Family Feud: The Obama girls versus the Romney boys
I once asked George W. Bush which is worse, to run for president or to have your father run for president? He didn’t hesitate. “It’s a lot harder having your dad run for president.” It makes sense. When people say things about your mother or father it can hurt. Which brings us to this election cycle and the latest political family feud, the Obama girls versus the Romney boys. Who is likely to win that contest? And how do wives and siblings factor into the equation?
First keep in mind that the odds are 8-5 in favor of the president with the youngest children. It is a wholly useless statistic because there are too many other variables. But nevertheless, don’t count out the Obama girls just because they are younger. Being cute and sassy at the right time can remind voters that the president and first lady are a dad and mom “just like us.” It is sometimes a plea for sympathy. And sometimes designed to help foster a personality cult. “If you don’t like my policies, here, maybe you will like me as a person and my wife and kids.”
First Lady Jackie Kennedy steadfastly refused to let her children be used for political purposes and vetoed publicity photos. But once, while away on a trip to Europe, her husband, the president, called for the children. He was working late in the Oval Office and so they were brought in wearing pajamas and bathrobes. “Get the photographer in here,” the president laughed. And so we have these wonderful pictures of the Kennedy kids romping around the president’s desk. Jackie Kennedy was a great mom. JFK was a great politician.
Meanwhile, the Romney boys, because of their ages, will be more than “cute.” They will be what Malia and Sasha Obama cannot be, super surrogates and fund raising machines. I’ve seen this process up close, traveling with George W. Bush, the candidate’s son during the 1988 election. The closer we got to November, the more famous George W. became and the larger the crowds.
If you are donating $1,000 to the campaign would you rather have your picture taken the local governor or Chelsea Clinton? You get the idea. Imagine on any given day of the campaign, a Romney son can be in five different swing states, raising money and giving interviews to local radio and television.
This is not new. Presidential candidates have long used their children as surrogates. Both the Kerry and Bush children were active in the 2004 campaigns. 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 the Kennedy clan became famous, brothers, sisters, in-laws and children.
If elected, Mitt Romney will be the first president to have a family of five sons. Lincoln and Van Buren each had four and modern presidents FDR and George H. W. Bush had four sons but both also had one daughter. Thomas Jefferson had five daughters.
Sometimes a member of the family can be a liability. Ask Bill Clinton, whose brother Roger went to jail. Or Billy Carter, whose brother Billy took money as a lobbyist for Muammar Gaddafi and the Libyans or Lyndon Johnson, whose brother, Sam Houston Johnson, was an alcoholic and a philanderer.
And not all presidents sons and daughters have been so helpful. One snuck prostitutes into his White House office. One of the Ford children smoked pot in the family quarters of the White House. If it had become public, well, Jimmy Carter would have won by an even bigger margin. FDR had five children who had 19 marriages between them and the scandals behind each one were breathtaking. Ronald Reagan, a Republican who ran on a traditional values platform, had a daughter who posed for playboy and a son, Ron, Jr., who later endorsed a candidate for the opposite political party.
Even that was not new.
A famous Democrat president, had a son who publicly endorsed a Republican candidate. The uproar was tremendous. Democrat leaders said you are besmirching the legacy of your father. The Democrat president? FDR. The Republican candidate?
Oh, how life and history comes full cycle.
So when the Obama babies and the Romney sons square off for battle this fall, keep in mind that what we say about their daddies hurts them far more and far longer than it will ever hurt the candidates themselves.
It ain’t easy running for president. But it is even harder when your dad or your husband or your brother does.