Most American families have a funny old uncle. Someone who is amusing and affable from a distance, but with whom you never ever talk politics, especially during a presidential election. You enjoy seeing this uncle once a year at a holiday party, and you suspect he's really a good guy because you saw him tearing up at a funeral or a wedding one time.
John McCain is America's weird old uncle.
When our daughter Allie got into presidential politics - first because of Hillary, and then tossing her vitally important endorsement to Obama while proclaiming her own intentions to run in 2036 - she already had one thing in common with Sarah Palin: she knew nothing about how presidential campaigns worked. That was all of a year ago.
Now five and a half, Allie has become a savvy observer of the electoral horse race. She understands, kind of, the difference between the primary season and the general election. Put it this way: unlike Lynn de freakin' Rothschild and her spiteful ilk, Allie gets that Hillary and Barack had to compete with each other for the top spot, but that they're ultimately on the same team. She likes 'em both. And she definitely understands that John McCain is on the other team.
But we want to teach tolerance in our household - even tolerance of intolerant Republicans. We don't want to raise a kid to stoop. And we have some very lovely wonderful people in our family who happen to be Republican (ok, just one, but he's truly a great guy). So this raised a little quandary: how do we talk about John McCain to Allie? What is the right tone to take in discussing the opposition with a child paying attention to her first presidential campaign?
That's where the Uncle analogy came from. Like Obama, we began the campaign very respectful, almost deferential of John McCain's experience as a POW. We described him to Allie like this: "John McCain is a nice man, honey, if he were an uncle we'd be happy to see him at Christmas. We just don't agree with him about politics. And for someone running for president, that's much more important than anything else."
In the silly way that parents keep driving, verbally, after they've run out of road, I went on: "Yeah, sometimes you like someone as a person but they don't make the best friend to have for a sleepover. So, imagine the next four years is like one long sleepover with the President." Maybe we were losing our metaphor, but Allie definitely liked the idea of having a sleepover with Sasha and Malia and even Barack and Michelle much more than with the McCain clan.
So John McCain was a nice guy who we respected but we didn't want to have him staying in the top bunk, or something. Mission accomplished. But as the weeks went on, Allie had questions. "What's a Democrat? What's a Republican?" Oh boy.
Well, I wasn't shy or polite about it. "Honey, you know how some friends you have will stop if a kid falls and hurts themselves, and see if that kid is OK?" Allie nodded. "Well, that's kind of like what the Democrats are like. They're not always perfect, and they don't always help. But they try, at least most of the time." What about Republicans, she wanted to know. "Well, they kind of think if you fell on the playground and skinned your knee, that's your problem." I resisted the temptation to add that they also slashed the school nurse's salary and the school's budget. Run it off, wuss!
Basically, I left no doubt that even though John McCain was a nice man deserving our respect, he played on the Mean People's team.
Maybe I should backtrack here, in deference to those parents who responded to my pro-Obama kids' T-shirts by freaking out about why I didn't have pro-McCain shirts for kids, or shirts that made the point that Democratic proposals for gun control might jeopardize their kid's 4-H gun safety class (I kid you not, people. It's a wacky world when you listen to Hannity and Rush all day, a place where the evil socialist Dems are coming to take Junior's B.B. gun.) So this explanation is for the Mom who suggested I print a baby onesie emblazoned with the phrase "Higher Taxes Hurt Me Too."
IMHO, ma'am, policies cherished by Republicans really hurt children. It's that simple. I think that it's mainly because of Republican control of the government that UNICEF ranked the US next-to-last among 33 industrialized countries on an index of "Child Well-Being." Listen, if you think that taxes to pay for Head Start and health care and arts education for your kids hurt them more than those programs help them, then you must feel right at home here in the Orwellian present. And that war you're so hell-bent on keeping going for the next 100 years? It rips families apart, taking Moms and Dads away from their kids for one, three, four tours of duty. It sends parents home shell-shocked, maimed, PTSDed, or in body bags. As a conservative, you'll no doubt agree that kids do best in a two-parent home. And let's not talk about where your life savings stand this week, sister. Oh, one other thing that you might understand since you've had your snout in the free-market-only propaganda trough for so long: Last time I checked, it's my company, just like your beloved FOX News Channel belongs to Rupert Murdoch, and I have no more obligation to be fair and balanced than he does.
OK, now that you understand why the Republicans are Darth Vader's team in my house, here's our new dilemma: how the hell do we explain John McCain's recent behavior to Allie? See, when grown-ups do every last blessed thing that we teach our kids not to, and they do it loudly, publically, and in every news cycle for weeks on end, I call that a teachable moment. I just don't know what lesson it is I'm supposed to be teaching here. McCain's behavior is frankly inexplicable from any perspective too innocent to understand the sad mess that is the Republican playbook.
So I'm going to do what I always do when the time comes to explain something political to Allie. I'm keeping it simple. "Sweetheart, sometimes people just go crazy. They want something so badly that they stop being their best selves," I'll say. "And it's really sad when it happens. They kind of lose their minds and do things they can't make right."
That, as best as I can tell, is what's happened to America's favorite old uncle. Sometimes a man would rather lose his marbles than lose an election. And in so doing, he loses everything.
Oh, one other thing I'll say to Allie: "Don't ever let that happen to you, sweetheart. Stay strong."