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The history of family ties at the White House

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Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner step off Air Force One.
Ivanka Trump, daughter of U.S. President Donald Trump, her husband Jared Kushner, senior adviser to Trump step off Air Force One upon arrival at Rome's Fiumicino Airport on May 23, 2017.
Mandel Ngan | Getty

Former NPR host Neal Conan explores the history of family ties, personal relationships, nepotism and the concept of "meritocracy" in a presidential administration.

There is a long list of presidential kin who have profited from their famous connection, right up to today with Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner serving as prominent White House advisers. 

Philip Smucker's historical research concludes that our first president, George Washington, rejected political ties of blood or friendship. Nepotism reminded the founders of oligarchy and monarchy, and Smucker says Washington's decision should be viewed against "the backdrop of venal and corrupt monarchies in Europe at that time."

Carl Anthony has written extensively about first families and first ladies. He said there are many examples of nepotism after Washington's administration concluded.

And more recently, FDR's and JFK's brothers played major roles, while first ladies and "first daughters" Julie Nixon Eisenhower and Lynda Bird Johnson were also prominent. Billy Carter, Patti Davis, Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush all sought to profit from their famous connection. 

What do we risk when presidents trust members of their family for advice? Political scientist Henry Carey says the Trump presidency is unique in that the president is extremely unpredictable, offers "daily contradictions and lies," makes charges of "fake news" and is an "idiosyncratic ruler."

"We simply can't have a democracy without a free press," Carey said, and "we now have something resembling if not a court-medieval politics, we do have chaos." He added, "we have a system that requires procedures and rules, and is ultimately based on the idea that we're a government of laws, not of men or people."

Neal Conan's guests for this edition of his series, "Truth, Politics and Power" are:

Philip Smucker, journalist, a relative of George Washington, and a research fellow at Mount Vernon. Author of "Riding with George: Sportsmanship and Chivalry in the Making of America's First Great President."

Carl Sferrazza Anthony, author of "America's First Families: An Inside View of 200 Years of Private Life in the White House" and "Ida McKinley: The Turn-of-the-Century First Lady."

Henry F. (Chip) Carey, political science professor at Georgia State University.

To listen to the program, click the audio player above.