A Brief History of Nepotism in the White House
While President Trump has committed the most egregious acts of favoritism in recent memory, presidential nepotism has been common practice for centuries.
Published on March 27, 2017

Lead Image via Talking Points Memo

Donald Trump has come under fire for nepotism and rightly so. He has appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner a senior adviser. He has furnished his daughter, and Kushner’s wife, Ivanka Trump with an office in the White House and high-level security clearances. Though Trump’s sons Eric and Donald Jr. don't work for Trump in an official capacity, rumors abound that they are enriching themselves by exploiting their father’s office, as well as sharing information about the Trump business with their father, despite the obvious conflict of interest. While this is likely the most egregious example of presidential nepotism in recent memory, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush contended with the accusation: Clinton was criticized for tasking Hillary with healthcare reform, while Bush certainly benefited from his father’s past presidency as he sought to secure his own.

Nepotism is nothing new in the White House. In fact, prior to legislation in 1967 (passed in response to John F. Kennedy appointing his brother attorney general) the practice of favoritism was far more widespread. The only reason that Trump is not in violation of the 1967 law is a 1978 law that exempts advisory roles from nepotism laws. Here are some other examples of presidential nepotism throughout American history.

John F. Kennedy

One of the most famous instances of presidential nepotism is one that few people have a problem with in retrospect. Robert F. Kennedy was a beloved attorney general, remembered as a champion of civil rights, but he was also appointed by his brother John F. Kennedy. RFK pushed JFK left on a number of issues, especially civil rights and fighting organized crime during his tenure. RFK is remembered so fondly as a progressive leader today that it is easy to forget that he had little legal experience, and lacked the resume of a typical AG candidate, when originally appointed. Journalists of the day were not so positive about the young AG. Journalist Anthony Lewis recalled, “His experience was zero. He'd been a lawyer for Senate committees, a zealot with no understanding of the terrible responsibilities of an attorney general. I was appalled. I thought it was a simply awful idea.” Luckily, RFK proved him wrong.

John Adams

Our third president was one of the most nepotistic in American political history. He appointed his son Prussian diplomat in a move that would start Quincy on the track to become president. While the appointment was met with resistance, it was nothing compared to his attempt to land a government job for his son-in-law William Stephens Smith, a known land speculator. After trying and failing to land Smith several government positions, Adams got him a job as a customs agent. Adams also secured cushy gigs for his brother-in-law as a postmaster and for Quincy’s father-in-law as the “superintendent of stamps.”

Nepotism was common in the early days of the Republic: Zachary Taylor, James Monroe, John Tyler, and James Buchanan all hired family members, generally in secretarial roles. Not only did Andrew Jackson hire family members, but he is remembered for the “spoils system,” which made an art out of granting positions to supporters and their family members.

Ulysses S. Grant

If you're familiar with Grant’s Presidency, you're familiar with the many scandals that engulfed his administration. Whether you view Grant as a decent man who got in over his head or as a corrupt and weak president given a political hall pass due to his effective performance in the Civil War, you can't argue with the fact that was one of the most aggressively nepotistic presidents in US history. Grant appointed his cousin Silas Hudson minister to Guatemala. His brother-in-law M.J. Cramer was appointed consulate in Leipzig. His brother-in-law James F. Casey was given a customs job in New Orleans. Another brother-in-law, Frederick Dent, was handed a gig as White House usher. All told, 40 relatives benefited from Grant’s dotage, contributing to the web of scandal that engulfed his presidency.

Woodrow Wilson

When William Gibbs McAdoo was appointed secretary of the treasury and chairman of the fed, he was not a part of Wilson’s family. However, after marrying Wilson’s daughter he declined to step down. Wilson later appointed McAdoo chairman of the War Finance Board after the outbreak of World War I.

Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower

Both Roosevelt and Eisenhower appointed their sons to administrative positions. FDR placed  his son James in a secretarial position while Eisenhower gave his son John an assistant staff secretary position. Roosevelt later expanded James’ responsibilities to include coordinating eighteen different White House agencies, making him an integral part of day to day Oval Office operations. Though John held no other positions in his father’s administration beyond his secretarial post, this first job proved to be a stepping stone. He would go on to work in both the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Brenden Gallagher
Brenden Gallagher works in television and writing in Los Angeles. He worked on Revenge, Heartbeat, and Famous in Love. His writing has appeared at Complex, VH1, and MERRY JANE. Follow him on Twitter @muddycreekU
Share this article with your friends!
By using our site you agree to our use of cookies to deliver a better experience.