Kennedy, Brown and talk of political dynasties

Gov. Jerry Brown is likely to leave office with a messy race to succeed him, Bill Whalen writes.
Gov. Jerry Brown is likely to leave office with a messy race to succeed him, Bill Whalen writes. Philadelphia Inquirer

In the aftermath of both parties’ national conventions, it seems oddly appropriate that a new documentary, “I Am JFK Jr.,” should show up on cable television this week.

The images are poignant – the impossibly handsome son of a slain president who, like his father, died tragically and prematurely. The younger John F. Kennedy was only 38 at the time of his plane crash in the summer of 1999, eight years younger than President Kennedy at the time of his assassination.

It’s a great political what-if.

Had JFK Jr. lived on, at what point does he surrender to the inevitable and enter the political arena? Is it a campaign in New York during the past decade? Does he end up taking Hillary Clinton’s place in the U.S. Senate when she relocates to the State Department?

And this tantalizer: at age 55, possibly with young Camelot heirs of his own, is JFK Jr. the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee?

There was talk about California and political dynasties at the Democratic National Convention. It wasn’t in a positive light – Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, already an announced candidate for governor in 2018, bemoaning an inability to finance his political aspirations.

“That’s an advantage to self-funders, because you don’t have to spend four years raising the money,” Newsom told a breakfast crowd in Philadelphia. “The rest of us do, unless your last name’s Brown and you’ve got $100 million of name ID.”

Newsom added this about California’s governor: “If he had a son, he’d probably be running. Or a daughter.”

Newsom is right in this regard: name recognition can be a wonderful tailwind. Just ask Donald Trump or Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’ve seen private polls of nearly a dozen names mentioned as a Hillary Clinton running mate. The biggest surprise: high positives and negatives for HUD Secretary Julian Castro – a pollster friend of mine suggests, because voters think he’s related to the Cuban dictator.

What Newsom didn’t note: There are other ways to climb the ladder without a famous surname. For example, hitching one’s wagon to ballot measures. And that’s what Newsom is doing: hoping to boost his standing with the Democratic faithful by championing gun control and marijuana-legalization initiatives.

And if that doesn’t work for the lieutenant governor, there’s this option: legally change his name to Edmund Gerald Brown III.

We can joke about a lack of political heirs in California. Then again, the Golden State is approaching a situation not unlike that of Rome in the first century AD.

In Jerry Brown, we have a modern Caesar Augustus. Both roamed the political landscape for over four decades. Augustus, like Jerry, was interested in infrastructure and water delivery. The ancient Roman pursued civil-service reform (OK, so it’s not a perfect analogy).

Jerry prefers lofts and condos; Augustus had a modest spread on the Palatine Hill, the Roman equivalent of Sacramento’s Fabulous 40s.

However, there’s one big difference: Augustus stipulated his heir, whereas Jerry could be looking at a very messy struggle for his throne. Not that the Roman system was ideal. What came after Augustus: a half-century of Julio-Claudian emperors notable for being gloomy (Tiberius), decadent (Caligula), sickly (Claudius) or tyrannical (Nero).

Perhaps Brown isn’t interested in continuing a California gubernatorial dynasty whose roots date back nearly 60 years. But if he is interested in maintaining tradition and achieving a seamless transition, maybe it’s not a bad idea for the sitting governor to sit down with his would-be successors and have a conversation about “paddle left, paddle right” and the concept that governing California is an exercise in both ambition and restraint.

Maybe JFK Jr. could have charmed the nation, as did his father. Sadly, we’ll never know.

No one’s asking Brown to be charming. Just help us find a 40th governor who doesn’t fiddle while Sacramento burns.

If Brown does that, then he’s worthy of what reportedly were Augustus’ last words: “Have I played the part well? Then applaud me as I exit.”

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Contact Whalen at