The Curse Of The Famous Scion

It is not always a treat to grow up as the heir to a world-famous leader. Consider the offspring of the most important trio of this century-the Big Three of World War II, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin:

The British Prime Minister expected his son Randolph to carry on his leadership, but as the Oxford scholar Isaiah Berlin observed, young Churchill's "violence and lack of control" were at times "pathetic, disarming and childlike." The hard-drinking Randolph once boasted after a dinner given by the film director Otto Preminger that he had succeeded in insulting so many people that eight fled the table. And Noel Coward greeted Winston's heir by calling out, "Dear Randolph, utterly unspoiled by failure!"

Franklin Roosevelt's sons James and Franklin Jr. flamed out at their father's calling. When James followed Franklin into the House of Representatives in 1955, the old Speaker, Sam Rayburn, warned him not to "make a damn fool of yourself the way your brother Franklin did" by condescending to colleagues and scorning his job. The personal lives of the Roosevelt children were little more enviable. The five of them were married a total of 19 times. One of James's four wives shot him. To cover his considerable alimony payments, he became involved with the rogue financiers Bernard Cornfeld and Robert Vesco in the 1960s and '70s. His brother Elliott, obsessed with getting rich quick, became a lobbyist for the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar and later set his name to the ghostwritten "Eleanor Roosevelt Mystery" book series. He joshed, "See, she's still supporting me after all these years!"

The most vivid ease of filial misery may have been Stalin's son Vasily. Far from the crown prince of Stalinism, the young man would reputedly fortify himself with vodka, climb into a Red Army plane and buzz his father's military parades as they passed the Kremlin. Vasily died young, drunk and obscure. His sister, Svetlana, who defected to the United States in 1967, now frequents a London charity hostel that caters to poor people with severe emotional problems.

The common thread running through these agitated lives is not hard to trace. Randolph Churchill understood that "when you are living under the shadow of a great oak tree, the small sapling, so close to the parent tree, does not perhaps receive enough sunshine." Near the end of his life, James Roosevelt said that what Franklin and his mother, Eleanor, "could do for the world was far more important than anything they could do for us." He and his siblings "raced along behind them at such speed that when we fell off, we careened out of control."

American political scions evoke a central contradiction in our thinking. We believe, or say we do, in nurture, not nature. Yet we are comforted by the aristocratic notion that leadership might run in the bloodlines. When Adlai Stevenson III ran for the U.S. Senate in 1970, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago is said to have offered one piece of advice: "Don't change your name." Sometimes the name is enough: one John F. Kennedy, a razor-blade-factory worker unrelated to the 35th president, parlayed his into election and re-election as treasurer of Massachusetts. At the same time, we distrust inherited status. Franklin Roosevelt Jr. was astonished in 1954 to find his political career abruptly halted by the Tammany Hall boss Carmine De Sapio, who, unhandicapped by genteel upbringing, sabotaged his bid for New York governor.

The more successful sons and daughters know when to lean on their parents--and when to go their own way. George W. Bush helped run his father's presidential campaigns in 1988 and 1992. But in his winning campaign for governor of Texas, he never mentioned his father's name in any of his campaign commercials. And it is possible to learn from the mistakes of earlier failed scions. John E Kennedy Jr. may be edging toward public life with his new magazine, but he seems duly wary of the pitfalls of historical celebrity. His mother, Jacqueline, was one wise instructor. Another, in a more indirect way, was Randolph Churchill. When John was 5 years old, Randolph sent him a tin trunk containing elegantly bound volumes of all 49 books written by his prime minister father. The gift was a goad--and a warning.