By Debbie Siegelbaum - 04/16/12 11:28 PM EDT
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has taken his fair share of criticism during his run for the White House. But a recent blast from the past is one he probably didn’t count on.
When the popular 1960s-era television series “Mad Men” took a dig at Romney’s father, George Romney, a former Michigan governor, presidential candidates were quickly reminded that the lives of their relatives — dead or alive — are beyond the control of their campaigns.
Response to the slight was swift, with Mitt Romney’s son Tagg tweeting, “Seriously, lib media mocking my dead grandpa? ... George Romney was as good a man [as] I’ve ever known. Inspirational leader, worked for civil rights, promoted freedom. We need more like him.”
Though George Romney died in 1995, his political specter continues to hang over his son’s campaign. Mitt Romney has mentioned his father while on the trail, citing his father’s political career and tenure at the helm of the American Motors Corp.
It has been a careful balancing act for the Romney campaign, drawing attention to the former Massachusetts governor’s family pedigree in politics while still asserting him as his own man, independent of his famous father’s accomplishments.
According to Virginia Tech political science Professor Charles Walcott, Romney is not the first presidential hopeful to walk such a tightrope. Politicians from as far back as John Quincy Adams up to the Kennedys and Bushes have contended with a famous relative in politics.
“In the initial sort of vetting to decide who is a serious political candidate and who isn’t, it helps to have a celebrity in your background,” Walcott said. But, “after the initial boost, it becomes, at least in part, a problem.
“It gets a bit tricky because you’re going to be compared to Dad or whoever it is, and those comparisons don’t always go so well,” he said. “Politically, it requires a certain amount of finesse because you can’t deny the relationship, and you’re costing yourself more than you’re gaining if you try … It’s a very tough line to walk.”
But the benefits can be big for a child of a politician who one day hopes to follow in his or her relative’s footsteps.
Barbara Perry, a senior fellow and associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, which focuses on presidential studies, recounted how the Kennedy sons — John, Robert and Ted — were exposed to the inner workings of politics from an early age. Their maternal grandfather was the mayor of Boston and their paternal grandfather a member of the State Legislature.
“That’s just a tremendous boost to anybody who then chooses that career,” she said. “It’s literally going into the family business.”
Children of political relatives benefit from money, great educations and solid roots in business, Perry added. They often learn charisma, too, by watching their political relative.
The gains don’t stop there. Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said that simply having a recognizable name can put a politician in a far better position than his unknown peers.
“The benefit is obviously name recognition, which is always the big thing you’re fighting when you’re trying to start a political career. How do you get people to remember who you are?” he said. “Being related to somebody evocative like that is going to be helpful.”
That famous lineage also helps burgeoning politicians tap into fundraising lines, aids in networking and increases media coverage, Melcher said.
But that leg up can also mean a step back for some.
“You come with all of these built-in advantages,” Perry said, “assuming your father or grandfather hasn’t besmirched the family name.”
According to Perry, John F. Kennedy’s father, Joseph, an American ambassador to Great Britain, was viewed as a Nazi appeaser and something of an anti-Semite. The Kennedy sons had to distance themselves from their father as a result.
Sometimes a well-known name can even be a nonstarter, experts said, citing children with infamous monikers like Nixon or Blagojevich.
What happens more frequently, though, is that the children eclipse their relatives, such as John F. Kennedy reaching political heights far beyond what his father and grandfathers attained.
“In the case of George W. Bush, he had to overcome the loss that his father had faced in not being reelected, so that was somewhat of a handicap,” Perry said. “And [Mitt] Romney has had to overcome the fact that his father didn’t even make it to the nomination of his party, much less to be president.”
Though George Romney failed in his 1968 bid for the GOP presidential nomination, more than 40 years later, his son appears to know the value of his family history. It plays into America’s ongoing fascination with political dynasties, Perry said.
“Once we get going on a family or a particular president, and that person is popular, we seem to keep going down that road,” she said. “We seem to tend to go in that direction in our electoral politics despite our pride about being democratic.”
This can be explained, Walcott said, because Americans simply like the familiar.
Political scions “seem more like known quantities,” he said. “If people have had experience with their dad or their uncle or whoever, and are generally positive about that, then you can associate those positive feelings with the younger member of that dynasty.”
What’s more, Americans tend to develop rose-colored glasses when it comes to remembering politicians of the past, Melcher said.
“There’s a tendency to really look back on past politicians and think of them as statesmen,” he said. “You look more fondly on the older ones.
“When somebody isn’t a political threat to you anymore, they can seem more comfortable,” Melcher added, citing the recent resurgence in popularity of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman as examples. “Politicians from the past almost always look better than the ones we’ve got now.”
For John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, that’s just the nature of the political process.
“We get a little distance and we’re able to drop a little bit of our partisan lenses,” he said. “History gives you a chance to get perspective.”
That history can then mean a big boost for members of the next generation, should they successfully balance their relative’s fame with their own aspirations. But, in politics, a familiar name can open doors and swing them shut just as fast.
“It matters. It matters in the sense of getting you started,” Geer said. But “you still have to have something that you bring to the table … It gives you a start, but it’s not a finish.”