If Kushner is the man for the job, family ties shouldn't matter
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Can a 36-year-old New York real estate developer and media mogul with little political experience step into a critical advisor role to the president?

It’s a tall order but history suggests that Jared Kushner might just pull it off. Kushner is, it seems, the most trusted counselor to President Trump. Last month, he was sworn in as senior advisor.


First, of course, it's important to note that Kushner is Trump’s son-in-law, married to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka. That’s fodder for gossip columns and some people find it problematic, but it is really a non-issue.


History is full of examples of close family members advising the boss. Moreover, family businesses are still one of the most common forms of commercial or industrial enterprise.

The real question is why Americans have such a fetish against employing family members as advisors. Congress passed a so-called anti-nepotism law in 1967 that prevents a member of the executive branch from appointing relatives to a position in an agency that he or she controls.

According to a Justice Department ruling, that law doesn’t prevent the president from making Kushner a senior advisor. Expect legal challenges anyhow. But why would it be so terrible to appoint a family member to head a department if he or she is the most qualified? Was it really abusive, as some say, for President John F. Kennedy to have appointed his brother Robert as attorney general?

In an age of two-career marriages, it seems outdated to say that one spouse cannot hire another for a senior advisory or executive role. In an era of blended and extended families, it is impractical to exclude in-laws or other close relatives from such positions.

To be sure, families have squabbles and marriages go bad, but even when executives have no family relationship, personal issues can get in the way of work. It’s high time for Congress to repeal the 1967 law. 

The bigger issue is whether Kushner has the appropriate skill set for the job. At only 36, he offers, it seems, not only the freshness of youth but also strategic intuition about people and processes.

Kushner is credited with the digital strategy that won Trump the election by delivering narrow victories in key states. He has been called the “chief operating officer” of Trump’s campaign, yet Kushner is largely content to stay out of the limelight. By displaying complete loyalty, he has earned Trump’s confidence.

Kushner does not lack for courage. For example, he convinced Trump to use his own money to shore up battleground states in the last stage of the campaign. Kushner also played a key role in convincing Trump to fire campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and choose Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceTrump set for precedent-breaking lame-duck period Trump pardons Michael Flynn O'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' MORE over Chris Christie as vice president.

The cool and calm Kushner seems poised to play Mr. Spock to the emotional, shoot-from-the-hip Captain Kirk that is Trump.

Youth, talent and influence have a long history of making for a successful advisor. Robert Kennedy was 35 when he became attorney general. The “Whiz Kids,” a group of U.S. Army WWII veterans who brought management science to Ford Motor Company in 1946, were led by 33-year-old Tex Thornton.

Alexander Hamilton was only 21 when he became an aide-de-camp to General George Washington — only 44 himself — and soon became his chief staff aide. It was Hamilton who put Washington’s thoughts into words, making him, as one friend and fellow officer put it, “the pen for our army.”

Like Tyrion Lannister going to work for Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones, Hamilton put his eloquent talent at the service of a leader whose prestige and charisma he could never match. Later, Hamilton served President Washington as the nation’s first secretary of the Treasury.

He took office at age 34. Tireless and driven, he was a visionary with a plan for developing America’s nascent capitalist economy.

The two men had an excellent partnership and Hamilton worked at maintaining it. He kept Washington’s trust by excelling without threatening him. By the same token, Hamilton recognized how much he benefited from Washington’s strength and steadiness.

Kushner is unlikely to match Hamilton’s vision, but, like Hamilton, he can maintain a powerful leader’s trust by acknowledging what the leader brings to their partnership. By the same token, in order to be effective, Kushner must continue to be willing to state unpleasant truths when they arise.

Kushner may not be a Vulcan or representative of the Seven Kingdoms, but he will need all of their talent to succeed as the president’s confidant. If he continues to offer good advice, then he has the potential to contribute greatly to any success that the new administration has.

But if Kushner stumbles, then Trump is unlikely to be sentimental about saying the infamous phrase, “You’re fired,” to his son-in-law.


Barry Strauss is a professor of history, classics and humanistic studies at Cornell University. He is currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Hoover Institute.


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