One Nepotistic President Was Enough

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

I'm a former Republican, now registered as an independent and I've contributed money to both the Obama and McCain campaigns. Here's why: they aren't Clinton/Romney. In different ways Obama and McCain represent the best of our democratic traditions. And Obama and McCain are up against the Romney/Clinton nepotistic dynasties that appear to be more like entitled heirs grasping for the throne of pre-revolutionary France, than anything American. Worse--like W--Clinton/Romney talk tough on defense and are ready to send other people's children to war, but not their own.

My Marine son recently served in the Bush dynasty's wars-of-choice for long months that stretched into gut-wrenching years. I was proud of my son's service but also resentful when he was deployed again and again while the commander-in-chief's service-age daughters were on a perpetual spring break. My slow burn--feeling like a peasant looking through the gates of Versailles just before the French Revolution--got me to thinking about the sorts of people running our country these days.

The real division in America isn't between Republicans and Democrats or the left and right or between religious and secular people. The most glaring division is between we the "peasants" and a self-perpetuating royalty. Nowhere is this division more apparent than in who serves in our military and who does not. (In 1956 about half the graduating class of Princeton went on to serve in the military, today it's less than a fraction of one percent and the same is true of the other Ivy League schools. For more see AWOL--The Unexcused Absence Of America's Upper Classes From Military Service and How It Hurts Our Country, a book I co-authored.)

This country doesn't have a draft. The freedom not to volunteer extends president's children too. And I don't want to suggest that politically ambitious parents should push their offspring to serve. That said, presidents and potential presidents are free to encourage or discourage their children to do a little heavy lifting along with ordinary Americans once in a while. And to me this is one way to assess character. For instance, Joe Biden, who opposes the war in Iraq, has a son serving in the military who is about to be deployed to Iraq. This tells me a lot about the Biden home: service trumps entitlement. (Too bad Biden dropped out of the race!)

How do the candidates with a real shot at the presidency measure up when it comes to my offbeat whose-children-serve yardstick? My question doesn't apply to Senator Obama. His children are both too young. And Obama has consistently opposed the Bush wars-of-choice, so even if his kids were of service age at least he can't be accused of gross hypocrisy.

Senator McCain has two children in the military. Nineteen-year-old Jimmy is a Marine and twenty-one-year-old Jack is at the Naval Academy. The fact that his sons are willing to fight a war McCain has vowed to try and win lends weight to his words, no matter what you think of his strategy for ending Bush's misbegotten wars.

Romney has five military age sons. They're all helping with his campaign. And when CBS's Mike Wallace asked them whether any of them had thought about serving, the answer was a universal no. "I feel guilty about not having done it," said thirty-two-year-old real estate developer Josh Romney. His twenty-nine-year-old brother been admitted: "I've seen a lot that made me say, 'my goodness, I hope I never have to do that.'"

Chelsea Clinton, who is routinely trotted out to play the part of a strangely mute campaign ornament, has led a similarly privileged and protected life as the Romney heirs. She went from Oxford to a consulting job with a starting salary of over $100,000 at (what else?) a hedge fund company. The lesson she seems to have taken from her parents is: chase the money, prestige and power.

There is nothing wrong with the Clinton/Romney heirs making a buck instead of serving their country -- unless Clinton/Romney are going to ask other people's equally gifted children to sacrifice. It isn't a question of what the children should do, but of what kinds of parents we want in charge of our country, as judged by the values they have or haven't passed on to those closest to them.

Maybe it's time Clinton/Romney take a page from Eleanor Roosevelt. She wrote in her diary: "I think my husband would have been very much upset if the boys had not wanted to go into the war immediately. But he did not have to worry very much because they were either already in, before the war began, or they went in immediately after."

The inference was that FDR (no stranger to privilege) would have been ashamed to ask ordinary American's children to do what his children lacked the patriotism to do. The commander-in-chief is, in the context of today's all-recruited military, also the recruiter-in-chief. Personal credibility should be one perquisite of seeking the presidency.

It's time to ask Clinton/Romney, who consistently talk tough on defense, if they think they can inspire the country to make sacrifices while their own children have chosen to join the most lucrative of overpaid professions: hedge fund managing and/or the Romney family financial empire, at a time when other young men and women are dying in part because of the pro-war Clinton votes in the Senate and the continuing blind support of Bush's foolish war-of-choice by the likes of Romney.

It seems that the Romney/Clinton children, unlike Biden's son, the McCain children (or anti-Iraq-war Senator James Webb's boy who is a Marine serving) have learned all too well from their parents: life is about enriching yourself through power and nepotistic privilege. This is surely especially true of the Clintons, whose personal fortunes have been made exclusively by their cashing in on political power via book advances, inside deals through access to powerful individuals and outsized--some might say obscene--speaking fees.

Surely the entitled dynastic continuity of the Clinton and Bush families--a grab for power by passing on the presidency from father to son and now husband to wife, is not the American way. Nor is telling others to serve when your own won't.

I'd be relieved to see Obama and McCain in a race against each other. They both are a lot more we the people than divine right of kings. And in an Obama vs. McCain race we could concentrate on a real choice between different policies. The race would be between honorable candidates who have the moral authority given those who live the way they talk, instead of between Clinton and Romney, who are really just more of the same: members of our nepotistic wealthy elite playing we peasants for suckers.

For the last 8 years we've been led by an entitled dynastic prince pretending he's one of us while sending other people's children to war. One W is more than enough.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of "Crazy For God: How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back."