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Obama Kids on Display

Does being a good candidate mean being a bad parent?

by
Rebecca Steinitz

Bio

July 28, 2008 - 12:00 am
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Q: What’s the difference between Knox and Vivienne Jolie-Pitt and Malia and Sasha Obama?

A: The parents of the Jolie-Pitt twins get $11 million for putting their kids on a magazine cover, while the Obamas will undoubtedly get grief.

After keeping Malia and Sasha under wraps for much of the campaign, then letting them be interviewed on Access Hollywood, then regretting it, Barack and Michelle Obama have given People Magazine a cover story, complete with home visit, interview about their family life, and family photos.

Needless to say, Obama foes are crying flip-flop, not to mention child exploitation, while fans are kvelling over further evidence of their hero’s upstanding worthiness.

The Obama girls are not, of course, our first potential First Children. Candidates’ kids have been at issue in presidential campaigns since Grover Cleveland’s opponents, capitalizing on rumors that he had fathered an illegitimate child, chanted “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”

Republicans and Democrats alike have always featured offspring on campaign flyers and trotted them out at conventions. More recently, campaigning for mom and dad has become de rigueur for twenty- and thirtysomethings: the Bush twins, the Romney boys, Kate Edwards, and Chelsea Clinton took time off from their real lives to diligently work the parental hustings, and nobody batted an eye.

But young children are a different story, especially in the current media maelstrom. Unable to make their own choices, they are at the mercy of their parents’ aspirations — and our judgment.

Back in the day, Amy Carter and the young Chelsea Clinton could go about their lives relatively undisturbed, staying home with grandparents while their parents campaigned, then moving on to Secret Service officers and slumber parties at the White House. But since Bill Clinton informed the world of his penchant for briefs and the Internet became a 24-hour gossip machine, when pols put their kids out in public, everything’s up for grabs.

So what’s a presidential candidate with young children to do? If you’re John and Elizabeth Edwards, you take them on the campaign trail (though you might want to leave the love child at home). You’ve got an excuse, because their older brother died and mom has cancer, but, still, you’re accused of that most mortal of contemporary sins: bad parenting.

If you’re Fred Thompson, you leave them home — except when you’re making anti-abortion speeches — and nobody really knows they exist. Then again, without the kids, nobody really knows you exist, do they?

Damned if they do, damned if they don’t, the Obamas seem to have struck a reasonable balance. Like Amy and Chelsea, Malia and Sasha have largely stayed in Chicago with Grandma, keeping up their regular routine of school, soccer, and setting the table while Mom and Dad stomp for votes. When school’s out, they often join their parents, making appearances at victory speeches and state fairs. By all accounts, they are delightful children who would be an asset to any presidential candidate — or president.

And there’s the heart of the matter: Why should a candidate’s children matter? Why do we care if Malia and Sasha are on the cover of People? Or, and here we’re getting even closer, why are Malia and Sasha on the cover of People?

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