So as America heads into the Thanksgiving holidays, the Washington and political/media Establishment still agog at the election of Donald Trump as the nation’s 45th president, various knickers are in knots because of news reports that the President-elect is considering making his son-in-law Jared Kushner a member of the White House staff.
Aghast, there are cries of nepotism with reference to a 1967 law that was belatedly targeted at President John F. Kennedy’s appointment of brother Bobby as Attorney General. The legislation might be called LBJ’s revenge as Lyndon Johnson hated Bobby Kennedy and this was, in the way of the famously vengeful LBJ, a way of getting even with the Kennedys, although by 1967 RFK was comfortably ensconced in the U.S. Senate representing New York.
But well aside from a considerable body of opinion that the 1967 law doesn’t apply to the White House staff, there is simple ignorance of the fact that various presidents did in fact formally rely on family members to advise them on the problems of the day. The addition of Jared Kushner to the senior White House staff would not only be important — it has lots and lots of precedence.
The tradition of presidents relying on family members as presidential confidantes began with the beginning of the United States itself. Then-Vice President John Adams saw to it that President George Washington appointed Adams’s son, John Quincy Adams, as the American Minister to the Netherlands. John Quincy had long been a key confidante of his father, accompanying him on diplomatic missions when the senior Adams was the American envoy to France and the Netherlands. When John Adams was elected the nation’s second president he promptly appointed his son the U.S. Ambassador to Prussia, where he served until his father’s defeat by Thomas Jefferson in 1800.
President James Madison had no children of his own but, in an effort to help his troubled adopted son of wife Dolley, saw to it that John Payne Todd was appointed as a secretary to an official U.S. delegation in Europe.
Andrew Jackson Donelson, the namesake nephew of President Andrew Jackson, was so well-thought of by Jackson as an advisor that Jackson appointed him as his private secretary in the White House, a post the influential Donelson held for all eight years of his presidency.
Two of Martin Van Buren’s sons, Martin Jr. and Smith, served their father in the White House when Van Buren was elected to succeed Jackson in 1836. Martin Jr. served as private secretary to his presidential father, while his brother Smith was a special assistant.
Sarah Childress Polk, the wife of President James K. Polk, had no children. But it was she — the sitting First Lady — who helped write presidential speeches and was his confidante on policy.
President Lincoln made sure to get son Robert appointed to the staff of General Ulysses Grant, a position that the younger Lincoln had at Appomattox and that propelled him on to a highly successful career of his own in both the law and politics, later serving as Secretary of War for Presidents Garfield and Arthur.
Edith Bolling Galt plays a startling role in American history. The second wife of Woodrow Wilson, when her husband suffered a stroke midway through his second term it was wife Ellen — not Vice President Thomas Marshall — who made the decisions of what briefings the bedridden president would and would not get. In effect, she was the acting president.
President Franklin Roosevelt insisted that sons Franklin Jr. and Elliot attend the famous Argentina conference — the “Atlantic Charter” meeting — with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in August of 1941. It was at this conference, his two sons in attendance at FDR’s personal insistence, that Roosevelt and Churchill and their advisers hammered out the goals and objectives of the Allies in World War II and the postwar world they would shape afterwards.
One could go on here. There are also presidential aides who, while not family members were viewed as family members because of their closeness to the president. Wilson’s press secretary Joseph Tumulty and longtime friend Colonel Edward House played this role. As did FDR advisers Louis Howe and Harry Hopkins, both of whom lived in the White House with the President and First Lady.
In the Kennedy era there was not just brother Bobby running the Justice Department, there was the so-called “Irish mafia” of close JFK pals all of whom had official positions in the White House. Kenneth O’Donnell effectively served as White House chief of staff, Lawrence O’Brien was the White House congressional liaison, and Dave Powers was the all-around presidential companion. And, of course, there was not only brother Bobby at the Justice Department but brother-in-law Sargent Shriver running the Peace Corps.
Famously, in the Reagan era, it was Reagan’s close relationship with Michael Deaver almost as a son that had the Californian installed as the White House Deputy Chief of Staff in a “troika” that included the Washington insider James Baker as chief of staff, the conservative strategist and longtime Reaganite Ed Meese as a counselor/strategist, with Deaver having the personal relationship to both Ronald and Nancy Reagan. No accident either was it that daughter Maureen Reagan served as co-chair of the Republican National Committee during a period of her father’s presidency. Not too put too fine a point on it, perhaps the most influential person in the Reagan White House after the President was Nancy Reagan herself.
And, of course, there was Hillary Clinton in the Bill Clinton-era running the president’s health care initiative. Not to mention longtime George W. Bush and Bush family friend Karl Rove in the Bush 43 era.
In other words? All this angst over the potential presence of President-elect Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner in the Trump White House is so much baloney. Literally from the beginnings of the presidency one president after another has turned to a family member or sometimes multiples of family members as official or unofficial confidantes in their White House. Sometimes with portfolio, sometimes not — but always with influence and power in the White House. And on occasion they saw to it that this or that child was appointed to a favored diplomatic or military position, as both John Adams and Abraham Lincoln did with sons John Quincy and Robert — effectively launching their sons on careers of their own.
If he decides to take a job on the White House staff, Jared Kushner is superbly qualified as a successful businessman (and publisher) all by himself in his own right. His addition to the Trump White House senior staff would be uniquely important. But as a family member who has the personal confidence of the new president Mr. Kushner would be but the latest example of a presidential family member placed in a position of power and responsibility. There is not only nothing wrong with this, much less illegal about it — but it is precisely appointments like this that make great sense for a president. They are important — and with reason.
And without doubt, not only would Jared Kushner not be the first to play this role of family member as presidential adviser — as history moves on he surely won’t be the last.