Party of One
Is it Un-American to be childless?
I wish we could sit around my kitchen table--just Bill, Bob, Hillary, Liddy, and me. Actually, I might be pressed for time, so it would work better if we could stand around my kitchen table while I chug half a pint of takeout Szechwan shrimp, no MSG, before I run out to meet a friend who has also come home late from work to gulp something before we connect for a concert and dinner.
But in my spare 10 minutes, while I have all the major presidential candidates and their significant but loving spouses gathered, I'd tackle what the first lady told the Democratic National Convention "matters most in our lives and in our nation--children and families." Because the Democrats were mostly "triangulating" their children and families message to duel with the similar message that came out of the Republican National Convention a few weeks before, I'd tackle Sen. Dole next. Dole imagines himself a bridge "to a time of tranquillity, faith, and confidence," so I'd ask him to what village or America his bridge will carry folks like me--seeing as folks like me don't have children or traditional families. "Soccer Moms" are desirable voters this election year, but single women are off the charts--just a rung below homosexual men who are contemplating, but denied, marriage.
At our kitchen confab (which would probably, I'm sorry to say, take place not around the table--since many single people live in apartments where the kitchen is the size of a linen closet--but around the counter), I might suggest that the first lady ask Janet Reno or Donna Shalala if they ever feel stressed out or over-committed, even though they aren't "packing lunches, dropping the kids off at school, and going to work." The first lady, who detailed so eloquently the pressures faced by working mothers, might be surprised to know that the current attorney general and the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services--working singles--also make dinner, pay the bills, and feel a little tired when, on top of all their other responsibilities, they have to take the dog to the vet.
American politics were a little more inclusive when campaign rhetoric revolved around "it's the economy, stupid." Yes, Americans must feed their children, but Americans--married and single--must feed themselves, too. But once the Republicans and Democrats decided that the goal of all Americans must be family and child rearing, an unpremeditated exclusionary process began.
At the Republican Convention, Dole urged us to practice "right conduct" every day. Well, it's pretty hard to practice "right conduct" when the very fabric of your personal life is judged to be second-rate. But it's not too late to redeem single nonparents. We could change the tax code to deter their behavior (and balance the budget) by slapping a 15 percent tax hike on every American who has not procreated and married. (Are you listening, Mr. Dole? You could even punish the teachers' unions for their sinful ways with a 15 percent tax hike of their own. Single nonparent members of these unions could be slapped with a 30 percent tax hike.)
Why are single people are so vilified? Many of them have more time than the married-with-children crowd to contribute to the community: I wonder how many from each group volunteer for the Republican and Democratic campaigns, and how the figures compare. Does Dick Morris know? Mr. Morris, architect of triangulation as well as of the vice president's and first lady's family-values speeches, might have consulted his companion, Miss Rowlands, during his "off" hours at the Jefferson Hotel about whether she felt included in the Democrats' agenda.
It is precisely our current president's generation, the "me-boomers" who, in unprecedented numbers, opened the doors for gay and women's rights and, therefore, postponed or rejected traditional family values. It seems disloyal, even a sign of self-loathing, for this president's campaign strategy to work overtime to gain the admiration and respect of the center while ignoring his own backyard. If Mr. Dole insists on playing footsie with the religious right, shouldn't Mr. Clinton acknowledge his lifestyle left?
Perhaps it's time for both parties to consider "rectangularization"--to include in their focus groups voters who care about health care and education but not necessarily about getting married or having children. At the Republican Convention, Bob Dole commended as right conduct "any screenwriter who refuses to contribute to the mountains of trash." Well, I'm one writer who would promise Bill, Bob, Hillary, and Liddy personally, at my kitchen table (well, kitchen counter), not to contribute further to the trash this year. But on one condition: Both parties must return to a genuine debate and stop bickering over who can present a better image of wistful middle-American family life. It's irritating to be ignored. But it's painful to be living a life which both political spectrums deem as virtually un-American.
It takes a citizen to make a village. Not just a parent.
Wendy Wasserstein is the author of The Heidi Chronicles, The Sisters Rosensweig, and other plays.