I never thought I was harboring a dark secret. But if you live in the overlapping world of politics and media, as I am learning, anything less than full transparency can potentially do you in. There are quite a number of us who inhabit this world of mixed marriages and familial ties (mazel tov to the ABC News campaign reporter who just married an aide to President Obama), and we have all struggled at different moments with the question of how much to disclose about our personal ties.
I’m having a moment. My husband, Dan Senor, is an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Gov. Mitt Romney (He also worked for Romney in 2008, but since Romney never made it out of the gate, no one cared.) I do not have any involvement in this campaign. After a 15-year career in television news, sometimes spent biting my tongue in the name of objectivity and balance, I retired to raise our two small children. I am now basically a very opinionated mom, enjoying the freedom of being able to fully speak my mind. I have been fortunate that publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have allowed me to share some of my opinions with a wider audience. And since I am writing against the backdrop of this campaign, I have tried (and mostly failed) at getting the disclosure part right.
First, since I am writing opinion and am no longer an objective reporter, different rules apply. It is a bit more challenging for NBC political reporter Chuck Todd, whose wife was a Democratic consultant. But he is on TV so much (deservedly so) that if he disclosed this fact every time he opened his mouth, no one else would ever get a word in. My friend and former colleague NBC’s Andrea Mitchell has managed to have one of the most illustrious careers of anyone in TV news while being married to (and well before being married to) former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski’s personal life is a minefield. Her father is Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, and while one brother is an Obama appointee, the other advises Romney. Mika says she is always being labeled as “in the tank” for President Obama, and she finds transparency to be her savior: “I voted for Obama, and I am the first to say it.”
Fortune magazine's Nina Easton, who is also married to a Romney guy, once began her comments on Fox News with the disclosure, "I'm married to a Romney guy, so take this with a grain of salt". I'm seriously tempted to begin any future op-ed exactly that way.
Here is the truth: To assume that someone’s views are invariably influenced or shaped by his or her partner is lazy. It is an intellectual crutch we grope for when we do not have an effective counter to someone’s argument. In my limited experience writing opinion, smart people have challenged me with a reasoned response pointing out the weaknesses of my argument. The less intellectual partisans say, all full of ire, “She’s married to a Romney guy”.
But here is another truth: You can’t ignore the fact that two married people are most likely together because of some commonality. Given that, it is hardly unreasonable to assume they share some sort of identity and outlook, including, perhaps, a political worldview. The messy reality of our relationship, and I suspect most others, is that we are together on a lot of things and apart on many more. A few we agree not to even talk about. But mostly we challenge each other, learn from each other, and spend the rest of the time talking about the kids. Again, I’m married to a Romney guy, so take this with a grain of salt.
The degree to which my husband and I agree—or influence one another—is really less the issue than the disclosure. Failing to disclose gives your intellectual opponents a means of distraction, a way to create a diversion so that your arguments go unheard. It is an effective strategy. And I was slow to catch on. Here are the mistakes I have made and tried to learn from.
If you are going to criticize President Obama (as I did in the New York Times over his campaign for the women’s vote) then disclosing a Romney relationship is certainly a no-brainer. Where I apparently failed was in putting the disclosure in the middle of the piece, rather than at the top. Outraged readers filled the comments section and my Twitter feed with their disgust that I didn’t share my Romney connection. Clearly this was super annoying to the people who wanted to dismiss the piece, but didn’t want to actually read it all the way through. Message received.
Another piece for the Times criticized Planned Parenthood for a weak legislative strategy that I felt was putting its federal funding at risk. I support funding for Planned Parenthood. Gov. Romney does not, so I didn’t think my husband’s role on his campaign warranted disclosure. But what followed was another round of attacks on my disclosure lapse, with Planned Parenthood, its supporters and many of my friends demanding to know why I hadn’t stated that I am “married to a Romney guy.” My mistake this time was not recognizing that during campaign season, you are never allowed to criticize those you support lest you give the other side ammunition to use against them. My bad.
Most recently an op-ed I wrote for the Wall Street Journal was critical of New York teachers unions for supporting a policy that makes it very hard to fire teachers who engage in inappropriate sexual behavior with children. In this case, I failed twice. The teachers union immediately pointed to my Romney tie (apparently in their view only a Romney supporter would oppose sexual predators in school?). They then rightly asserted that my husband serves on the board of StudentsFirst—New York, an education reform group that advocates for charter schools. He receives no money from the organization, yet the teachers unions blasted me for hiding this connection, and falsely accused me of a financial conflict of interest. Here I failed to disclose because I stupidly did not connect the teachers’ unions’ opposition to charter schools to their support for a system that protects teachers who engage in sexual misconduct. My sincerest apologies to the teachers unions for not fully appreciating how wrong they are on not one but two issues.
As you may have guessed, I am not feeling very apologetic. These pieces represent my opinion and mine alone. If you want a different answer, ask a different girl. I have, however, gone back and forth on the disclosure question many times with a journalist friend. She believes the only way to go is to overshare, because as long as you are a Romney wife, there are certain people who will always believe that you are somehow doing his bidding. (Thank you, Twitter, for allowing me to engage with those people each and every day.)
So in the interest of full disclosure, let me share a few more potential conflicts (that are mostly with my husband). Hopefully this will satisfy those who believe I am his ideological twin. For the deeply offended, contact info below.
Dan likes the Jets. But we all know that Eli Manning is inimitable. (Jets fans can reach me at @campbell_brown via Twitter. Tom Brady fans, you can look up inimitable on dictionary.com).
Dan works in finance. I think the financial industry is EVIL, with the exception of my husband. (Goldman Sachs—see above Twitter handle.)
I support Simpson-Bowles. Dan is opposed to tax increases during an economic downturn. But we are working on this one in couples counseling. (Grover Norquist, please call Dan directly. He has some influence with me except when he doesn’t.)
Dan wants to try for a girl. I think two boys are enough. (See couples counseling.)
Dan is obviously voting for Romney. I supported Obama in 2008. This year I am voting for…
Some things we should be able to keep to ourselves.