Politics

The "Bill Mckay Effect"

We have a weakness for anointing eager young sons with modest credentials, solely on the strength of their connection to fathers we wouldn't take back if they begged us.
by | February 2006
 

"The Candidate," Michael Ritchie's classic movie about politics, is famous for its very last line of dialogue. Bill McKay, a novice who has just won an improbable victory for the U.S. Senate, turns dazedly to his campaign manager and asks, "What do we do now?" More than 30 years after the movie was made, the line has become an inescapable cliche of election-year political writing.

But "The Candidate" isn't just a searing depiction of the campaign process, circa 1972: It's an exploration of the bonds between fathers and sons, and the consequences they can have in political life.

Bill McKay, played by Robert Redford, is the rebellious son of John J. McKay, the manipulative and cynical former governor of California, played by Melvyn Douglas. After law school, in reaction against his overbearing father, the younger McKay drops out of the mainstream and sets up a storefront legal services clinic in San Diego. An old friend who is a political consultant tells him that the family name alone would make him a credible contender against the state's pompous windbag of a Senate incumbent. McKay agrees to run--on the condition that he be allowed to express any opinion he likes, regardless of political consequence.

Over the months that follow, McKay fills the airwaves with mushy 1970s liberalism, but the real issue is his obvious lack of credentials. "What has Bill McKay done? Nothing much," his opponent's commercials proclaim sarcastically. "But his father was governor." John J. McKay, initially cool to his son's campaign, warms up as the campaign gathers momentum. On election night, he shows up at the victory party and presents Bill with the greatest compliment he knows how to bestow: "Son, you're a politician."

As some of the audience understood, "The Candidate" was based loosely on the real lives of Edmund G. Brown Sr., better known as Pat, the glad-handing California governor of the late 1950s and early '60s, and Jerry Brown, the introverted and intellectual scion who won the office at age 35 on an almost impossibly thin resume. He had tried Jesuit seminary for a while, gotten a degree from Yale Law School, bounced around rather aimlessly for a few years, and then won an obscure post on a community college board in Los Angeles. A year later, he became California's Secretary of State, and in 1974 (after "The Candidate" came out), he was elected governor.

Like Bill McKay, Jerry Brown seemed at first to lack any of the standard attributes of the successful politician--most notably, an enthusiasm for meeting other people. His career, like McKay's, would have been utterly impossible had it not been for the family name and legacy.

But here's the interesting part: By the time Jerry Brown came along, Pat Brown had been repudiated by the voters of California, ousted from the governorship in a resounding defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan. He was a vigorous man in 1970, but had he tried a comeback, he would have been repudiated again. And yet his son was able to show up out of nowhere and trade on the connection.

To me, this is the conundrum of father-and-son politics in America. We don't just promote the offspring of our electoral heroes. We have a weakness for anointing eager young sons with modest credentials, solely on the strength of their connection to fathers we wouldn't take back if they begged us.

The 1980 election, which ushered in the Reagan presidency and six years of Republican control in the U.S. Senate, marked an end to political life for Birch Bayh of Indiana and John C. Culver of Iowa, two Democratic senators then in their peak years of energy and influence. Neither one ever ran for office again.

But in both cases, the "Bill McKay effect" proved remarkably potent. It struck first in Indiana, where Evan Bayh got himself elected as secretary of state in 1986, and two years later, at age 32, became the youngest governor in the country. At the time of his first campaign, Bayh's entire adult work record consisted of a law clerkship and one year at a law firm in Indianapolis. It was not even clear that he met the five-year state residency requirement for holding office. But he had the good luck to be the son of a famous repudiated father.

Things took a little longer in Iowa because Chet Culver was only 14 years old when his father lost his Senate seat. But the McKay effect is not only potent, it can survive a long period of latency. In 1998, at age 33, Chet announced his candidacy for Iowa secretary of state. His resume listed four years teaching high school in Des Moines and not too much else. But he won, got reelected four years later and is now the front-running Democratic candidate for governor of Iowa.

None of this is to question the competence of the younger Bayh and Culver, both of whom have been decent public servants, or to suggest that voters would be better off if they decided every election on the basis of experience alone. They wouldn't be. Experience is overrated in politics, as it is in almost every facet of life.

But that doesn't solve the puzzle of why something like the Bill McKay effect exists. Why would we throw governors and senators out of office in the prime of their careers and then rally around their inexperienced sons just a few years later?

I certainly don't think it's a matter of remorse. If the voters in Iowa had truly regretted their decision in 1980, they would have pleaded with John Culver to come home and give them a chance to atone for the misdeed. I'm not aware that such sentiment existed, in that case or in any of the other cases where the McKay effect has shown up.

The roots of the McKay effect are more psychological and aesthetic than they are political. Generational sagas are a gripping form of entertainment, whether they are presented as novels, plays, movies, TV miniseries or political theater. From "Buddenbrooks" to "The Adams Chronicles" to the historical epics of John Jakes, we are drawn to stories about the younger generation avenging the defeats or correcting the mistakes (sometimes repeating the mistakes) of the previous one. It's such a powerful artistic device that when we come upon it in a political campaign, even in unscripted form, we have trouble resisting it: "That boy sure looks like his old man. Wonder if he's going to act like him? And how are they getting along, anyway? I heard there was some bad blood there." We cast our votes in part to keep the story going.

The McKay effect sometimes thrusts forward people who lack any real aptitude for political life and would never have considered it if not for the family connection. One can't help thinking of the current governor of Ohio, Bob Taft, an intelligent, reserved, somewhat plodding man who started out in government as a budget analyst for the state of Illinois. Had his great-grandfather not been president, and his grandfather a revered statesman--and had his father not been rudely unseated from the U.S. Senate in 1976--it's hard to imagine Taft persisting in a political career for himself.

But they were, and he did. The current Taft was a state legislator at 34, then a county commissioner and Ohio secretary of state before finally getting his chance at the governorship in 1998. Well-versed in the minutiae of government, he has been singularly inept at the political demands of the job. He starts his final year in office with the lowest public approval ratings of any governor in America. Taft is a McKay-effect governor, and a particularly unfortunate one.

But there are just as many examples of political sons who drift into politics solely on the strength of family ties, and then turn out to be remarkably good at it. One of them is president of the United States right now. George W. Bush entered his early forties with a life history composed mostly of dissipation and failed business ventures. Had he not been the son of a president, no one would have asked him to run for office, and had he not had a family defeat to avenge, it's quite possible that he himself wouldn't have wanted to.

But as governor of Texas, and since then in his national political career, the son has demonstrated political skills far beyond any that his father exhibited. George H.W. Bush always sounded in his campaigns like a Connecticut Yankee imitating a Texan. George W. Bush, who was actually raised on the plains of west Texas, didn't have to pretend. One can argue endlessly about the substance of his presidency, but it's hard to deny that he possesses an instinct for politics.

So it isn't easy to say, on balance, whether we are served well or poorly by our penchant for lifting the sons of defeated politicians to unearned prominence. What is certain is that we will keep doing it. I don't know what's going to happen in Iowa this year, but if I had to bet, I would bet that next January, Chet Culver will be up there on the Capitol steps in Des Moines, taking the gubernatorial oath of office, and that John C. Culver will be there as well, congratulating him the way Melvyn Douglas congratulated Robert Redford. That's the way it usually works.

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