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You are here: Home > Articles by Rich Rubino > Nepotism in the White House: It’s All Relative

Nepotism in the White House: It’s All Relative

by Rich Rubino on April 11, 2017

President Donald Trump recently appointed his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner as unpaid senior White House advisors. Some legal scholars argue that these “appointments” are in violation of The Federal Postal Act of 1967 signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The statute disallows the President from appointing a relative to a “civilian position in the agency in which he is serving or over which he exercises jurisdiction or control.”

The Trump administration argues that this decree does not apply to members of the White House staff. The law only states that no public official can hire a relative. The Trump administration argues that this does not apply to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner because they are working on a volunteer basis.

Interestingly, as a member of the U.S. Congress, Johnson had employed his brother Sam Houston Johnson as an administrative aide. After the President left office, Sam wrote a book about his experience working for his brother entitled: “My Brother Lyndon.” While the book is mostly complimentary of the President, it criticizes some of his methods as a boss.

The author of this 1967 ordinance was U.S. Representative Neal Smith (D-IA). He said it was aimed mostly at the U.S. Postal Service. However, it encompassed the entire Federal Government.

The issue of nepotism took center stage in the political arena in 1960 when President-Elect John F. Kennedy nominated his younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy, to the esteemed position of U.S. Attorney General. It was crystal clear to most political observers that the younger Kennedy was under-qualified for the position. Kennedy was just 35 years old and sported no courtroom experience. John F. Kennedy made light of his brother’s lack of experience and the nepotism charges, telling the Alfalfa Club that he nominated his brother: “to give him a little experience before he goes out to practice law.”

Actually, Kennedy was very apprehensive about nominating his brother, but did so at the beseeching of his father Joseph P. Kennedy. The U.S. Senate on a voice vote confirmed Kennedy expeditiously. Had there been a roll call vote, it is unlikely that Robert Kennedy would have been confirmed. Nation Magazine called the nomination: “the greatest example of nepotism this land has ever seen.”

In 1993, a Washington DC Court ruled that President Bill Clinton was allowed under the law to appoint his wife Hillary to lead his White House task force on Health Care. Judge Laurence Siberman wrote in the ruling: “a president would be barred from appointing his brother as attorney general, but perhaps not as a White House special assistant.”

Prior to the 1967 statute, there was a long history of presidents appointing or nominating relatives to administration jobs.

In 1797, President John Adams appointed his son John Quincy Adams as Minister to Prussia. In addition, President Adams appointed his son-in-law, William Stephens Smith, as a Customs Agent, and appointed John Quincy Adams’ Father-in-law, Joshua Johnson, to the position of Superintendent of Stamps.

In order to avoid charges of nepotism, President Andrew Jackson managed for his nephew Jack Donelson to be hired as a general land office clerk. Jackson then requested he be assigned to work with Jackson in the White House (at the time referred to as The Executive Mansion).

Jackson’s actions effectuated a chain reaction. His Presidential successor, Martin Van Buren, circumvented the system the same way, hiring his son Martin Jr. as a general land clerk and his other son Abraham as Second Auditor at the U.S. Treasury Department. He then had them transferred to the White House, and like Jackson, Van Buren utilized his sons as private secretaries. Presidents John Tyler and Millard Fillmore used these same methods to get their sons employed at the White House.

James K. Polk did not approve of this practice of making taxpayers pay for Presidential relatives on the federal payroll. However, he wanted his nephew James Knox Walker, to work at the White House. Accordingly, Polk paid his salary out of his personal account.

Later Presidents were upfront about their nepotism. Zachary Taylor employed his son-in-law, Colonel William W. W. Bliss, as his private secretary and advisor. James Buchanan did the same with his nephew James Henry.

Ulysses S. Grant was perhaps the worst Presidential offender. He appointed three of his brothers-in-law to federal government positions, including Fredrick Dent to the position of White House Usher. Dent used the position as a cash cow, selling insider information. Grant also appointed his cousin Silas A. Houston to the position of Ambassador to Guatemala.

President Rutherford B. Hayes employed his son, Webb Hayes, as his confidential secretary, personal assistant, and bodyguard. At the time of his hiring, the younger Hayes was just 21 years old. Webb also served as the official greeter at White House functions.

Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed his son James as an administrative aide, coordinating the activity of 17 federal agencies. The younger Roosevelt came under assault by The Saturday Evening Post for allegedly using his title as the President’s son to win contracts for his insurance firm. James vehemently denied these insinuations.

David Eisenhower, the son of incoming President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was used as a political football. During the traditional ride from the White House to the Presidential Inauguration, President-Elect Eisenhower asked outgoing President Harry S. Truman (who had ordered Eisenhower’s son John to return form active duty in the Korean War), to attend his father’s inauguration. Eisenhower feared that the public would view this as his son receiving preferential treatment. Truman testily retorted in the third person: “The President of the United States ordered your son to attend your inauguration. The President thought it was right and proper for your son to witness the swearing-in of his father to the Presidency. If you think somebody was trying to embarrass you by this order, then the President assumes full responsibility.” The two men had a rapprochement later in life, becoming good friends.

As for John Eisenhower, he was the last son of a President to serve his father in the White House. John served as the Assistant White House Staff Secretary and as an assistant to General Andrew Goodpaster.

During the 1968 Presidential campaign, Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon hired his brother Ed to superintend the mail operations during his Presidential campaign. Pleased with Ed’s work, President-Elect Nixon offered his brother the job of running the White House mailroom. Ed declined the offer, later telling The Times Union: “It was a nice gesture, but I knew it was not the job for me.”

Hiring family members to work at the White House is currently at the forefront of the national dialogue. Norman Eisen, who served as an ethics attorney during the administration of President Barack Obama, maintains that Trump is in violation of the Federal Postal Act of 1967. However, Eisen also realizes the complexity of this issue. He recently told CNN: “reasonable minds can disagree.” History teaches us that the appointments of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner by President Trump are far from unique or unusual.

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