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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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I’d suggest it goes back to Bill Clinton and those briefs (and I’ll state here for the record that even at the nadir of my Clinton cynicism, Chelsea’s apparent smarts and self-possession made me think that he — or his wife — must have done at least one thing right).

The private lives of politicians have, essentially, vanished. While nobody knew about JFK’s health problems — or the shots of speed his doctor gave him in his White House bedroom — we know every detail of Ted Kennedy’s treatment for brain cancer. John McCain’s divorce is receiving the degree of scrutiny usually accorded economic plans. If you want, you can follow Obama’s workout routine.

When it comes to kids, the erosion of political privacy meets the emergence of public parenting. Babies are the new black, and celebrity kids have their own blogs, books, and braces of paparazzi. But it’s not just the celebs: America is in the throes of a parenting frenzy, as indulgent breeders buy up organic onesies, worry about vaccine safety, and tote their kids wherever they go. If we are obsessed with Britney’s kids and our own, of course we want to know about Obama’s. Indeed, when we don’t see a politician’s kids — think Rudy Giuliani – we start to wonder.

As they tend to, the Obamas are trying to walk a fine line. People‘s Managing Editor Larry Hackett acknowledges that this is “a moment when they would like the American people to get to know them better,” but also informs us that they insist “this will be the ‘first and last’ up-close-and-personal look at them as a family.” Self-protective realism or pandering hypocrisy? Your politics probably determine your response.

And then, as always when it comes to the Obamas, there’s the matter of race.

OK, quick, think of the last time you saw black kids in the media. Uh…Jaden and Willow Smith, the perpetrators of heinous crimes and heroic rescues (Disney stars probably count as both), the occasional high school basketball player, and that’s about it.

Malia and Sasha break the mold. They’re well-dressed, well-behaved, Hula-hooping, private-school-attending kids from an upper-middle-class, two-parent home — and they’re black! Like their father, who says his girls will not need affirmative action, they throw conventional cultural categories out the window (even though, unlike the media, they know there are lots of people like them). So we stare a little harder (and maybe we’re a bit more ashamed of our stares).

As for Malia and Sasha, I’m guessing they’ll turn out fine, just like Amy, Chelsea, Jenna and Barbara. And if their dad makes it to the White House, I’m betting their Secret Service agents will oversee some rocking slumber parties.

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Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor, and consultant in Arlington, Massachusetts.
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