Jack Ohman

January 27, 2014

In California and the nation, politics can be a family circus...

Last week, two of California’s most powerful political leaders, Gov. Jerry Brown and Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, discussed their father’s influence in public forums.

Jack Ohman

Editorial cartoonist, writer and Joe King’s alter ego

Last week, two of California’s most powerful political leaders, Gov. Jerry Brown and Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, discussed their father’s influence in public forums.

In Brown’s case, he recalled the time when he accompanied his father, Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, to the elder Brown’s State of the State Address in 1959, garbed in his Jesuitical collar and black suit. Last week after announcing his retirement, Miller mused about his fly-on-the-wall meetings between his father, a powerful California state senator, and then-Gov. Pat Brown. Both of these fathers exerted huge gravitational pull on the sons, both of whom went into California politics, and arguably became even more prominent leaders than their fathers.

Sometimes it works out that way, and, for better or worse, sometimes it doesn’t.

History is filled with these father/son and daughter acts. At the presidential level, we’ve had John Adams and John Quincy Adams, as well as George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. George H.W. Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, was a U.S. Senator from Connecticut. Hey, dad: I beat you. And W. was re-elected: Hey, dad: I beat you.

President John F. Kennedy’s father was Ambassador to Great Britain. President Lyndon Johnson’s father was a Texas state legislator. As a child, Lyndon Johnson campaigned with his father through the Texas hill country.

“God,” LBJ once said, “I wished it could go on forever.”

It can’t.

State after state has dynasties that just don’t play out in the long run.

The question here is: Why do the children do it? Even Gov. Brown’s sister ran for governor of California. I’m not sure if even they can explain their motivation: part tribal, part public service, part out-do your father at his own game. Everyone has mixed motivations about virtually everything they do.

I had a powerful father, too. Decorated Korean War hero, a leading research scientist in his field, I suffered heavily under his success for awhile. I wanted to go into politics as a teenager, I was a Naval officer candidate, and I have always felt a lot of it had to do with besting my father. But I can assure you that my life got a lot happier about 10 years ago when I gave up trying to beat my father at his own game.

There’s nothing more diametrically opposite a war hero/research scientist than a political cartoonist/fly fishing humorist. Trust me.

In the case of many public elected officials who had had fathers and mothers in politics, they have, in my view, just entered the family business, like running a dry cleaners or taking over a dental practice. It happens all the time.

To a certain extent, the children of electeds are better candidates in some ways because they know the inning and the score. In other ways, it breeds a complacency because they mostly do it the way their folks did it. In Gov. Jerry Brown’s case, his career started off as the polar opposite of his father’s: his early career was about big ideas and sweeping themes. His late career has been more like his father’s, and, indeed, more productive. You hear very little Gov. Moonbeam talk around town now. You hear a lot about Gov. Infrastructure. Fine.

For every son and daughter who goes into politics, there are thousands who want nothing to do with it. I have met many children of pols who say that’s not the life for them, for they paid the price of their father’s career: an absent father, a ruined marriage, missed moments. Sorry, kid. Maybe you can run, too. Sound like fun?

I was reading a story about the new Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy the other day. Imagine the massive, crushing burden of that name, and what the expectations must have been on her and her brother. Oh, and, incidentally, the political life that took her father away from her forever. In the story, it was noted that Ambassador Kennedy was, shall we say, taking stronger positions on issues such as Japanese dolphin hunting than the U.S. State Department would have liked.

Too bad. I think it’s great. It shows she learned something very valuable from her experience growing up under a political father and family:

Be yourself.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

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