Political Hay

Palin and the Politics of Familial Destruction

A growing cancer on American politics.

By 7.7.09

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Governor Sarah Palin's stunning early resignation elicited predictable surprise and sympathy from most of her supporters, and equally predictable surprise and sheer glee from most of her detractors. The question uppermost in the minds of political types was when, if ever, she might run for President. That question, while intriguing, is secondary. Front and center is how much the politics of familial destruction -- at least, against conservative candidates -- will be energized.

The references to her family, plus the ceaseless legal harassment imposing six-figure financial cost and consuming time needed for governance, suggests a chilling reality: A sustained, vituperative smear campaign directed against a candidate and family can succeed. Palin, who hunts moose at 4 a.m., can surely take hits directed against her in the normal political arena. An attack directed against an activist adult partner who is a co-player -- think Hillary -- is also fair game, though Hillary played the "little woman" card when it suited her during the Clinton years. But Palin's children range in age from one to 18. Unwillingness to stand by and watch vulgar attacks directed against her teenage daughter by a famous late-night comedian and even worse, adults subjecting her children to ridicule aimed at her special needs infant, hardly shows weakness. Such attacks are a cancer growing on American politics.

Like all people, Sarah Palin has flaws. Hers are fair game for opponents and for media. Flaws of activist adult relatives -- those who campaign on issues and the like -- are also fair game. But teen children are never fair game. Attacking them forces candidates to weigh their professional goals against personal imperatives to protect their family from abuse. Their children are, in effect, being held hostage.

Has there ever been a campaign against children filled with such vitriol? Imagine if anyone had gone after Chelsea Clinton as a teen in the White House, for any reason whatsoever. Whoever did it would have faced a raw fury from Democrats (and even some Republicans) and the full fury of mainstream media. True, Chelsea did not give birth as a teen out of wedlock, but that would hardly have tipped the scales. She would have been defended as worthy of compassion and support. Indeed, campaigning for her mother in 2008, Chelsea, now nearly 30, was given a full pass.

A generation ago, impressionist David Frye, miming LBJ, had LBJ speak of "My two semi-beautiful daughters." Richard Nixon's daughters received occasional snarky remarks. Ronald Reagan's two children by Nancy received notice, too. And George W. Bush's twin daughters made the papers when they had a few beers.

But all of these instances involved adults. They were still unfair, as rarely did any of these children weigh into issues. But they were at least old enough to be able to handle attacks. And there was protective pressure all around not to go too far. Kennedy clan children have often been in the news, but not targeted constantly.

During the campaign both Barack Obama and Joe Biden, commendably, spoke out against targeting Palin's family. However, since the November election attacks on Palin's children have continued. True, Palin is a potential future presidential candidate, but never before has any candidate -- let alone, any candidate's family -- attracted such bile in the months immediately after a presidential election. Bob Beckel, Mondale-Ferraro campaign manager in 1984, conceded yesterday that Sarah Palin faces a media double standard, and added that had David Letterman attacked a Democratic politician's daughter, he'd have been taken off the air.

   Palin would have done better to call upon those attacking her to end assaults on her family, and focus on her alone. She could have asked leading Democrats to follow the example set by candidates Obama and Biden, and publicly condemn attacks on her children. As to her financial burden she could have called upon the state government to fully reimburse her for the cost of defending against merit less ethics charges. Her hastily called, ill-timed, meandering announcement likely did not help her future political prospects. GOP political pro Ed Rollins's comment that press conferences should not raise questions, but answer them, is apt. But such reservations should not deep-six the family protection issue.

The wolves whose attacks helped bring Sarah Palin's resignation are no doubt enjoying the fruit of their labor immensely. No one else who cares for the integrity of the nation's political process should join them.

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About the Author

John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb, and founder of the issues blog Letter From the Capitol.