Rick Lazio has two daughters. You may have noticed. In fact, how could you not have noticed? Those cute little kids are popping up in the news pages with startling frequency these days, nuzzling their dad and feeding baby cows and waving from campaign-bus windows. I have neither the time nor the inclination to watch local television news (do I seem like somebody who wants to hear about the latest celebrity diet/marriage/illness/death?), but I’ll bet the Lazio daughters have entertained the channel-surfing, news-watching masses from Tottenville to North Tonawanda.
You may also have heard that Rick Lazio has a good marriage (wink, wink). The candidate’s wife, Patricia Lazio, has been at his side in dozens of appearances, and news organizations have supplied us with the requisite “spouse behind the candidate” features filled with the usual unverifiable, but colorful and vivid, anecdotes from college, the old neighborhood, the first job, etc. Mrs. Lazio is judged to be a political asset for the senatorial candidate–in fact, the Lazio campaign this very moment has dispatched a fax my way with the script for its new propaganda exercise. Internally, the commercial is called “Know,” and it features none other than Mrs. Lazio, who wishes to inform us that the Hillary Clinton campaign is distorting her husband’s record on health care. How does she know so much about health care? “I’m a registered nurse,” she informs us. And how does she know so much about Rick Lazio? “He’s my husband,” she says. The commercial ends with a shot of the Lazio family walking along the beach, smiling, smiling, smiling. What a nice family! What cute kids! What a supportive spouse! What a wonderful senator Rick Lazio will be!
Now, this bit of bilge is not unique to the Lazio campaign. Indeed, it’s all part of our era’s vacuous spectacle of personal politics, with candidates, for want of any pressing matters to discuss (the gap between rich and poor being so retro, etc.), vying with each other to produce the best story, the most credible narrative that proves their upstanding virtue and their utter and complete … ordinariness. As in: My fellow Americans, when I was growin’ up in a mobile home off Interstate 666 in the little town of Callmy Bluffs, watchin’ Dad leave at six in the mornin’ for his 14-hour shift at the pickle works, and fixin’ Mom’s baloney sandwiches before she left for the tobacco fields, I knew that some day I’d help people like my parents realize their American dream. And I never forgot the lessons I learned about decency and honor as I watched Dad come home every night after gettin’ pickled all day, and saw my Ma polishin’ up the good spittoons in the parlor when we were havin’ company on Saturday night.
There is no shortage of campaign pamphlets, Christmas cards and other forms of propaganda featuring politicians surrounded by their photogenic tykes and wide-eyed spouses. (I used to keep a file of such evidence, but it took up too much room in my file cabinet; out it went. In its place, a bottle of hooch, hidden from colleagues.) So Mr. Lazio, not surprisingly, isn’t breaking new ground in trying to sway us by showing off his kids. And his up-from-the-rebuilt-carburetor-childhood story, already the stuff of New York political legend, is but a variation on themes struck by hacks and heroes from the American past. You will recall from your elementary-school history, no doubt, something about the claims a certain Mr. Lincoln made about his log-cabin origins.
Still, there is something particularly cloying and obnoxious about the use the Lazio campaign is making of those little girls. It isn’t quite as dreadful as Al Gore’s weepy public recollection of his son’s brush with death, but it’s still borderline child exploitation.
Politicians who turn their spouses and children into public figures are inviting–willfully–a cruel but acceptable scrutiny of their private lives. If Mr. or Ms. Family Person is, in fact, an absentee parent, inconsiderate spouse or serial adulterer, that candidate is fair game for panting opposition researchers or investigative journalists. And no candidate who so shamelessly exploits his or her family life can then drop the curtains of privacy again when that life no longer resembles a campaign photo opportunity.
In some of the press material accompanying his sensational biography of Rudy Giuliani, Wayne Barrett addresses this very issue. Mr. Barrett points out that Mr. Giuliani and his wife, Donna Hanover, made a “public event” of their married lives, even posing in bed together (fully clothed, thanks be to God). But when the marriage unraveled, the Mayor demanded that the press respect his private life.
Even Presidents are entitled to a private life, Bill Clinton famously asserted. The trouble is, a fair number of people in Mr. Clinton’s line of work discover the joys of privacy only after they’ve been caught in an overt act of hypocrisy.