Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Saturday, September 08, 2012

Generations: Kennedy, Romney, Ours

Dynasty, a not very American idea, comes up as Joe Kennedy III goes from a tribute to his great-uncle Ted at the Democratic convention to a primary victory for Barney Franks’ House seat days after Mitt Romney accepts a nomination his father had sought before him.

Our culture accepts inherited wealth but has mixed feelings about passing down political power. Yet here we are, with not only Kennedys and Romneys but generations of Bushes, past and possibly future, tracing back to before World War II.

A lifetime of being involved with such American ambivalence suggests that it goes deep.

In the late 1950s I was asked to give career advice to a son of Adlai Stevenson, who had lost to Ike twice. "After college," the young man told me, "I didn't know what to do, so I did what my friends did--I went into banking."

My classmates, I thought, would have killed for that choice.

Understanding those born with expectations of eating the world and its rewards has not been easy for someone who, like most of us, was trained to work hard, count on nothing and be grateful for what we get.

Only over years of close observation could I glimpse what F. Scott Fitzgerald was trying to tell Hemingway, “The rich are different from you and me.”

Now we are asked to appraise such people for their qualifications to shape our future. To do that, it might be helpful to look at them in perspective.

John F., Robert, Ted and the Kennedys who followed used their inherited wealth from the start for what their admirers would call public service and detractors political power.

Mitt Romney pivoted from his family legacy to amass more than a quarter of a billion dollars before deciding to favor voters with his personal gifts. A look at his five sons shows no Kennedyesque family tradition of public service.

It would be sad to see Americans lose their suspicion of anything that smacks of royalty. We fought our first war to free ourselves from that.

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