Rupert Cornwell: Why the Clintons, not the Bushes, are the new royal family

Out of America: A wedding in the little town of Rhinebeck yesterday sealed the unofficial succession to the Kennedys
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The Independent Online

In case you missed it, a hedge-fund manager married a post-graduate student of healthcare administration in upstate New York yesterday. The whole thing was said to cost $3m (£1.9m) or more (including an $11,000 wedding cake) and took place in a gorgeous mansion with fairytale views over the Hudson River. So, you ask, what else is new in unions among America's opulent and recession-proof elite? The answer is nothing. Except the bride's name was Chelsea Clinton.

The monumental fuss over the Clinton-Marc Mezvinsky nuptials, that has conferred fleeting immortality on the little town of Rhinebeck, proves one thing beyond doubt. In the unofficial monarchical successions of the US, the Kennedys are dead, long live the Clintons. This is not the marriage of a future healthcare manager, however talented. It is the marriage of a princess.

Like royal weddings in other countries, it has been an innocent amusement, a welcome distraction from the economic crisis – even if no gilded carriages and plumed horses have clattered down the streets of Rhinebeck on the way to the ceremony, watched by a TV audience of billions. Instead, everything has been kept remarkably secret. Even the skies over and around the town were declared a no-fly zone for the 24 hours in question, to ward off the attentions not just of terrorists but also the paparazzi.

The precise moment of succession came last August with the death of Teddy, the last of the Kennedy brothers. A few still carry a torch of kinds: Jean Kennedy Smith, now the only one still living of old Joe's nine children, and Patrick, Teddy's son, who is retiring from Congress this year at the tender age of 43. But the light is flickering its very last. If sheer dynastic heft were the yardstick, the crown would have passed to the Bushes; after all, with a senator, two presidents and one big state governor over three generations, that family easily outpoints the single president and senator turned secretary of state over a single generation that the Clintons can muster.

But the Clintons it is. They, not the Bushes, provide that cocktail of ambition, talent, glamour and frisson of naughtiness that the professed republicans on this side of the Atlantic crave, to turn a presidential family into a royal one. The Kennedys had it; so, in slightly louche fashion, do Hillary and Bill. And the Clintons meet other conditions the Bushes do not.

Washington is where America's kings rule. But the former colonies of the north-east and the Atlantic seaboard – the Old Dominion of Virginia, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Empire State of New York, with their old buildings and old money – are where they reign after leaving the Oval Office. Could these uncrowned royal families ever operate out of LA, Phoenix or Dallas (where George W currently resides, polishing his memoirs), or even Chicago? I don't think so. The 42nd president may hail from rural Arkansas. But with his post-White House home at Chappaqua half an hour north of Manhattan, his office in Harlem, and a philanthropic foundation based in effect in New York City, he fits the bill perfectly. And Hillary, a sort of vicereine in Washington, doesn't do any harm either.

Nothing, though, is more revealing than the fuss, or lack of it, that surrounds the marriage of a presidential child. The last one to create a hoopla was that of John Kennedy Jnr to Carolyn Bessette in 1996, three years before the couple died in an air crash. By comparison, the marriage of Bush's daughter Jenna in May 2008 – when her father was still president – passed almost unnoticed. The actual wedding took place privately at the Bush ranch, followed a month later by a reception at the White House. But the public yawned. On the Richter scale of glamour, Jenna's husband, Henry Hager, a former government aide and student in business administration, rates about the same as Marc Mezvinsky. The difference is the "Steve Martin factor": the father of the bride.

By the time of Jenna's marriage, George W's popularity was plumbing record depths, and Americans were simply tuning out all things Bush. Even in his darkest hour, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton was never that disliked. Since leaving office his presidential reputation has risen; if the economy continues to nosedive, the Clinton era may one day be remembered as fondly (and as inaccurately) as the Camelot years under JFK.

And like Kennedy, Clinton has expanded his franchise after leaving office. Death by assassin's bullet conferred an aura upon Kennedy that leaves few Americans unmoved. In office, however, Clinton was a scarcely less polarising president than the younger Bush. These days, the partisan edges have smoothed. He's made friends with both the Bush he defeated in 1992 and the Bush who succeeded him in 2000, the three of them for ever linked by the uniqueness of the office they held. Even some Republicans look kindly on Clinton now.

And Chelsea may well seal the deal. Let Americans take heart. The offspring of real royalty in Britain have a pretty wretched track record. And so it used to be here: Franklin Roosevelt's five children who reached adulthood clocked up 19 marriages between them. But the sons and daughters of recent presidents who have grown up in the White House pressure cooker have been models of normality, with barely a failed marriage between them.

Amy Carter lived at the White House under a relentless media microscope from the age of nine to 13. Nonetheless she came through the experience to live happily and quietly with James Wentzel, her husband of 14 years, in her native Georgia. And now we have Chelsea Clinton, just 18 when the Lewinsky scandal blew up. But she's handled that and, it seems, everything else. In other words, she's a perfect princess.