In May, Hillary Clinton floated a proposal: If elected president, she would consider naming Bill Clinton as an economy czar responsible for aiding America’s most impoverished communities. The blowback was swift, and within days she had backed off her two-for-one plan.
Bill Clinton is far better known than Jared Kushner, President-elect Donald Trump’s son-in-law and newly appointed senior adviser. But the speed with which the Clinton trial balloon burst is suggestive: Naming family members to official administration jobs is not just fraught with ethical land mines and legal hurdles. History shows it’s also a recipe for unforeseen headaches and policy controversies.
Kushner has such a thin track record of public service that it’s hard for Americans to have much sense of what his convictions are. He reportedly was capable of curbing his father-in-law’s worse instincts, helping the candidate navigate his myriad self-inflicted crises. His family ties, his campaign service and his unquestioned devotion to the president-elect appear to be his most outstanding qualifications.
Yet the three times in the 20th century when a president appointed a close family member to a formal role had more downsides than upsides. Such appointments undercut the administration’s desired narrative and harmed its reputation.
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Eleanor Roosevelt’s troubled time as assistant director of the Office of Civilian Defense during the early 1940s is a case in point. Franklin Roosevelt appointed his wife to take charge of volunteer participation in September 1941. Like Kushner, Eleanor Roosevelt refused to take a salary, although she did receive $10 a day for government expenses related to her new agency role. Unlike Kushner, Eleanor Roosevelt had a firm vision that animated her public-spirited life: She wanted to ensure wartime democracy was economically and socially secure.
In early February 1942, however, newspapers reported that the first lady had put a dancer friend, Mayris Chaney, on the government payroll with an annual salary of $4,600 (more than $68,000 today). Chaney’s job was to teach dancing to children to raise their morale and relieve pressure from air raids. Her tenure came to an abrupt, ignominious end.
Members of Congress were outraged: One denounced the administration for playing at a “Roman holiday” while Americans were shedding blood and treasure on foreign battlefields. Gossip columnist Walter Winchell quipped that Congress, though it had voted in favor of “War on the Axis,” was waging war on the first lady. The scandal not only tarnished the Office of Civilian Defense’s reputation but also cast some early doubts on Roosevelt’s wartime leadership.
As attorney general during the early 1960s, Robert F. Kennedy became a de facto alter ego to his brother John F. Kennedy. U.S. News & World Reports termed him the “Assistant President.” RFK gave advice on U.S. policy toward Cuba, CIA covert operations and civil rights and became a voice of uncharacteristic restraint in meetings during the Cuban missile crisis.
Yet his heavy-handed attitude and his refusal to brook dissent inside the administration caused some colleagues to chafe. And his advice was not uniformly sound-minded. He urged a “sharp step-up” of U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam and endorsed a highly aggressive program of “espionage, sabotage, general disorder” to topple Cuba’s Castro regime in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
President Lyndon Johnson’s hatred of RFK has widely been seen as a major impetus for the 1967 anti-nepotism law. And upon his appointment as attorney general, RFK was ridiculed as an undeserving hack, an inexperienced lawyer, and totally unqualified. For all the headaches he caused, though, Kennedy did prove himself to be an astute politician; he later came to support federal intervention in support of civil rights in the South and ultimately carved his own outsized role as a national political force.
As first lady, Hillary Clinton’s secrecy and hubris as head of her husband’s administration’s health care task force ultimately crippled their goal. Her official role gave GOP critics a chance to paint reform as a complicated behemoth and the first lady’s task force as contemptuous of Congress. Some White House aides saw Hillary Clinton as so powerful, with unparalleled cachet, that they watched in frustration as she and the president dismissed their criticisms of the emerging health reform plan. Emboldened critics of reform derided their plan as “Hillarycare,” and the Democratic-controlled Congress failed to muster the votes to pass it.
Just because the Roosevelts, the Kennedys and the Clintons encountered political problems through nepotistic appointments doesn’t ipso facto doom Kushner to automatic disgrace and national opprobrium. But given what happened when the most accomplished political families of the 20th century tried it, Trump and Kushner shouldn’t bank on winning this time, either.
Matthew Dalle is an assistant professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
Roosevelt, Kennedy and Clinton faced issues