September 27, 2005

Roger L. Simon has an approving link to an article, here, which argues that the cronyism that has so afflicted this President is nevertheless excusable, because "nepotism" is also endemic in Hollywood and the news media. Needless to say, cronyism and nepotism are not the same thing; Bush, to his credit, has not tried to nominate daughter Jenna to the Supreme Court, or name brother Neil to be his Secretary of the Treasury. Even so, the notion that Kate Hudson being cast in a movie is somehow morally equivalent to putting a campaign advance man in charge of emergency preparation and relief is absurd.

More to the point, the writer seems to confuse nepotism (ie., the appointment of a family member to a position to which he is not qualified) with the phenomenon that exists in most professions: children pursue occupations similar to their parents. It is routine to the point of banality for the children of attorneys to enter into the legal profession, or the children of doctors to become heart surgeons. Men and women who work on the assembly line at GM or Ford may be joined by their offspring a generation later. It is understandable for kids to want to emulate their closest role models, and observing how someone practicing a particular livelihood behaves is a good way to get a step forward on those who are starting from scratch. In fact, I dare say the idea that one may be able to pass on to the next generation a business or craft is part of the American Dream.

And the same has been true with acting since the days of the Barrymores and Booths. Regardless of whether you believe that Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicholas Cage, Mira Sorvino or Sean Penn deserved their Oscars, the fact they get cast in roles today has nothing to do with who their parents are. Their success is based on whether people see their movies, or whether the right sort of people like their movies. And similarly, Kate Hudson's floundering career can only be redeemed by her own efforts at mastering the thespian craft; even Goldie Hawn's power is limited in that regard.

It might have helped those actors at the beginning of their careers to have a parent in the biz, just as it helped athletes like Kobe Bryant, Barry Bonds and Peyton Manning get an extra look from scouts on the basis of their names and pedigrees, but they ultimately had to get the job done. Notwithstanding the fact that Mike Piazza was drafted by the Dodgers almost entirely because Tommy Lasorda was friendly with his dad, he's still going to the Hall of Fame. Piazza, like those other athletes, had to put in the hard work necessary to show he belonged, and he had to display his talent to the fullest extent.

And the same is true in the Business of Show. When Francis Coppola cast his daughter in Godfather III, that was clearly a demonstration of nepotism, and the move backfired. But that has nothing to do, ten years later, with whether Lost in Translation is a great film, or whether Sofia Coppola earned her Best Screenplay Oscar. Whether or not Gwyneth Paltrow gets cast in Proof or Sylvia is determined by her talent, her perceived compatibility for the roles, and her ability to sell enough tickets to make those movies profitable, not by the fact that her mom is Blythe Danner.

The problem with Bush isn't that he has appointed so many pals and stalwarts to important positions, it's the fact that a high percentage of them can't do their jobs competently, and the man at the top won't hold them accountable when they fail. If FEMA had efficiently gotten supplies to Mississippi and Louisiana, would anyone have cared that Michael Brown's expertise was in judging Arabian stallions? I doubt the subject would have even come up, anymore than Harry Truman's occupation as a haberdasher was relevant when he integrated the military or fired Douglas MacArthur (who, it should be pointed out, was himself the son of a general).

Administrations are always filled with people like Michael Brown, people who are honored for their partisan service and friendships, not their qualifications, dating back to George Washington. Sometimes, even an unqualified hack like Brown will rise to the occasion, and evidence talents heretofore unrecognized; that, after all, is the life story of Harry Truman in a nutshell. Good Presidents put them in positions where they can do little harm, and act quickly to replace them when they do. Unforgivably, Bush has put his party above the interests of his country. His passivity in the face of incompetence must be judged as willful.

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