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On the family, Bush is all talk

There are many, many things that George Bush could learn from his wife. Warmth, for one. Grace, for another. Syntax, for a third. That would be nice. The ability to convey the sense of a person at ease in his own skin.

There are other things George could use if only Barbara could bring them to her marriage as part of a political dowry. Her job approval ratings, for example. Or her popularity.

But on Wednesday morning, he borrowed a line from his wife that could have used a good leaving alone. In his official announcement for re-election he quoted his "favorite political philosopher, Barbara Bush." He said: "What happens in your house is more important than what happens in the White House."

Well, not exactly. Not always.

I had heard that sentiment from the first lady herself in June of 1990. On a controversial commencement day at Wellesley College she told an audience of undergraduate women, "Your success as a family, our success as a society, depends not on what happens in the White House but what happens inside your house."

Barely a month later, her husband had vetoed the Family and Medical Leave Act. This modest centerpiece of any sane family policy, a bill that would have given millions of workers with a new baby or a seriously ill family member up to 12 weeks of job protected unpaid leave, died on Pennsylvania Ave.

What happens in your house _ if you are working and pregnant, if you want to keep a job and care for a dying parent _ may be directly affected by what happened that day in the White House.

So, his announcement speech is fair warning that we are in for another round of family rhetoric but not a word of family policy. We're in for more talk about family values but not a sentence about family supports.

As parents, we don't need to be told that children are raised best by caring families. Love and discipline, affection and attention _ this is the stuff of private life. Government, after all, doesn't stay up late comforting children. Government doesn't help with their homework or worry when they are out late at night.

But what happens when the child we're trying to comfort is sick and we can't afford a doctor? What if we have to choose between being there to help with the homework or working a second shift to save for college? What if "your house" is being lost to the economy?

The president tells us, "parents, not government should make the important decisions about health, child care and education." He says, "I believe in personal responsibility."

Exactly what decisions can a parent make about health without insurance? About child care if the slots are filled and the prices high?

As for personal responsibility? French parents are not turned into irresponsible louts because their government supports widespread and high quality child care. European families are not shattered by paid maternity leave. Canadians do not consider a health care system a private matter. And quality education is not left to the individual in Japan.

American families thrive in a supportive environment and can fail in one that leaves them adrift. The help we need is not the sort that displaces parents, but that enables us to do the job.

Bush has disconnected public life from private life and government from the everyday concerns of family. But responsibility is a collective word and community is more than a thousand points of light. And what happens to the White House this election year depends on what happens in your house.

As for Barbara, well, I'll quote the words another "political philosopher" found on a placard in New Hampshire: "We like you, Barbara! But you're sleeping with the enemy."

Boston Globe-Washington Post Writers Group

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