The planned release of President Obama’s new book, Of Thee I Sing, a Letter to my Daughters, represents a seismic change in the conventional presidential parenting philosophy. Recent White House families, including political dynasties such as the Bushes, the Clinton’s and the Kennedy’s have all held to the idea that the less the First Children are in the limelight, the better off they will be in life. And while history offers some dramatic exceptions to this rule, (Webb Hayes comes to mind,) events and the personal biographies of the children, themselves, seem to back this up.
The Obama’s entered the White House embracing this same view, declaring their daughters off limits with the media. Now, the announcement of the book tops off more than a month of speculation on the subject. Only weeks ago the president and first lady started talking publicly about their daughters in speeches and events. Some journalists wondered aloud if this meant the daughters were now fair game for the media. Were the Obama’s parting with the tradition of keeping the First Kids under wraps? Others suggested that the comments were only coincidental, that they were just slip ups from a mother and father who were naturally proud of their girls. But a book involving the daughters, scheduled with the publishers in December, 2008, and now being announced less than two months before the congressional election, is no coincidence.
Long ago, even while they were still lecturing the media on protecting the privacy of their family, the President and First Lady had made a calculated decision to eventually bring their daughters into the limelight. The timing is surely no accident either. Although the book will not be released until after voters go to the polls, the promotion for the book, including excerpts will take place in the weeks before.
What does it all mean?
Politicians often use their children and their pets to remind the public that they are only human, just like everybody else. It is sometimes a plea for sympathy. “Hey, lighten up a bit. I am a dad, just like you.” It is sometimes designed to help foster a personality cult. “If you don’t like my policies, maybe you will like me, my wife and my kids, as people.”
Presidential candidates invariably use their children as surrogates. When Ulysses S. Grant did a whistle stop tour on his way to Washington, he sent his young children out to give speeches to warm up the crowd. Both the Kerry and Bush children were active in the 2004 campaigns. After the nation’s infatuation with the Kennedy clan, Lyndon Johnson showcased his daughter’s weddings on national television before audiences of 50 million people. Julie and Tricia Nixon became ornaments on their parents’ arms as they campaigned for the presidency in 1968.
And presidential kids can be powerful surrogates indeed. If your donation to the Democrat party meant a picture in a receiving line with the governor of a state or one of the Obama girls, which would you choose?
Most First Families have been strident in protecting their personal privacy. And the philosophy is as old as the presidency itself. Zachary Taylor once said, “I don’t want my son near the White House when I am president.” His son, Richard Taylor, was a famous Confederate general in the Civil War and is one of the few presidential children mentioned in history books without being identified as a member of a First Family.
After winning the presidency, Jacqueline Kennedy fiercely protected her children from the public. There were not only the Kennedy compounds In Hyannis Port, Massachusetts and Palm Beach, Florida and the presidential retreat at Camp David, but Jackie insisted that an additional home be built in suburban Virginia so even when the family was forced to stay in Washington, she and the children could get out of the White House. Those famous pictures of the Kennedy kids romping in the Oval Office? They were taken while the First Lady was out of the country.
So are the Obama’s cynically using their daughters to promote their political brand, a brand that is slipping after two years of a deepening recession?
Not likely. At least that is not likely the only reason or even the first reason.
Barack Obama’s father walked out on the family when the President was only a child. It is very likely that his “Letter to My Daughters” represents something much deeper, a message for father’s as well as daughters. And maybe even an indirect but special message to some African American father’s .
The President and First Lady have offered a refreshing example of parenthood in the White House for all of us. They used their initial popularity, their political equity, to send their daughters to private schools, even though they are both big public school advocates. They brought into the White House a beloved mother in law to keep some continuity. They kept their promises to the children, even at political risk. “We are going to Chicago.” They have included them in foreign trips and sometimes conspicuously briefed them and made them a part of things. Remember Sasha’s trench coat in the Kremlin?
This new book, Of Thee I Sing, a Letter to my Daughters will probably be as revealing as Obama’s old book, Dreams of My Father. But not revealing of the father or the daughters, rather revealing of Barack Obama, himself, revealing of a man who conquered his demons to become president. And revealing of a family that is forced to show its love for each other onstage before the world. And that is probably a good thing for us all to see.