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Aristocrats Need Not Apply

Posted by on Jan 6th, 2009 and filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry


WE barely hear the word “aristocrat” on the television and print media these days; but does it exist among the American political establishment today?  Yes, believe it or not.

Classical history tells us that the word “aristocrat” means “rule by the best”.  In keeping with the notion that America’s society is a democratic one, however, public-school civics courses have taught America’s immigrants that socio-economic status is determined by merit alone rather than family connections, that anyone aspiring for political office need not be a “Kennedy” or a “Cuomo”.   No one can deny that Andrew Cuomo, son of the late New York State Governor Mario Cuomo, is an able and splendid New York State Attorney General; but we cannot dismiss the claim outright that his last name may elevate him to the Senate seat now being vacated by Hillary Clinton, who is preparing to assume her tenure as U.S. Secretary of State in an Obama Administration.  

There was a time, during the heydays of the British Empire when the Crown (usually, the Queen or King) appointed political emissaries called “colonial secretaries” who represented various British colonies at the behest of the Monarchy.  Their chief functions were to organize, on orders from the British Crown, the day-to-day administration of its colonies that once spanned from colonial Africa to India to the Caribbean.  Colonial Secretaries addressed the British Monarchy (usually through the House of Lords) on pivotal administrative issues such as the health of the colonies’ finances (most of which served as the Crown’s revenues that in turn financed the “engine” of the Empire); the maintenance of the colonies’ highways; the administration and maintenance of its Catholic schools; the maintenance of its roads and bridges; and, of course, its financial revenues generated from chattel slavery, and later, agriculture.  However, their most significant political duty at that time was to report to the Monarchy about slavery insurrections in the various colonies and brutal methods of suppressing them, particularly in colonial Jamaica.

I remember my mother relating stories to me about a certain “aristocrat” named Sir Hugh Foot, and she fondly referred to his “little feet” (I don’t know whether she was referring to his daughter, Sylvia, and his three sons, or to their uncles).  The Right Honorable Sir Hugh Mackintosh Foot seemed to have left an indelible imprint in my mother’s mind while she was a child in colonial Jamaica.  Fortunately, his colonial tenure ensued at a time when Jamaica’s natives, sons and daughters of African slaves, began to flex its political muscles for political independence from Great Britain.  The Right Honorable Sir Mackintosh Foot served as colonial secretary to Jamaica from 1945 to 1947 and was a member of the House of Lords.  He was the son of Liberal Isaac Foot, Member of Parliament (MP), in 1922.  His father’s other three sons were equally elevated to British political office:  Sir Dingle Foot, John Foot, Baron Foot and Michael Foot.                            

The American nation, in its drive for Independence from the British Empire, has indeed lost the “crème-de-la-crème” of that society’s elite – that exclusive propertied class who always inherited political positions by virtue of their last name whose names began with “Sir” and “Lord”.  Yet throughout its history the United States have produced political families, many of whom were tied by blood to wealthy Dutch, Irish and Saxon families in Great Britain.  They elevated themselves to various political positions by virtue of their last name.  Take the La Follette family, exclusively associated with the state of Wisconsin.  Robert Marion La Follette, Jr. assumed his late father’s senate seat in the Wisconsin State Senate from 1925 to 1947, while his brother, Bronson La Follette, was Attorney General of Wisconsin from 1965 to 1969.  Their father, Robert M. La Follette, was Governor of Wisconsin from 1901 to 1906 and U.S. Senator from 1906 to 1925.  Then there are the “Roosevelts” of New York, the “Daleys” of Illinois and the “Bushes” of Connecticut.  And we cannot forget the “Kennedy’s” of Massachusetts.  All of their sons and daughters graduated from elite universities here in the United States; and none of them earned their political positions through merit.

Enter Caroline Kennedy, who is vying for the United States Senate seat representing the citizens of New York State and, indirectly, New York City.  Caroline Kennedy has, by all accounts, a modest resume:  she has championed public education here in New York City and was an earlier supporter of President-elect Barack Obama.  Nevertheless, she has never held political office and has never shaped public policy.  Gary Ackerman, a Democrat who represents parts of New York State and New York City in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., said this recently:  “I don’t know what Caroline Kennedy’s qualifications are.  Except that she has name recognition, but so does J-Lo”. 

Already Governor Patterson’s phones are ringing off the hook.  Caroline Kennedy’s family heirlooms strongly suggest she succeed Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat.  In keeping with the natural progression of the American democratic political process, however, the Governor must consider her scant political record and thus resist the impulse to appoint her to the vacated Senate seat based on her family name.  Besides, there are other candidates to consider.

Recently New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis suggested that the Governor consider Shirley Ann Jackson for the position.  Jackson served as chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President Bill Clinton and is now president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute here in New York State.  Since assuming her position as president in 1991, she raised more than 1.4 billion dollars for the school, and, if selected for the position of U.S. Senator for New York, will utilize her uncanny abilitu to raise money for New York State.  She is one of the first two black women to earn a doctorate in physics, holds 45 honorary degrees, hired 225 professors and launched research centers dedicated to solar energy and biotechnology. 

If Governor Patterson succumbs to external political pressure and chooses Caroline Kennedy as the next U.S. Senator for the State of New York, the first issue she can tackle is to remove any vestige of appointing the well-connected to the United States Senate, a plumb responsibility of the New York State Legislature.  She has one year to convince New York voters that she has earned her Senate position – special elections take place in 2010.         

 The writer is a recent revert to Islam and can be contacted at:

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