September 12, 2008
Flash back a couple weeks to Joe Biden's introduction at the Democratic National Convention. Over violins, we hear, : "No matter where he is or no matter what he's doing, if one of the children calls, he stops and takes the call. ... He's a wonderful father, he's an exceptional grandfather, and that's really what it's about for him." When Biden's speech ends, an army of small blond Biden kin rushes the stage. In fanciful moments, I sometimes wonder whether politicians are very different from you and me -- a kind of alien race living symbiotically (or, perhaps, parasitically) among us. It's comforting to hear about their family lives because it reassures us that they are, in fact, genetically human.
Many considered Rudy Giuliani's falling out with his son yet another indication of his intemperate nature and poor interpersonal skills. The Clintons were rightly praised for trying to protect their awkward daughter from the spotlight. Now the Democrats can't seem to shut up about how great a dad Biden is.
Yet we're supposed to feel vaguely skeeved out when we inquire into Sarah Palin's parenting techniques. How exactly did the talk about the birds and the bees go with Bristol, Sarah? Are you going to hire a nanny to help the would-be Second Dude?
That's a shame. There's a certain minimum standard of human decency you can generally ascribe to good parents. And when you're talking about politicians, male or female, there's a higher-than-average chance they might not meet the minimally decent threshold. Reports on Palin's PTA attendance record are important, in their way, as are tales of Biden's Amtrak addiction. Parenting is a window into the character of the people who hold power over us.
On the other hand, you don't want a candidate to be too good of a mother or father.
Let's imagine the vice presidency actually mattered: Would you still find it heartwarming if Biden announced that he was going to keep commuting home on Amtrak every night? What about taking calls from his grandchildren in the middle of a meeting with Iranian diplomats?
There's something not quite right when male politicians splash their paternal prowess all over the place, but female candidates and those who cover them have to tiptoe around the issue. Maybe we can end on a note of agreement, Amanda. Here's a real double standard. Send up the feminist bat signal!
It's been a fun week, Amanda. Thanks for putting up with me. Let's do this again sometime.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at Reason magazine.
I do fully agree with you, Katherine, that too much is made out of politicians' parenting abilities, especially women's. I do hold out one exception, though -- politicians who support intrusive government action on our home lives should be held to the very standards they'd impose by law on the rest of us. If the words "sanctity of life" or "sanctity of marriage" ever pass between your lips, I consider that an open invitation for the citizenry to file through your underwear drawer and follow you into any airport bathroom to witness any foot-tapping antics.
I find it puzzling that you excoriate Biden for making a fuss over his paternal leanings and let Palin off the hook. If anything, the Republican running mate leaned even more on her family history to sell herself. The McCain campaign has gone beyond saying, "Look at her lovely family!" to implying that the presence of five children somehow counts as a qualification for office in and of itself. I can't help but think that's what Carol Fowler, the South Carolina Democratic Party's chairwoman, was trying to get at when she claimed that Palin's major qualification was that she hadn't had an abortion. It was a poorly phrased remark, but the kernel of truth is there. For the rabid right-wing base, the presence of five children offers reassurance that Palin is a good woman who risks child-bearing every time she has sex -- you know, unlike the rest of us sluts. Because the five children are spotlighted all the time and we all know their names by now, I can't help but think that kind of pandering is exactly what's going on.
I do think it's ill-advised to question Palin's mothering skills. We simply can't know much about them. It's entirely possible that Palin, like many socially conservative politicians, is a huge hypocrite and went out of her way to provide sex education to her eldest daughter, or maybe she holds her children to the same standard of ignorance she would hold yours. We can't know. Teenage pregnancy happens in pro-choice and anti-choice households -- and in households that are publicly anti-choice but privately allow daughters to have behaviors they think should be denied to the rest of us.
But considering how Palin wants the government to control what you do in your bedroom by punishing you with mandatory childbirth, it's fair to examine how her own teenage daughter's pregnancy factors into this. The far right is singing hosannas for Bristol Palin, who is doing what they want to be mandatory for all women -- having a shotgun marriage and her first child just because she got pregnant. It's a bit of an understatement to suggest that average American voters do not want teenage pregnancy and marriage for their daughters. It would be a huge disservice to the public not to seize on this opportunity to educate them about the extremist fundamental right wing that apparently wholly owns the GOP, as evidenced by the fact that Palin had to be nominated as a gimme to the hard right. Apparently, John McCain -- with his 0% NARAL Pro-Choice America rating, his unwillingness to support even rape victims seeking justice and his many years of displays of submission to George W. Bush -- was still not enough to satisfy the hard right.
Amanda Marcotte is the executive editor and writer for the blog Pandagon.net. Her first book, "It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environment," is published by Seal Press.
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