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Too Kind to Kin?
The double standard in using politicians’ kids.

Op-ed by Tim Graham, director of media analysis, MRC,
as printed in the November 5, 2000 edition of National Review Online

By Tim Graham

Who's more dangerous on the road? A 30-year-old man crossing the blood-alcohol limit driving too slowly in the middle of the night, or an 17-year-old boy driving 97 miles per hour on an interstate highway in broad daylight? 

The standards of danger are not the standards of news judgment. The Thursday eruption over George W. Bush's old DUI arrest of 1976 quickly trumped the amount of TV time most other fall campaign issues or controversies received within the first 24 hours. But the 17-year-old boy arrested for wild speeding is Al Gore III, driving back to Washington from the Outer Banks of North Carolina on August 12, 2000. Clearly Young Al is not supposed to be a public figure. Clearly it would seem beyond the pale for any political operative or hard-charging talk-radio host to blame his dad for doing a rotten job of the boy's upbringing. But is it fair to spike the unfavorable news angles — especially when a presidential nominee's child breaks the law — and then celebrate the child, or more precisely, celebrate the parenting of the child, on a different day? The Clintons and the Gores have both benefited politically from exploiting their children in a way that invites backhanded compliments from sympathetic journalists. 

Young Al's speeding was noted in the New York Times with a 185-word Associated Press dispatch. The Washington Post carried 89 words of wire copy below three other wire service items. But both newspapers devoted a much larger story (and photos) to Young Al's Sidwell Friends football games, and how the publicly paternal vice president never misses one. 

On October 22, Times reporter Kevin Sack explained: "While Mr. Gore's aides may be befuddled from a purely political standpoint, they find his devotion to his children's extra-curricular activities to be one of his most endearing traits." He also quoted the Sidwell Friends football coach, who's extremely impressed with the perfect attendance. 

The Post just hopped on this bandwagon on Thursday, the day before the DUI boomlet began. On the front page of the sports section, high-school football reporter Tarik el-Bashir cooed: "The Gores, who haven't missed a Sidwell game this season despite the demands of Al Gore's presidential campaign, looked like the dozens of other proud parents in attendance at the private school on Wisconsin Avenue in Upper Northwest." 

Young Al is apparently drawing attention from Ivy League scouts: "At 6 feet 2 and 220 pounds, Gore is one of Sidwell Friends' best players. A standout center, linebacker, and punter, Gore rarely leaves the field, and this season led Sidwell (5-3) to the Mid-Atlantic Conference championship, the school's first league title since 1973." 

The Post story concluded: "But there were a few minutes after the final whistle had sounded when the father and son met. Dad patted Al Gore III on the shoulder, shook his hand and the two exchanged a few kind words. Then the father climbed into his waiting limousine and headed for the airport." 

This double standard began with the arrival of Chelsea Clinton in 1993, the first presidential teenager since Amy Carter. The Chelsea Blackout was so intense that when Saturday Night Live made mild fun of her gawky looks in a "Wayne's World" skit, reruns on Comedy Central have simply excised the gentle gibe that "we're rooting for you" to get foxier. 

But reporters have exploited Chelsea's apparently winning personality to her parents' advantage. In the immediate wake of Monicagate in 1998, a Time magazine cover story by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy ended by calling Chelsea "a bright-eyed American echo of other countries' princesses," asserting: "Her ability to come back and fight for him, to walk with him and smile for him and throw herself before the cameras aimed at him, was an act of generosity and love that speaks better for Bill and Hillary Clinton than anything they could say or do in whatever public life remains to them." That may be the definitive passage to exemplify what's wrong with hauling famous kids into the limelight just for momentary political gain. 

Chelsea Clinton has never had a brush with the law, but how can the public judge what a "princess" she is when the media have placed her in a plastic bubble? If she's off-limits for everyday scrutiny, she ought to be off-limits for backhanded tributes to her embattled parents. In the August 16, 1999 issue of Newsweek, the magazine suggested Chelsea has competition in the Politician's Progeny Puffball Department with its valentine to Al Gore's oldest daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff: "Over lunch with a Newsweek correspondent last week, Karenna seemed a smooth blend of her mother's peppiness and her father's gravitas." A year later, Time devoted a loving profile to Gore's eldest, and all her savvy and influence within the campaign. The magazine's "Winners & Losers" feature suggested: "Advice to Al: Keep her onstage as well as behind the scenes." 

In today's political coverage, when senators and governors and congressmen are often considered too boring to interview on ABC, CBS, or NBC, the candidate's family members have become ubiquitous interview subjects on the campaign trail, especially Karenna. Can they be used to systematically "humanize" Al Gore without suffering any scrutiny that might seem inhuman to the audience? This may be tricky terrain, but the current double standard underlines another way the liberal media has done everything it can to humanize the Stiff One at every opportunity.

National Review Online | Back to Op-Ed Archives



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