fact that it happened in a foreign country which was far, far away.

JANE: It is interesting to note that the Kennedys have never managed to have another family member elected president.  Teddy Kennedy was repeatedly elected to the Senate but, despite several runs for President, he never won. Why? Was it the scandal in his youth? Or was it precisely because he wasn’t John or Bobby?

It’s hard to follow martyrs.

Moreover, would John Kennedy be remembered with such passion if he hadn’t been assassinated?  Or would he be remembered as a young, not terribly effective president?  I think it’s important to note that many of the changes credited to John F. Kennedy were actually carried out by his successor.  Lyndon B. Johnson was an old-school politician with lots of “pull” and lots of favors to call in.

ALAN: Recent revelations about Kennedy’s conduct have exposed the personal and political flaws in Camelot. Even if he had served his full term, that information would probably have emerged sooner or later, and I suspect he’d have been remembered as young and flawed and in some ways quite politically naive. Certainly that’s how he appears to me now. And you are quite right in your comments about Johnson. He was very astute and a politician par excellence. But he seriously misjudged the situation in Vietnam and eventually that forced him out of office.

JANE: Several other Kennedys have held elected office as well, but the one who could have capitalized the most on the Kennedy mystique – John F. Kennedy, Junior – chose instead to follow his mother into publishing.  At the time of his death, he was editor and co-owner of George magazine.  Although he was repeatedly asked if he planned to follow the family “tradition,” he never gave a clear answer as to his intentions.

So, going back to your earlier point, I’ll admit that, especially when looked at in cynical isolation that leaves out how many presidents of the United States have not been related to other presidents, it does look as if there is a degree of nepotism.  However, there have only been two father/son pairs out of all our forty-four presidents.  The Roosevelts were actually fairly distantly related, and the Kennedys failed to establish a presidential dynasty.

At least in our system someone new can become president, but in the U.K. no one can become the monarch except those with the proper bloodline.

ALAN: Well, as I seem to say so often, yes and no…

JANE: Fascinating!  Let’s explore that next time.

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8 Responses to “TT: Inheriting Power — Or At Least Names”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    There certainly were comments that Bush II was an example of the problems with primogeniture. But then again, I didn’t vote for him, which is why I don’t use his proper name. In any case, there is one thing to be said for King John: he’s made it possible for British royal succession to happen without an armed insurrection or successor wars. That is far from a bad thing, at least in my warped opinion.

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    Two notes: first, while the smooth inheritance of power in the UK seems impressive, it’s actually a very recent phenomenon – George IV was the first great-grandson to inherit the crown of England in unbroken succession in… ummm… actually, I think he was the first _ever_. Before the 1800s, the throne had changed hands, more often than not violently, in 4 generations or less since there was one, in the 9th century. You’ll notice that the smoothness of the succession has increased directly with the waning of the power of the Crown. 🙂

    Second, let me channel Eric Flint for a moment, and remind you that ‘power’ and ‘political office’ are not synonymous, and particularly so in the US. The wealthy are often enormously powerful, especially at the local and regional levels [‘I owe my soul to the company store’ was not a joke line when it was written; the influence of one or a few businesses may be less blatant now, but often just as pervasive], and wealth most definitely _is_ inherited. So I always chuckle when an American [narrow sense] says something about how inherited position seems strange – it’s the mode that is different, not the inheritance. Take over the family business, and you take on the family influence – and it’s not at all unlikely that one of your cousins holds the same legislative seat your grandfather or great uncle held. Assuming it’s not your brother [or, nowadays, and to some relief, your sister]

    BTW, that 3-4 generation cycle I noted above for the Royals seems to hold true for everybody: it never seems to take longer than that before at least one of the heirs becomes an acute embarrassment to their illustrious progenitor. So, power in one form or another is as heritable in the US as anywhere else – and just as slippery, in the long run.

    • Peter Says:

      Quite – inheritance of power is inheritance of power, whether your surname is “Windsor” (ne Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) or “Rockefeller”…

      The generational cycle, especially in business, is neatly summed up in the proverb “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Or, as the Chinese have it: one generation to make the wealth, one generation to hold the wealth, and one generation to lose the wealth.

      And yes, I was being snide about King John. One could write a rather tortuous (and torturous) alternate history of the British Isles without a Magna Carta, I suspect. Has it been done, and I just missed it?

      As for power and political office, it’s not just about money. I just got a copy of Mark Leibovich’s This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral (plus plenty of valet parking!) in America’s Gilded Capital, and it’s a hoot. I strongly recommend it. The tl;dr version for this discussion is that connections and influence matter more than money, when it comes to American politics these days. As any drug lord will tell you, all the money in the world won’t help you, if you’re on the outside and require a private army to enforce your will, and no one of influence will be caught dead even reading an email from you.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        I know of one Magna Cartaless England, but that’s because it was King John-less: Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy universe. We’re actually left to deduce most of the intervening history after Dick I doesn’t die on schedule, but one notable feature is that executive power rests with the aristocracy, but the Crown is a very effective check on them – and it appears that some form of Parliament has evolved that exercises some rather effective control over the Crown. I have no idea if Garrett actually evolved the Angevin Empire forward consistently or just said “that sounds neat, let’s toss it in” [and would be interested to learn if anybody does know], but a lot of it seems plausible.

        Despite the mystical status accorded to Magna Carta, it wasn’t really _that_ significant. The creation of the Royal Boroughs by Alfred was probably more important for the growth of the Liberties of Free English Men.

  3. Paul Says:

    Back when JFK was president, speaking of (potential) dynasties, I had a friend in the opposite party who once said: “Two terms for Jack, two for Bobby, two for Teddy and it’s 1984!” I guess he could’ve added “And Big Brother is watching you.” Of course, Orwell’s future dystopia is now alternate history.

  4. janelindskold Says:

    Good thoughts, all, and I’m very pleased at how polite people are being. Politics can be an uncomfortable subject. Bravo!

  5. CBI Says:

    Re the Roosevelts, although Theodore and Franklin were fifth cousins (with no removeds), Franklin’s wife Eleanor was Theodore’s neice.

    Here in this area of the country, the big political family is the Udalls, with two cousins currently in the Senate. I seemed to recall a third cousin running for governor or Representative, but unsuccessfully. (There also was a third cousin in the Senate from Oregon, but he’s since retired.)

    Concerning Ted Kennedy, aside from his womanizing which made brother John look like a monk, Ted had the Chappaquiddick death on his hands. No outsider is sure, but part of the death settlement may have been his agreement not to run for President.
    For awhile he became the butt of many jokes. Perhaps the most famous was based upon Volkswagen commercials that touted the tightness of the VW construction by showing that it would float. It was quite a memorable advertising effort. Anyway, the take-off joke was a scene from the commercial with the title, “Had Ted Kennedy been driving a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.”

    I’m also happy with the civility in this community, despite (no doubt) some major differences. I’m on other groups where it is not so. 😦 I have strong opinions about many political matters, and hope that, when I express disagreement with someone, it doesn’t come across nastily or snarky.

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