Nepotism: The Fabric of Our Culture

Family businesses built America. You know -- the corner pizza parlor, started by two brothers and carried on by the kids; the butcher shop down the street, a mom-and-pop operation handed down to their kid; the hardware store that Charley Morchian opened in Montclair, N.J., in 1977, and will someday pass on to his son, Roy.

"He seemed interested in it," Morchian said. "And he knew what he was doing -- not so much as me -- but he enjoys it. So we figured we'd pass it on to him."

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Nothing wrong with that, right?

"It's the American dream: handing down what you had to your children," Ivanka Trump said. "Grooming them to follow you."

She ought to know. Someday she and her brothers could inherit the real estate empire started by her grandfather and elevated to new heights by her father, Donald Trump. But Ivanka has noticed that when the family business becomes big business, those warm and fuzzy feelings toward the next generation disappear.

"Nepotism is regarded in a negative sense when it's associated with the children of the very wealthy," she explained.

After graduating from college, Trump got some experience at another firm, then, last year, she joined the Trump Organization. Entry job: vice president. She was 25 years old. Here's how she answered the inevitable questions about her qualifications for the position:

"I don't pretend I have all the answers. But I have great resources to help me figure them out. But there is still a perception that, because of the the fact that I was born into a life of privilege that I am an absolute brat, that I'm spoiled and I don't deserve it." Trump paused for breath and continued: "Look, I went to the Wharton School of Finance, and I graduated summa cum laude. I choose to work here. I work my heart out. I work 19-hour days. I'm the next generation of this company."

"If your name were Ivanka Jones," I asked, "would you be sitting here right now?"

"Who knows?" she answered. "Did nepotism play a part in the fact that I'm joining my father? Yes. I cut out years of bureaucratic pencil-pushing by joining the company and I acknowledge that."

And when her dad made her the co-star of his hit TV show, "The Apprentice," Trump's longtime aide, Carolyn Kepcher, was shut out. The late-night comics had a field day with that one.

"Yes, it's fodder for comedy and yes, you can make the pot shot," Ivanka Trump acknowledged. "It's the kind of stuff that ultimately is a motivator and a catalyst for me just to prove those people wrong."

When Getting Hired Is Your Birthright

When it's your dad and his own private company, getting hired can be part of your birthright. But what if the family business is a big public company, owned by shareholders like you and me?

"In a publicly held company, nepotism is a highly questionable thing," said Michael Connor, publisher of Business Ethics magazine. "Shareholders are entitled to the best talent the company can find. With nepotism, you're hiring someone simply because they're your family."

Some say that's what happened at Adelphia Communications, the huge cable company where founder and CEO John Rigas hired one son, Timothy, to be chief financial officer, and another, Michael, as vice president of operations. In a criminal complaint, federal prosecutors said, "Members of the Rigas family that controlled Adelphia systematically looted the corporation." And both John and Timothy Rigas were convicted of bank fraud, then sentenced to prison. Adelphia went bankrupt.

"When you have a father and then two sons who are in senior executive positions, the checks and balances all just go right out the window," Connor said.

Accepting Nepotism in Political Realm as Dynasties

If that can happen with a public company, how acceptable is nepotism in public life? We're used to American political dynasties -- starting with the Adams family, through the Roosevelts and Kennedys and now three generations of Bushes.

But in politics, sometimes you don't even have to run for office for nepotism to kick in. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski readily admits that she entered the U.S. Senate because her father, who vacated the seat when he became governor, appointed her.

"He knew there would be accusations of nepotism," Murkowski said. "But he believed the best replacement he could make was me."

Law professor Jonathan Turley took a dim view of the appointment, calling it "the gold medal of nepotism. It was sort of a perverse 'Bring Your Daughter to Work Day.'"

Next week, three other candidates from famous political families are on the ballot for the U.S. Senate: Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee -- his father served in Congress for more than two decades; Bob Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania -- his father was a two-term governor; and Tom Kean Jr. in New Jersey -- his father was a popular governor.

Does Tom Kean Jr. believe he had any advantage because of his dad's name?

The Name Game

"Clearly, people knew who my father was," the 38-year-old state senator said. "But people also know that it's not my father who's running. People know it's me who's making my case to the people of the state of New Jersey."

Well, maybe. When pollsters recently asked New Jersey voters the first thing that came to mind when they thought of Tom Jr., one in three said it was that his dad used to be governor. Another poll shows that 8 percent think Tom Jr. was -- or is -- governor. It can be confusing, but very helpful in a tight race: wanting to step out of Dad's shadow without giving up his winning name.

Just ask Ivanka Trump. She's not running for office, but she understands that some people may never get beyond nepotism when it comes to her success.

She says, "Someone can ask me when I'm 60, regardless of what I've accomplished, 'Could you have done it if you weren't your father's daughter?' And you know what? I'll never have an answer for them."