Earlier this month, the White House announced that first daughter Jenna Bush is getting married. On the face of it, the announcement seemed like another pro forma news event along the lines of the president had a mole removed or the vice president had another heart attack.
But last week, the Washington Post ran this article on political kids that shows the story has a darker side.
As the president’s daughter, Jenna isn’t a celebrity. She’s a symbol, and that’s a far more cumbersome role. That reality became inescapable as soon as her engagement to Henry Hager was announced by the White House 10 days ago. That transformed the betrothal into a national event — an official American celebration of marriage.
The article notes that Jenna’s other recent milestones, graduating from college and celebrating her 21st birthday, for example, went unmentioned by the White House press office. “But the engagement is different,” the article says. “It is weighted with the baggage of family, tradition and America’s misty-eyed habit of trying to cast the first family as a narrowly defined version of the Ideal Family — that deeply ingrained fantasy of well-behaved kids, nurturing mother and God-fearing father.”
Wait, I’m confused. Wasn’t Jenna the bad-girl of the Bush twins? The one they tried to pretend wasn’t running around drinking and tussling with the cops?
The article notes that kids of politicians often play a symbolic role for their parents.
During the campaign, if the children are old enough, they can become surrogates for the candidate. The five fresh-faced Romney boys blog for father Mitt. But they have also become Exhibit A for those who want to make an issue of whose children are serving in Iraq and whose are not.
If the children are too young, or not inclined to public speaking, there still is a role for them. (In the case of Rudy Giuliani, silence is probably the best he can hope for from his estranged kids.) They can be trotted out as pint-size embodiments of the candidates’ human side. They are walking, giggling, rambunctious optimism.
All the Democratic frontrunners for the presidential election are using their kids to help mold public perception. Chelsea Clinton has been out making speeches for Hillary. During Bill’s presidency, I thought the Clintons did a good job of keeping her out of the spotlight. Well, except for that one time when she walked hand-in-hand with her parents to the helicopter during the Monica Lewinsky scandal for a ride that I’m sure was loaded with laughs.
In 2006, the Obama family posed for these photos by Annie Leibovitz which ran in Men’s Vogue. The pictures show Barack Obama as having it all – a beautiful wife and charming children. He’s a devoted father and they’re just the kind of family this country can really get all misty-eyed over.
And then there are the adorable Edwards children, Jack and Emma, whose names alone make them sound like the nation’s first kids. They only add to the wholesome appeal of the Edwards campaign.
When I first read this article I thought, yuck. Kids should be free to be themselves and find their way, not serve their parents’ career interests. I would never do that. But the more I think about it, the more familiar this actually seems. Aren’t all children used to judge their parents? If my kids act politely or do well in school, won’t people think more highly of our entire family, of me, than if my kids throw eggs at people’s houses and have to repeat second grade three times? Do all kids carry this burden to some degree? What do you think?