Now that Bush has talked about our kids, can we ask about his?

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May 25 2007 2:35 PM

Suffer the Children

Now that Bush has talked about our kids, can we ask about his?

George W. Bush. Click image to expand.
George W. Bush

During his press conference Thursday, the president got personal when talking about the threat from al-Qaida terrorists. "They are a threat to your children, David," he said to NBC's David Gregory. It's an understandable instinct. To persuade, we try to appeal to common experience. Policy debates can get abstract. Mention someone's children, though, and they get concrete fast. The president found this such a useful tool that he used it a second time in the same press conference. "I would hope our world hasn't become so cynical that they don't take the threats of al-Qaida seriously, because they're real, and it's a danger to the American people," he said in response to a question about the war from Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times. "It's a danger to your children, Jim."

For Bush, this line of argument is not a two-way street. Over the years, reporters have been censured and scowled at for asking about the president's or vice president's children in the context of a policy debate. The tone was set in the early months of 2001. After the president publicly urged parents to talk to their children about drugs and drinking, Houston Chronicle reporter Bennett Roth asked then-press secretary Ari Fleischer if Bush had taken his own advice with his daughters, one of whom had just been cited for underage drinking. Roth got no answer. He was later told ominously that his question had "been noted in the building," as if he should expect to wake to the sight of a horse head.

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Wednesday, Vice President Dick Cheney welcomed into the world his sixth grandchild, Samuel David Cheney. The lad's parents are the Cheneys' daughter, Mary, and her partner, Heather Poe. When Wolf Blitzer asked Cheney months ago about a stalwart Republican political ally who'd claimed that two lesbian parents were not healthy for a child, the vice president did not answer, rebuking Blitzer with, "I think, frankly, you're out of line with that question." (Another horse head, or maybe Gitmo.)

The president and Dick Cheney should have a wide zone of privacy when it comes to their families. Their daughters didn't ask to enter the political echo chamber, and so they shouldn't be forced to live in it. (Though, the Bush twins did speak at the 2004 Republican convention, and a Cheney daughter worked at the State Department.) There is bipartisan agreement on this. The Clintons defined the modern standard with their zealous protection of Chelsea Clinton. At the same time, they didn't use the privacy rationale to fend off legitimate policy questions. When they were asked why they'd sent their daughter to a private school, despite their advocacy for public ones, the Clintons explained their thinking.

It's easy to understand the president's impulse during his press conference. Making the private reference to the reporters' children helped make his case in the most human terms possible. But he's got to get, then, why other people make the same move. Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son in Iraq, asked the president if he'd talked about the war with his daughters and why they weren't serving. It's hard to imagine that the president and Mrs. Sheehan would ever have anything in common, but it seems that now, they do.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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