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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

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?

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.

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