Politicians and Private Lives

There's a double-standard when it comes to politicians and the privacy of their families.


Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has rolled out the first TV spot of the state's race for governor. The 30-second bit features his wife, Teiro, talking about the wonderful things he's done.

"My husband, Ken, has spent his life standing up for the vulnerable and those in need," she says. "He's worked the night shift at a homeless shelter, spent his college days leading efforts to prevent sexual assaults, and represented those suffering from mental illness. As attorney general, Ken fought to find and prosecute child predators and human traffickers. …"

Teiro Cuccinelli certainly is entitled to talk up her husband's virtues, and there is no reason she shouldn't. On the other hand, there is no particular reason she should, either. Plenty of Republican Party stalwarts could have delivered the same message. But having his wife do so might help Cuccinelli dampen the drumbeat of accusations that he's a charter member of the He-Man Woman-Hater's Club.

Besides, Cuccinelli is simply following standard operating procedure for the modern political campaign. Family members often appear as surrogates on the campaign trail. Spouses and children are fixtures in glossy brochures, and in soft-pitch ads featuring the paterfamilias (or materfamilias) striding purposefully across a sun-drenched field. Signaling to the voters that a candidate is a "family man" delivers a much larger message about all the virtues that ostensibly implies: fidelity, responsibility, gentleness, rectitude, etc.

And because candidates are celebrities, their relations become celebrities, too. Michelle Obama appears regularly on magazine covers — from Time and Newsweek to Vogue, Glamour, Ebony, and Ladies' Home Journal. Laura Bush regularly hit the hustings — not only for her husband George but, last year, for Mitt Romney. When Bill Clinton was running for president, Hillary Clinton famously promised, "If you vote for him, you get me." America did, and came close to having not one President Clinton, but two.

The campaign of Mark Obenshain, who is running for Virginia attorney general, sends out chatty "Tucker's Take" e-blasts from Obenshain's daughter. (Recent subject heading: "Taxes and Puppies.") Anne Holton, Tim Kaine's wife, made email pitches on her husband's behalf. In August, a news story in The Times-Dispatch described Susan Allen, the wife of Kaine's opponent George, as George's "not-so-secret" weapon. "During her 26 years as Mrs. George Allen," reporter Wesley Hester noted, "she has become a political veteran in her own right."

None of this matters much — until a family member attracts unwanted attention. Conservatives have attacked the Obama family for enjoying an ostensibly lavish lifestyle ("Two Vacations in One Week: Obama Girls Go From Bahamas Vacation to Idaho Skiing Getaway"). Jenna Bush, daughter of President George W., made headlines in 2001 when she was cited for underage alcohol possession. Smart alecks cracked that the then-ubiquitous "WWJD" bracelets meant not "What Would Jesus Do?" but "What Would Jenna Drink?"

One possible answer: Billy Beer — a beverage promoted by Billy Carter, the brother of President Jimmy. "I had this beer brewed up just for me," Billy testified on the side of every can. "I think it's the best I ever tasted. And I've tasted a lot. I think you'll like it, too." Billy went on to visit Libya several times and eventually registered as a foreign agent for the Libyan government. None of this improved brother Jimmy's already bleak odds of winning re-election.
Gov. Bob McDonnell now has his own family issues. Virginia's former executive chef is facing embezzlement charges, and his lawyers want to know how much food and beverage the McDonnell children might have carted off. Asked to comment on the matter, McDonnell was (as they say) tight-lipped — just as the Bush White House had been regarding Jenna and her twin sister's youthful indiscretions.

When family members draw unflattering press — or simply too much press curiosity — elected officials sometimes demand that the media give them more privacy. Politicians can be particularly protective toward children, which is entirely understandable. So it is not surprising that the Obama White House swiftly squelched coverage of the Obama girls' travels last year. As the first lady's communications director said in March, "From the beginning of the administration, the White House has asked news outlets not to report on or photograph the Obama children when they are not with their parents and there is no vital news interest. We have reminded outlets of this request in order to protect the privacy and security of these girls."

You certainly can't blame the Obamas for that — nor can you blame other pols who don't like seeing any dirty laundry aired in public. Still, there's a bit of wanting to have it both ways here. The media generally don't drag family members into the spotlight. The candidates themselves do that — in the glossy brochures, the chatty emails and the soft-pitch TV ads. Having done so, the candidates cannot so easily insist that the spotlight be turned off at the first sign of blemish.

This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.