Jared Kushner’s Not the First In-Law to Take a High-Profile Spot in an Administration

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Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, August 2015). A paperback edition is now available. 

William Gibbs McAdoo, Jared Kushner, Sargent Shriver


Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of President Donald Trump, married to his daughter Ivanka, has become a very powerful figure in the White House, seen as possibly the most influential person around the 45th President. But Kushner is not the first in-law of a President to wield tremendous power and influence. If we go back a century, we discover William Gibbs McAdoo, the son-in-law of President Woodrow Wilson, who played an extremely influential role in both domestic and foreign policy as Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury for the first six years of his father-in-law’s Presidency. And if we go back a half century ago, we find Sargent Shriver , the brother-in- law of John F. Kennedy, who served America as a very significant public figure by appointment with three Presidents, and then tried for national office, as McAdoo had done 50 years earlier.

An attorney and businessman, McAdoo served as the campaign manager for Wilson in 1912, having just lost his wife that year, and then married the President’s daughter Eleanor in 1914. He served Wilson in a crucial role as Treasury Secretary, helping to keep the American economy afloat during the crucial early months of the First World War by shutting down the stock market for four months. In so doing, he prevented a major depression in America, and managed to shift the economic power in the world from Europe to the United States, helping to make America the major international power as a result of leadership in finance, turning America from a debtor nation to a creditor nation – and helping to turn the tide of the war.

McAdoo became the first chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, which was established by Congress in 1913. In 1916, still serving as chairman of the Fed, he went on to become chairman of the US Shipping Board, and once the US joined World War 1 in 1917, he also served as Director General of the US Railroad Administration. In this role he helped nationalize the railroad systems of the nation to promote the war effort. Earlier in his career he served as president of the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad Company, which built the first successful under river subway tunnels in New York City. Additionally, McAdoo promoted Liberty Bonds to raise money for the war effort.

McAdoo’s economic leadership made people at the time compare him in significance to Alexander Hamilton as Treasury Secretary under George Washington. And yet he was unable to translate his economic leadership to political success, as he was prevented from seeking the Presidency in 1920 because his father-in-law stubbornly refused to withdraw from a potential third term bid, despite his having suffered a stroke. When it was finally clear that Wilson was not a candidate, McAdoo jumped in and led on early ballots, but he lost the nomination to Ohio Governor James Cox. When McAdoo tried for the Democratic nomination in 1924, he and New York Governor Alfred E. Smith deadlocked; the convention held a record-breaking 103 ballots. John W. Davis of West Virginia finally emerged as the Presidential nominee (and lost in the general election). McAdoo’s reputation was sullied by his acceptance of Ku Klux Klan support during his battle with Smith, a Catholic. McAdoo had also promoted segregation in government agencies, following the suggested policy of his father-in-law, during his years at the Treasury Department.

McAdoo was able to help Franklin D. Roosevelt win the Presidential nomination over John Nance Garner at the 1932 Democratic National Convention by supporting FDR’s bid for the California delegation. He then was elected to the US Senate. But he always felt that his life was not the success it could have been, either in politics or in his private life, which included a divorce from Wilson’s daughter in 1934 after 20 years of marriage. His ambition, doggedness at his tasks, and his aggressive behavior turned off both colleagues and his father-in-law, who had soured on him by the time he had left the Wilson Administration at the end of the war in 1918.

Sargent Shriver, married to JFK’s sister, Eunice, had been a founding member of the American First Committee at Yale Law School in 1940, and was asked by his future wife’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, to head the Chicago Merchandise Mart after World War II. When his brother-in-law was elected President, Shriver was asked to head the new government agency, the Peace Corps, which represented the best ideals of the Kennedy Administration, promoting the image overseas of an America demonstrating interest in improving the health care, education, and housing of the population of third world nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. His reputation was stellar, and he was next recruited by Lyndon B. Johnson to head the War on Poverty, creating the Job Corps, Head Start, and other programs which helped improve the lives of millions of people and lowered the poverty rate by one third in the mid to late 1960s. Then, Johnson and Richard Nixon had Shriver serve as Ambassador to France from 1968 to 1970, where he was well received by the government and people of France.

In 1972 George McGovern selected Shriver to replace Missouri Senator Tom Eagleton as the Democrat’s Vice Presidential nominee, after it was disclosed that Eagleton had been treated by a psychiatrist for depression. But of course McGovern lost the election in a landslide to Richard Nixon. Shriver then ran a lackluster campaign for President in 1976, and was not a serious challenger to other Democrats in the race, including ultimate nominee Jimmy Carter. In the 1980s and after, Shriver became involved in the promotion of the Special Olympics, promoting sports programs around the world as its president and chairman. He was often called the most accomplished Presidential appointee who never held elected office.

The question is whether Jared Kushner, at the age of 36, has any political ambitions similar to McAdoo, or a commitment to public service similar to Shriver. Will he stand out as an in-law who will have as great an impact in history as McAdoo and Shriver had in their times, fifty years apart? Will Kushner, serving under Donald Trump, enhance his future public career and reputation or cripple it, as he is now under FBI watch for his activities and associations during the Trump campaign, in the two and a half months before the inauguration, and now as a crucial adviser on many issues for his father-in-law. We will see what transpires in the coming months and years.



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