Wallowing in a presidential candidate’s family has become standard practice during national political conventions. But what proposition is the ritual intended to disprove, exactly: that the candidate was not of woman born? That his wife was raised by Martian robots? That his children are eels? Perhaps Michelle Obama’s introduction of her family to the Democratic National Convention on Monday night had a better rationale than usual, since there are still Americans—fortunately, a rapidly diminishing number—for whom the conjunction of loving-family bromides and blacks conveys new information. But as Joe Biden’s and his son’s family-saturated presentation Wednesday night showed, the imperative cuts across racial lines. Regardless of Michelle Obama’s race, we would still have been subjected to stories about how much love there was in her family when she was growing up; explanations of how much she loves her daughters and husband now; shots of her mother looking on intently during her speech; and the agonizingly cute video exchange between Barack Obama and his daughters afterward.
The Republicans started the family-display genre in the belief that they could cloak themselves in the sanctity of family values all the way to permanent political dominance. Of course the Democrats cottoned to the ploy and now give as good as they get. The bipartisan and mandatory nature of the my-family-is-filled-with-love trope is in one sense a reassuring indicator of the state of the American polity. Were the United States facing an actual crisis—a truly powerful enemy determined to overthrow our government, say, or a deadly epidemic—it’s unlikely that electoral theater would linger long over the revelation of how a candidate wooed his spouse, as we learned from Barack Obama on Monday night. The Democrats, of course, do claim that the country is in an economic emergency and that middle-class Americans are being ground into extinction. Their convention’s opening-night foray into family bathos suggests that they know otherwise.
But the family show-and-tell imperative remains silly nevertheless, demonstrating a misguided conflation of the personal with the political. You could search the Federalist Papers long and hard without finding any indication that having a loving family is a qualification for office. Few investors care whether the companies whose shares they hold are headed by CEOs who had supportive mothers; it’s hard to see why filial relations should be any more relevant to a president’s capacity to negotiate with Congress or to conclude a treaty.
The staging of family relations is a variant on the requirement that the candidate prove his identification with the common man, preferably through a shared history of alleged economic deprivation. But the presidency is not about empathy; it is about leadership. America is too large and various for us reasonably to expect the president to empathize with particular sectors of it; his fealty should be to the Constitution and to the execution of sound policies. If we’re going to establish an empathy requirement, why shouldn’t the president show personal, lived understanding of entrepreneurs, whose efforts to build their businesses are hindered by confiscatory taxes and crippling regulations? Amassing personal wealth and owning eight houses is no more or less relevant a job qualification for the presidency than growing up in a coupon-clipping union household.
The demand that the president show us his personal life and empathize with our problems is the flip side of the stunning growth of modern presidential power and of the expectations placed on the office. As Gene Healy writes in The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power, “The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver . . . our national father or mother, responsible for our economic well-being, our physical safety, and even our sense of belonging.” The Oprahfication of politics continues apace.
Take Rudy Giuliani’s “surprise” cell phone call from his wife during a September 2007 speech to the National Rifle Association. Giuliani is not an ideal candidate for the loving-family convention, now on his third marriage and having a seemingly strained and unhappy relationship with his son. Yet such is the indomitable mandate of the family-display genre that even Giuliani felt compelled to put on a show of connubial bliss—complete with “I love you,” “I’ll give a call as soon as I’m finished,” and “Talk to you later, dear”—with his former mistress, now third wife, for the delectation of NRA members and the C-SPAN audience.
Giuliani’s failings as a husband and father are irrelevant to his qualifications as a political executive, just as someone’s fidelity and good parenting do not mean that he can effectively run a country. But the conflation of the personal and the political appears here to stay. Evangelical pastor Rick Warren provided the public with a heaping serving of irrelevant personal voyeurism during his interviews of Barack Obama and John McCain at the recent Saddleback forum. Why should we be interested in what a candidate’s “greatest moral failing” was, or care to hear him discuss it at length, unless it has a clear bearing on his public performance? That a candidate had a failed marriage says nothing about whether he can push through an economically sound plan to dig Medicare out of debt.
The loving-family display occasionally carries an opportunity cost. Rather than learning about Michelle Obama’s family, I would have liked to hear her address the question of whether she thinks that the United States remains racist—as suggested by her earlier comment that Barack Obama’s campaign makes her proud of her country for the first time. There is nothing to be done, I guess, but give in to the spirit of the age. I’m already looking forward to hearing how second wife Cindy McCain describes her first date with John during next week’s Republican convention.