Presidential Campaigns: When the children become the issue.
The media’s cruel attacks on Bristol Palin, the seventeen year old daughter of vice presidential nominee, Governor Sarah Palin, are nothing new. The young Palin is single and apparently pregnant and some in the media are self righteously, outraged. After all, isn’t Governor Palin an evangelical Christian? As sordid as this whole episode may sound, it has all happened before.
Gerald Ford’s children were targeted for using marijuana and Ronald Reagan’s son, Michael, was wrongly accused of shop lifting. Chelsea Clinton was lampooned by television comics as “ugly,” an experience that the now gorgeous Chelsea has lived to laugh about but it was no laughing matter for a vulnerable, adolescent girl. The Bush twins were chastised for underage drinking.
During the height of the Clinton years, a major network assigned a crew to the “Chelsea Clinton Virginity Watch.” They learned that she had a boyfriend and thought that is was all big news, especially in light of the ongoing story of her father. Thankfully, the network bosses came to their senses and the story was scrapped. One of the producers learned that I was writing the book, All the Presidents’ Children, and offered to pass on his rather colorful notes. I declined.
In fact, public and media attacks on presidential families started with George Washington, whose stepson was reviled for his business practices and was accused of cheating his own famous stepfather in a cattle deal. The young man died in his twenties.
John Quincy Adams had a son who sired a child out of wedlock. Dreading the public airing of his story, he died in what most historians believe to be a suicide. His little brother was expelled from Harvard. He died an alcoholic in his twenties.
Robert Todd Lincoln received unmerciful press criticism for avoiding service in the Civil War. But First Lady, Mary Lincoln, had lost son Eddie in Illinois and son Willie in the White House. Her sobs prevailed with her husband and son. Toward the end of the war young Lincoln was assigned to General Grant’s personal staff with implicit orders to keep the boy safe. Mary would lose her husband instead and her beloved, Robert Todd would have her committed to an insane asylum.
Andrew Johnson, Jr. caused a ruckus when it was learned that he was sneaking prostitutes into the White House. It couldn’t have come at a worse time. His father was the target of impeachment. The Johnson son died in an apparent suicide a few months after the family left the White House.
In more modern times, the media has been just as relentless and the children just as colorful. Alice Roosevelt was the target of pulpits and newspaper editorials across the country. They were outraged to see a woman smoking in public and considered it shamelessly erotic and offensive. When she got behind the steering wheel of a new fangled automobile and took an un-chaperoned marathon drive from Washington to New York City it prompted both outrage and cheers.
All of Franklin Roosevelt’s children were ripped by the media at one time or another, sometimes deservedly, sometimes not. They were criticized for insider business deals, mafia connections and preferential treatment in the military. And yet they were all remarkable achievers. Anna was a super White House aide, practically running the place during the last year of FDR’s presidency and the older sons were all military heroes.
Perhaps the most stunning of all media attacks on candidates’ children took place in the early 19th century. Andrew Jackson had seen his wife viciously attacked in the election of 1828. After winning the election, Jackson’s deeply devout and saintly wife, Rachel, went shopping in Nashville for something to wear to the inauguration. In the city she finally found the newspapers that her husband had been keeping from her. Journalists had pieced together the dates of her divorce and re-marriage and determined that she was technically a bigamist and adulterer. Rachel Jackson read the newspapers and became sick. She died a few weeks later and was buried in her inauguration dress.
Andrew Jackson fumed at the newspapers that he believed had killed his wife. But in his pain he built an even more powerful media weapon and it would kill even more viciously. In 1830, a network of “Jackson newspapers” began attacking rival William Henry Harrison. When they couldn’t find anything on the old man they turned to his son.
It was alleged that Symmes Harrison, who ran the Vincennes, Indiana land office, had committed embezzlement and fraud. The government fired him. Historians differ on the young Harrison’s infraction. My own research shows the claims of fraud to be highly unlikely. In any case, the media storm grew so bitter and intense that young Symmes Harrison died, leaving behind six fatherless children. Citizens of Indiana were so outraged that they wore black armbands in protest.
It was only the beginning of sorrows. Harrison and his wife would bury three adult sons during the three consecutive years leading up to his own election to the White House. Mrs. Harrison found no joy in the victory. While her husband journeyed back to Washington for the inauguration, she remained behind in mourning. Like Rachel Jackson, she would never set foot in the White House as “First Lady.” William Henry Harrison would die after a month in office.
The only good news is that decency has a resilience of its own. After the death of the old president, one by one his remaining children, including his daughters, began to die off. It was like the light had gone out of their lives, as if the media had ultimately triumphed over a family. Within five years, nine of the ten Harrison children were gone. But like a flower blooming in a junkyard, one son, Scott Harrison, survived. He would serve quietly in congress and he would inculcate within his son the family lessons learned. That son, Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of the old general, would grow to become our twenty third president.
So it has happened before, these frenzied, vicious media attacks on the children of the candidates. The jackals that howled over the prostrate body of Symmes Harrison 180 years ago are the same species that are now howling over the prone body of Bridget Palin. They are related to the bureaucrats of former communist countries who used family members as hostages to enforce their will. If it is no easy thing for many in the public to stomach, it is nonetheless the nature of the beast. The impalement of Sarah Palin and her family will not be the end of it for human nature itself is at work here. Power is at stake and money is at stake. And where there is power and money the jackals will gather. It is nothing personal. It is their nature.