LOS ANGELES – Should a candidate be judged by his children’s choices? Does John McCain deserve points because his youngest son is serving in Iraqand his older one is at the Academy, while the only danger Mitt Romney’s five adult sons face is an occasional tough question on the campaign trail? Does it say anything about Rudy Giuliani that his daughter reportedly joined an online Obama support group, at least until the media found out?
During the Vietnam war, a young Al Gore did what most of his classmates from Harvard were trying to avoid: he signed up to go to Vietnam, in the hopes that it might shield his anti-war father from criticism in his race for re-election to the United States Senate from Tennessee. The senior Gore lost anyway, but his son put in his time. Even if he was a photographer and not a grunt, the fact is he was there.
Mitt Romney clearly put his foot in his mouth last week when he seemed to compare his sons’ work for his campaign to fighting in Iraq as somehow being equivalent means of serving our country. But even without that gaffe, the question has been raised before, and will be again. If you support the war, why aren’t any of your sons helping to fight it? If you believe in the surge, why not encourage your own children to be part of it? If it’s the right choice for children of working people, why not for children of the richest candidate in the field?
More so than any of his competitors, Romney has drawn attention to his attractive family and long marriage as a testament to his character, in a not so subtle contrast with the thrice-married front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, whose children seem plainly none too fond of their stepmother.
Giuliani’s cameo appearance at his daughter’s high shool graduation was widely reported in the media, as were his son’s comments about his estrangement from his father. The former Mayor reportedly learned that his daughter had been admitted to Harvard by reading about it in the newspapers.
On the other hand, Chelsea Clinton, the seemingly well-adjusted daughter of the former president and the current Democratic candidate, tends to avoid the spotlight, and has largely been protected by her parents from being thrust into it-- which probably accounts for her being well-adjusted and has earned the Clintons respect as parents even from many who respect them for little else.
Jackie Kennedy once famously said that if you don’t do the parenting part right, nothing else matters. But how you do it right in a political context is far from clear. For Mitt Romney to push one or more of his sons to enlist in order to make their dad’s candidacy more viable would certainly not speak well for him. That would plainly be selfish. Still, I can’t blame military families for wondering why, if the father really is so steadfast in his support of the military and its efforts in Iraq, none of that has rubbed off on his children, as it plainly did in the McCain family. And if the people who know your character best, your own children, don’t want you to be president, why should the rest of us?
Character is a key element in every presidential race. In the old days, when the press hid the candidates’ personal foibles as thoroughly as they hid their own, a candidate could divorce his public charater from his private one, could espouse family values without practicing them, and speak eloquently of morality without being bound by it on personal matters. But the personal is political, in every respect, in this age of no boundaries, when a candidate’s cleavage, or in Fred Thompson’s case, his wife’s, gets as much attention as his or her positions on issues.
Romney was supposed to be almost alone in the field of candidates for having nothing in his personal life to apologize for or explain: no multiple marriages, like Giuliani, Thompson, and even McCain, no infidelity, like Clinton and Gingrich, no youthful indiscretion or indiscreet youngsters, like Obama and Giuliani. As it turns out, his perfect family’s lack of a member in uniform may make it less than perfect in the eyes of some. The bottom line question is what, if anything, any of this tells us about the candidate himself or herself which is itself a personal question, if there ever were one, shaped by our own experiences and values.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.