The Age

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

It's not what you know, but who you know that can count in US politics.

An American legend is ''from log cabin to White House''. This is the idea that worth can triumph over obscurity and adversity, and that political opportunity is equal to all. A glance around Washington shows how false this belief is.

No sooner had Barack Obama been re-elected than feverish speculation began about the next presidential election. Specifically, as one headline ran, could it be ''Clinton v Bush in 2016?'' This sounds very much like a case of Yogi Berra's ''deja vu all over again'': just over 20 years ago, Clinton defeated Bush for the presidency. But then, ''Clinton v Bush'' meant Bill Clinton winning against George H. W. Bush. The reprise for 2016 would be Hillary Clinton against Jeb Bush: Bill's wife against George H. W.'s son, or rather his second son, after George Bush the Younger served two terms as president in between the first Clinton and Obama.

''Clinton'' and ''Bush'' have brand-name recognition, and they are both marketable. That should scarcely confer on them any hereditary right of succession, and yet that is the only explanation for ''Bush v Clinton 2016?'' British prime ministers will have served as members of parliament before reaching No.10: for nearly 40 years in Winston Churchill's case; 20 in Margaret Thatcher's. There were no equivalent years of such hard political toil at all in Hillary Clinton's case. To be fair to the Bush brothers, George W. and Jeb, they could at least claim to have run something, as governors of Texas and Florida, but Clinton's story has been one of inexplicable entitlement, part of a larger pattern of ''heritable right''.

With what might have seemed either magnanimity or cunning, Obama chose as his first secretary of state his defeated rival for the Democratic nomination in 2008, senator Hillary Clinton of New York, wife of President Bill Clinton. Following her departure from the State Department, Obama has nominated to replace her with Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate in 2004, whose mother came from the Forbes dynasty of rich Boston bankers. Four years before Kerry lost, the Democratic candidate, also defeated, was Bill Clinton's vice-president, Al Gore, son of Senator Albert Gore snr of Tennessee.

He was beaten in 2000 by George Bush the Younger, son of George Bush the Elder, whose father was Senator Prescott Bush. And now there is Jeb Bush, Bush the Elder's younger son. But the sprouting of Bushes is not more remarkable than the career of Hillary Clinton, which is really one of the oddest things ever seen in any democratic country. Indeed she didn't have a political ''career'' at all until she was well into her 50s, when one was created for her by her husband as a form of recompense. Until the last days of Clinton's presidency, his wife had never run for, let alone won, any kind of elective office whatever. Nor had she worked in any administrative position except on the occasion when her husband put her in charge of his proposed healthcare reform, in the course of which fiasco she exhibited all the failings, from incompetence to petulance, that have marked her ventures in public life since.

She is a most wooden speaker, and any idea that she is a woman of intellectual gifts should not survive a reading of her footling book It Takes a Village. All in all, nothing she had ever done until the tail-end of her husband's erratic and lurid years in the White House could possibly justify the way that, having spent her life in Illinois, Arkansas, and Washington, she turned up in New York and demanded to become a senator as if by right.

What's more, she did. She was nominated and elected, and spent the next eight years on Capitol Hill. Once again, an objective view would suggest that nothing she did in her time in the Senate justified her candidature for the presidency, although Bill Clinton, who remains widely if unaccountably popular, did everything he could on her behalf. One has known errant husbands who tried to placate their wives with lavish presents of clothes or jewellery; this must be the first time a man hoped to atone for his infidelity by giving his wife not frocks and rocks but the presidency of the US.

After Obama had won the Democratic nomination and been elected, Hillary Clinton said — privately, sourly, and correctly — that her support for the Iraq war had tipped the balance against her. In fact it was worse than that. Her first year in the Senate saw the September 11 attacks. In October 2002 she was one of the large majority of senators who passed a resolution authorising the use of force against Iraq.

She then did nothing to halt or even criticise the administration's drive to war — or not until years later, by which time the Iraq enterprise had gone horribly wrong. But then her chief characteristic has been her expediency. As the Washington Post's Richard Cohen put it, she has always been ''dead centre in American public opinion, foursquare for what's popular and courageously opposed to what's not''. By the beginning of 2007, with eyes now fixed firmly on the White House, she belatedly deplored the fact that removing the Iraqi dictator had been an ''obsession'' with Bush.

Without the name Bush, George the Younger would never have reached the White House. And without the name Clinton, Hillary Rodham would never have held high office.

This article was originally published in The Age