Sunday, September 14, 2008

Putting Families On The Ballot

I know lots of people with nice families whom I wouldn't trust to run this country. Heck, I have a pretty nice family myself, but I wouldn't trust me for the job.

Janice Kennedy

It's official. Now that Stephen Harper has taken to wearing sweaters and talking about the kids, now that John McCain is being eclipsed by America's favorite hockey mom, the theme of this election season has been formally declared. Welcome to Family Values Fall

Much has been rightly made in recent days of the political exploitation of family, as Canadian and American politicians' kids are being trotted out left, right and center. But mostly right.

In the name of balance, I would have liked to show that both liberals and conservatives going for ballot-box gold this fall are marching their families into the spotlight at an unprecedented rate, like prize specimens at some high-stakes county fair. But the fact is, it really isn't happening to any alarming extent outside Conservative and Republican campaigns. Sure, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion has accepted his 20-year-old daughter's occasional appearance at a political event. But mostly the Liberals have attempted to offset Harper's new Look-Ma-I'm-Human strategy with a feeble website video portraying the private Dion as an equally real human being, though describing his love of the great Canadian outdoors. That's not even close.

South of the border, Barack Obama is not averse to nicely staged shots of himself with Michelle and the girls, as photogenic a little grouping as you could hope to find, but that's not close, either.

Politicians have always been shamelessly opportunistic about image. They kiss strangers' babies, get their scrubbed-shiny kids onto the annual Christmas card, hold spouses' hands in death-like grips out in public, terrified that they might appear insufficiently married. (Oh, the irony.)

But with their current campaigns, what the Conservatives and Republicans have done is bring the political exploitation of family to a whole new level. No longer is the family merely useful political backdrop. Now it's a political tool.

If you doubt this, visit the Conservative party website and view the video that everyone's been talking about, the one that shows a relaxed Harper, newly morphed into Mr. No Longer Uptight in careful shades of casual blue, speaking warmly of the transcendent joys of being a dad. A piano tinkles softly in the background before the clip ends with a Disneyesque swell of orchestral music, an image of the Peace Tower and the words, "Canada. We're better off with Harper."

The title of the video is Family Is Everything, and visitors to the site are encouraged to "help us air this ad. Make a secure, online contribution here."

If you're still on the party website, you can also go to the top and click on "Leader," which gives you, surprisingly, two choices: Stephen Harper and Laureen (who knew?). Laureen's mini-bio includes the crucial information that she loves photography and gardening, and that the family home at 24 Sussex fosters kittens.

Tory candidates must also be expected to sing the praises of the Harper family, if Ottawa Centre's Brian McGarry is any indication, spending the bulk of his interview time last week on CBC's Ottawa Morning doing exactly that. For one naïve moment, I wondered what any of the above might have to do with running a country. I know lots of people with nice families whom I wouldn't trust to run this country. Heck, I have a pretty nice family myself, but I wouldn't trust me for the job.

The simple political fact is, Family Is Everything gets the message out -- and the politician in. Such a lovely traditional Canadian family living such a lovely traditional Canadian life. Here's my vote.

In the United States, where McCain is fading with strategic grace into the wings, it's the fabulous Palins: Mom, Dad and their five wacky, wonderful kids -- who are there for Americans looking to park their votes with the spirit of America's mythic golden past. And the campaign manipulators in both countries are using them without hesitation, whether it's Laureen, Ben and Rachel -- or husband Todd Palin with Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and baby Trig. Force-marched into the circus ring, they have had conferred on them the role of agents in that social-conservative agenda so beloved of those on the far right, where much of the Conservative and Republican voting base resides.

This is living, breathing Family Values you can vote for.

This is the whole package: married mom and dad (two-parent household with none of that nasty same-sex business), kids (the purpose of marriage, right?), more kids (family planning being sort of Godless) and even little Trig Palin. Incredibly, the baby, who has Down syndrome, has actually been turned into a political statement.

Don't take my word for it. Visit the Governor of Alaska's official website, which has a whole link devoted to Trig Paxson Van Palin.

It's appalling, of course, both in its distasteful ignorance and its underlying suggestion -- that big, happy families are the exclusive purview of those on the right. That Democrats and Liberals don't have Down syndrome kids of their own whom they cherish and would never, ever have aborted. But in its short-circuiting of the truth, it gets the Family Values message out there with no muss and little fuss.

When Conservatives pointlessly sing the praises of Harper's family, when the Republicans put Palin's brood on parade, the message is loud, blunt and clear: Family Values at work.

Just in case you thought politics couldn't get any more crass.

Janice Kennedy's column appears here on Sundays.

Source: Canada.Com

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