08 September 2008

Why Talk About Palin's Family?

The new Nation magazine includes a column by Gary Younge that touches on an issue I raised last week. He laments that "It is depressing how quickly attacks on [Governor] Palin and her family descend into misogyny, as was the case with Hillary Clinton," but adds that "that does not mean that [Bristol Palin's] pregnancy is not worthy of comment."

Younge points out that "First, as a public official her mother has embraced positions that would deny others the options her daughter has enjoyed, would deny them access to information about preventing unplanned pregnancies and deny support for those in a similar situation." Both Governor Palin and Senator McCain have opposed sex-education in schools, insisting on an abstinence-only approach, while Palin has "slashed funding for a shelter for teenage mothers."

"Second," he continues, "Palin decided to showcase her personal life, and particularly her motherhood, as a centerpiece of her candidacy.... If she doesn't want her children in the line of fire, she shouldn't introduce them to the battlefield or use her parenting as a weapon. That goes for Barack Obama, John McCain and Joe Biden as well."

Younge makes a reasonable request: "If family and children are off limits, then do us all a favor and keep them the hell off the stage and away from microphones. Public office seems to be the only career for which people think it is not only acceptable but necessary to interview the spouse and view the brood for the job. The notion that Americans might elect someone single, let alone gay, to the presidency seems far less likely than the chances of electing a black man or a white woman. And so we are force-fed this hetero-fest with tales of first dates and familial bliss and then asked to look the other way when the facade cracks. If politicians don't want the public to examine their families, they should follow a new code: don't tell, then we won't have to ask."

As I said, it's a reasonable but now unrealistic request. We have had glamorous spouses and celebrity children in the past, but we now live not only in an age of celebrity but in a new political era, the age of the Bushes and the Clintons, on the verge of an openly dynastic age in American politics. This is an age when Laura Bush, Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama are considered fit to address political conventions, and people can talk about future candidacies for Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush and be only half-joking. Perhaps the reason we seem to need to audition the entire family of a candidate is because we expect that family to form a talent pool from which future candidates will be recruited. If so, maybe the alarm people feel about the Palin scandal, if such it is, isn't just over any apparent hypocrisy on the part of Sarah Palin or those who've promoted her as an ideal mother, but is also about the obvious lack of dynastic potential in the Palin brood (Maggie Gallagher's opinion above notwithstanding). Some people may be thinking: Is this family, not just Palin herself, qualified to join the political elite? Such thoughts are unfair to the governor except to the extent that her family values are advertised as her strong suit.

I always thought the Soviets had the right idea about rulers' wives. The families of men like Khrushchev and Brezhnev may have been privileged behind the scenes, but they were not presented as idols for the public to worship, and there was no concept of "First Lady" as an office that came with a "bully pulpit" from which the wife acquired influence over public policy. It was probably a bad sign for the USSR when Mrs. Gorbachev emerged as a "First Lady" figure on the American model. Since those times, things have only gotten worse over here once ambitious women like Hillary Clinton envisioned the First Ladyship as a shortcut to political power. Perhaps if there were an agreement to enforce privacy upon a First Family, people like Hillary Rodham would have more incentive to earn their way to the top -- and if she ever does make it, then we wouldn't have to hear from Bill for at least four years. Wouldn't that make it all worth it?

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