Keeping it in the family

21 February 2008

Tess Buchanan

Those following the American presidential election may or may not be interested to know that Meghan McCain, daughter of the Republican candidate John McCain, is currently enjoying the music of Noonday Underground and The Dead Milkmen.

They may also find intriguing the disclosures that Barack Obama, according to his wife, does not put his worn socks in with the dirty clothes and that Jack McCain, brother of Meghan, is, by his own admission, a very bad surfer. His favourite actor is Steve McQueen.

It is hard, sometimes, not to be astounded – and depressed – by the sheer triviality of the presidential campaigns, a banality fostered by the increasingly prominent role played by political families and spouses in the campaigning process. Candidates rely on their nearest and dearest to portray their softer side, to act as a bad cop, a foil, or a running mate. Martha Washington once complained that she felt like a “state prisoner”, unable to “depart from…certain bounds”: the problem today is not that political families are unnecessarily restricted but that their position is insufficiently defined. In short, they don’t know where to stop.

This vagueness has been exploited to an unprecedented extent by candidates and their families in the electoral season of 2008. Michelle Obama draws large crowds to her own scheduled events whilst McCain’s daughter Meghan blogs in support of her father, giving her audience gossipy backstage insights alongside fashion and make-up tips. Chelsea Clinton’s growing presence on the campaign trail prompted David Shuster of MSNBC to suggest that she was being “pimped out” by her parents.

This greater conspicuousness of political families is partly, but not entirely, in response to a new player on the field; for the first time the United States faces in Bill Clinton the serious prospect of a First Gentleman – or, as some political wits have termed him, a First Laddie.

The indistinctness which characterises the role played by political families is not peculiar to the campaigning season but is reflected in – and extrapolated from – a president’s time in office. The problem is that nobody quite knows what the First Lady, or her potential male equivalent, actually does. Cindy McCain has said that, if her husband were to be elected, she would continue her overseas volunteer work. Michelle Obama, in a remark which is both evasive and reassuringly traditional, only committed to ensuring her children grow up properly. Hillary Clinton has, with a vacuous grandiosity, suggested that her husband might play the role of “ambassador to the world” if the couple were to move back into the White House.

On visiting Obama’s website, one is greeted by a sepia-tinted, beautifully posed picture of the Illinois senator and his happy, adoring family. The message lacks subtlety. In America, one votes not so much for an ideology as for an ideal.

Candidates must not only promise to deliver the American dream, they must themselves embody it. It is futile to deplore the cosy vacuity of the presidential campaigns.

If America, in the shape of the First Family, is to elect itself a mini-monarchy – if one less permanent and more photogenic than that of Britain – then it is inevitable that all its members should be presented to the public eye. There is even something perversely democratic about the fact that the unelected spouse – who, it must be remembered, has their own office, budget, and staff in the White House – is so clearly a part of the electoral package.

That it is treated as such betrays the sobering reality of a political system in which personality and appearance dominate and interest in policy details has become the preserve of a few.

Tess Buchanan is a 2nd year Historian.