There seemed to be few issues that the final candidates in the 2008 presidential election agreed on, except for one. Their families -- specifically their kids -- should be off limits. During her post-election appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Sarah Palin lamented what she saw as the media's double standard in its willingness to adhere to President Obama's request that his family be treated as off-limits, versus the coverage hers faced. (I know what you're thinking. Sarah Palin blaming the media for something? I must be making that up!) Just a few weeks ago Glenn Beck did the unthinkable and actually apologized for a dig at the President, more specifically, for a segment on his radio show involving the President's daughter after it elicited widespread criticism. But despite the President and Beck's rare moment of agreement on this issue, the children of candidates should not be issued an automatic, lifetime free pass, just as they shouldn't be issued a lifetime bulls-eye on their backs either.
We judge candidates on all sorts of things, from the substantive (their policy positions), to the shallow (the way they dress, or in Palin's case how much they spend on the clothes). If parenting is the most important job in the world, shouldn't someone that you, as a voter, are interviewing for the job of representing you be able to be judged on how well he or she has done at that job?
I began thinking about this after viewing the new attack ad released by Meg Whitman's campaign targeting her Democratic rival for Governor, Jerry Brown. The ad argues that Brown's entire career in politics has been one full of failures as well as questionable judgment and leadership. However, as everyone with access to a computer now knows, Whitman's own leadership has been marred by at least one "alleged" incident of manhandling (or in her case woman-handling) a subordinate, an incident rumored to have been resolved with a six-figure settlement. But in my mind equally disturbing are the series of alleged incidents involving her adult sons. Between them they have been accused of assault and of having some questionable racial attitudes, to put it mildly. You can read about the allegations and view corresponding police reports here and here.
While I was initially hesitant to write about them at all, since yes, I know they are not the ones running for office, I thought about it and wondered why I shouldn't. Don't they represent one of Whitman's most significant contributions to the world, as does the child of any person? Also since Whitman cited her investment of time and energy in raising her children as being the primary reason she didn't register to vote until she had nearly reached the half-century mark (an egregious example of using your family as a political shield that should make feminists of all political parties shudder) then why isn't assessing how well her investment turned out, fair game? Furthermore, if Whitman has been accused of having temperament issues in the workplace and her children are accused of having temperament issues as adults as well, doesn't that raise questions about her leadership skills at work and home?
Obviously no person is perfect and no family is perfect (me and mine included) and we shouldn't expect them to be, but here's my question. If we hold elected officials accountable when their policies fail other people's children, then why shouldn't we hold them accountable when their parenting skills fail their own?
To those who think that the media has no business ever covering the children (adult or otherwise) of candidates, I ask this: If a candidate opposes gun control, and his own child accidentally shoots another child while playing, are we supposed to have a hands-off mentality, because the child did not run for office? Or, if an elected official argues that abstinence only is the most effective form of sexual education for kids, but then her child proves this to be false through an unplanned pregnancy, is the media supposed to operate with blinders? What about if a candidate campaigns on his tough-on-crime credentials but when his adult son is accused of sexual assault, uses his resources to make sure junior gets the kind of blind justice only money can buy? Does the media have a responsibility to do the right thing by not covering such stories?
I don't think so.
Years ago I remember having an argument with a friend about Mel Gibson and his father. I argued that any public figure who declines to publicly denounce or distance themselves from the views of a close relative who publicly questions the Holocaust is sending a message regarding his own attitudes -- and not a good one. My friend thought I was unfairly blaming Gibson for "the sins of the father" and that I was making an unjustifiable leap regarding his own attitudes towards Jewish people and others simply because he loves someone who happens to be a little nuts but whom he couldn't help being related to. Well a few years, and one drunken arrest later, we know that to some degree, the Gibson apple didn't fall too far from the tree.
I don't know enough about the Whitman family to say the same, but I do know that voters and the media have a right to ask the question.
This post was originally published on TheLoop21.com, for which Goff is a political writer.