The kids are off limits. That has been the ground rule in American politics ever since the Clintons moved into the White House in 1993. Well, at least that has been the ground rules when it comes to Democrats at the national level. The press followed the rule with near perfection when it came to Chelsea Clinton, and so far with Sasha and Malia Obama as well.
When it comes to Republicans, though, the media has a somewhat spottier track record. Jenna and Barbara Bush got plenty of media scrutiny and criticism for their alleged partying while young adults during the George W. Bush presidency, getting a level of scrutiny that Chelsea managed to avoid even after the Clintons left the White House. The Washington Post’s fashion editor Robin Givhan once notoriously criticized the wardrobe of the children of then-Supreme Court nominee John Roberts in order to paint the jurist as out of touch with everyday Americans.
“[I]t was hard not to marvel at the 1950s-style tableau vivant that was John Roberts and his family,” Givhan wrote. “Separate the child from the clothes, which do not acknowledge trends, popular culture or the passing of time. They are not classic; they are old-fashioned,” Givhan sneers. “These clothes are Old World, old money and a cut above the light-up/shoe-buying hoi polloi.”
Never mind that Americans had an expectation to see Roberts’ family supporting his bid for the Supreme Court, and that it was Roberts and his judicial expertise on which the Senate hearing would focus. Even before Roberts uttered a word before Congress, Givhan criticized his childrens’ apparel to justify her knee-jerk opinion of their father.
This week, The Washington Post finds itself at the center of another attack on a Republican public official’s children. Senator Ted Cruz prepared a 90-second television spot that aired on NBC’s Saturday Night Live this past weekend, a short film that parodied mass-market ads. Cruz and his family pretended to read from Christmas “classics” like Auditing St. Nick and How Obamacare Stole Christmas. With Cruz and wife Heidi bookending their two daughters on a couch, the little girls each had a line of their own in the campaign ad. It gave Cruz an opportunity to remind viewers of how he’d read Green Eggs and Ham to his daughters while filibustering to stop Obamacare, and gave voters the glimpse of family that they desire.
It was nothing that the Obama’s hadn’t done with their own daughters. The Post covered that effort in February 2012, dutifully noting without a hint of disapproval that Sasha and Malia would soon be part of their father’s re-election campaign. “They’re ready to go,” First Lady Michelle Obama declared to reporters traveling with the First Family. Reporter Krissah Thompson quoted a former Democratic polling analyst offering a glowing recommendation for that choice. “It’s a way to humanize them, and it’s also a way to signal youth and vitality,” Gillespie said. “It helps when you have an attractive family to use as a backdrop.”
When a Republican does it, though, it suddenly makes the children “fair game” – at least according to The Post’s editorial cartoonist Ann Telnaes. On Tuesday evening, Telnaes published an animated editorial cartoon of Cruz dressed up like an organ grinder, with two monkeys leashed to the organ. Telnaes captioned the cartoon, “Ted Cruz uses his kids as political props.” Telnaes justified her attack by claiming, “Cruz had waived the ‘unspoken rule’ to leave politician’s kids out of political cartoons,” as The Hill reported.
That argument has since disappeared. After a deluge of criticism in social media, Post editor Fred Hiatt removed both the cartoon and Telnaes’ defense of it. In its place, Hiatt noted that he had not approved the cartoon for publication, and left a terse conclusion. “I understand why Ann thought an exception to the policy was warranted in this case, but I do not agree.”
Actually, it might be interesting to see why the Post’s editors “understand” that position. After all, the same newspaper published a dozen or more articles about an obscure Capitol Hill staffer’s social-media complaints a year ago about the Obama daughters’ taste in clothes. The coverage heavily featured criticism of Elizabeth Lauten and contained nearly no references to a defense of her actions, “understandable” or not. Lauten resigned shortly afterward. One has to wonder whether the Post will harangue Telnaes into a similar decision. So far, though, consistency has not been the Post’s strong suit.
Perhaps we all need to step back and remember our humanity in our rush to attack political opponents through any means necessary. There is nothing provocative about a candidate’s family taking part in a campaign, nor is there any reason to aim attacks and criticism at the children rather than the politician. Targeting children to attack their parents is so obviously cowardly that those who indulge in it – like Telnaes – reflexively attempt to pre-empt that revulsion by claiming the parent asked for it.
At the same time, it’s also time to stop using children as surrogates for political movements, too. We regularly see adolescents and teens express some political thought that is then used to rally a faction, and then get exploited by that faction as a way to keep those thoughts from being debated.
Politics, the saying goes, ain’t beanbag. Using kids as surrogate debate shields is just as bad as using them as surrogate targets. We need to allow politicians enough room to allow voters to get to know their families, and agree that such efforts do not make them combatants in political battles. The kids should be off limits.