Rupert Cornwell: The dynasties of democratic America

Should Hillary win, there'll be a Bush or Clinton as president for a quarter century
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By any yardstick, Union Station here, with its soaring Beaux-Arts decoration and magnificent Main Hall modelled on the baths of the emperor Diocletian in Rome, is a gorgeous jewel of Washington DC. But for those with the White House on their mind, it could a be a pretty miserable place.

Take Harry Truman as he slunk back into town at the nadir of his political fortunes, the day after a landslide gave Republicans control of Congress at the midterm elections of 1946. When the presidential train pulled in, so the story goes, just a single figure was waiting on the platform to meet him: a loyal but relatively little known under-secretary of state named Dean Acheson. Later, the Truman-Acheson tandem would go on to create the post-war world. But that morning, Union Station must have felt to Truman like the entrance to hell.

Not so, however, on Thursday evening, for another Democrat with the White House in her sights. On a frigid December night, with crisp snow on the ground and the Christmas lights twinkling, Union Station was truly magical. Fit, one could say, for an empress or a queen.

The lady, of course, was Hillary Clinton, and the occasion was a fundraiser, dressed up in the trappings of a Christmas party. Worry not: my impartiality is intact. I was merely invited along by a friend who had raised some money for her campaign, and having never been to a fundraiser, I thought, why not?

In fact, if you take away the magnificent faux-Roman statues on the balcony and the Christmas decoration, what transpired was standard fare for a political rally. The master of ceremonies was the novelist John Grisham, a big name certainly, but not one to match Oprah Winfrey who will be doing the rounds with Barack Obama in Iowa today.

Grisham introduced local choirs that sang carols, and then the main attraction took the stage. From her immaculately styled hair to her smart black trouser suit and frozen smile, Hillary had an undeniably presidential patina. But the speech she delivered, inspirational to true believers, was routine campaign trail stuff. If I had coughed up $500 or $1,000, I would have expected a little more for my money.

What really struck me most, however, was the sense that that this was a rite of restoration. First Grisham recalled those "prosperous, peaceful 1990s we are all so nostalgic for". Then a Celtic folk band dispensed musical blarney, followed by a pulsating group of black gospel singers who provided the final warm-up before the entrance of Hillary.

There are no prizes for guessing which recent president revelled in such stage props. Britain may be an elective dictatorship. But America with a Clinton vying to succeed a Bush who succeeded a Clinton who succeeded a Bush is on the point of turning into an elective monarchy, shared by two families. In "old Europe", political dynasties have gone the way of the dinosaur. So what on earth is going on in the land that prides itself that anyone can be president?

Realistically, of course, not everyone can. In November 1948, a couple of years after that sombre return to Union Station, Truman against all the odds won a second term, and told Acheson he wanted him as Secretary of State. Acheson said he didn't think he was up to the job. To which Truman replied, "Dean, I suppose there are 10,000 people in the United States who are better qualified to be President or Secretary of State than I am or you are. The problem is, we don't know who they are."

Fair enough. But surely there are many, many people as well or better qualified for the Oval Office than people whose surnames are Bush or Clinton?

Should Hillary win next November, and serve two full terms, there will have been a Bush or a Clinton in the White House for 28 years. Add on the two terms that G H W Bush served as Ronald Reagan's vice-president, and the dynastic miasma thickens further. Come 2016, and you will have to be in your late 40s to remember an election when there wasn't a Bush or a Clinton on a presidential ticket.

And even 2016 might not be the end of it. There don't seem to be many more Clintons around, but the Bush royal family fairly teems with heirs. Who knows, in eight years' time, another dose of calculating Clintonism may have Americans pining for a straight shooting Bush. Could the current President's indubitably talented younger brother Jeb Bush seek the crown, or even Jeb's much-bruited son George P Bush?

But whatever happened to America the model meritocracy, the America of equal opportunity for all? It would be churlish to deny that George W Bush is a gifted politician (politician, please note, not president). But the only reason he was in a position to run for governor of Texas in the first place, and then for the White House, was because of his father, and the name recognition conferred by membership of a famous and powerful family.

Ditto Hillary Clinton. Yes, she is "smart, tough and experienced", according to the mantra recited the other evening. But is that why, according to the polls, three times as many Democrats want her to be president as her vastly experienced and surely no less deserving rivals Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson combined? And would she ever have been in a position to run for senator from New York, let alone have a serious chance of becoming the country's first woman president, had she not been married to Bill Clinton? The answer, obviously, is no. Name recognition is all.

If you want examples of systems that produce genuinely groundbreaking change, then look to Britain and the grocer's daughter Margaret Thatcher, to Israel and Golda Meir, daughter of a carpenter from Kiev, or Angela Merkel whose father was a pastor in vanished East Germany or to an America that were to elect Barack Obama.

The above are all genuinely self-made politicians. The same cannot be said of Hillary Clinton, for all her manifest talents. And however festive the fundraiser in the splendour of Union Station the other evening, however well funded and organised her campaign, I have the suspicion the difference will catch up with her between now and November 2008.