Op-Ed: For Candidates, Private-Public Line Blurry

Read Ross Douthat's New York Times column, "Personal and Political"

Politicians often reveal personal stories on the campaign trail. But those revelations often draw criticism from opponents. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat says politicians can and should contest the critiques, but that many have lost the right to complain about them.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

And now, The Opinion Page. And this week, Ross Douthat, of The New York Times, on politicians and privacy. Case in point, the criticism some commentators leveled at Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, he's spoken openly throughout a number of years about the grief he and his wife, Karen, shared with their family when they took home their infant son two hours after his death. On The Times' op-ed page over the weekend, Douthat argued that when politicians incorporate their families and personal choices into their campaigns, that becomes fair game. Really?

Can the personal ever not be political? Where do we draw the line? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times, and he joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.

ROSS DOUTHAT: Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: And that case - some of those criticisms leveled at Rick Santorum seem, well, to put it mildly, over the top.

DOUTHAT: Over the top, I would go further. I think that they were stupid. But I think the point I was trying to make in the column was that there's a distinction between stupid and off limits. And by that, I mean, that, you know, Santorum and his wife suffered a terrible tragedy, the premature birth of their child, Gabriel, and they wrote a book about it and have discussed it openly and so on. And the reason that it is fraught and controversial is, obviously, because Santorum himself and his wife as well are famously pro-life.

Santorum was a leading sponsor of the partial birth abortion ban, a sort of leading tribune of the pro-life cause. And what you see in the controversy over - the specific controversies over the fact that Santorum and his wife brought the body of their stillborn, you know, it was - at five and a half months of pregnancy child home with them overnight before burying it the next day. And you had a couple of commentators, Eugene Robinson of The Post and Alan Colmes on Fox, saying that that was creepy and bizarre, with the implication being it was creepy and bizarre because it showed how fanatically committed to the pro-life cause Santorum is.

CONAN: Well, to some degree, also hypocritical that the drugs that...

DOUTHAT: Well, this was the - right, this was the further point that was made by some leftwing bloggers was that in some of the accounts of how the premature birth happened, it seemed that maybe Santorum's wife had taken antibiotics knowing that they would hasten delivery of a child that couldn't survive. This doesn't seem to have been the case, but the argument was made that this was, in some sense, tantamount to a late-term abortion. And again, I think that argument is stupid.

But I think that it's stupid in a way that we have to sort of expect to have, like, I don't think it's fair for the Santorums to say, well, it's OK for us to talk about our miscarried child and to talk about it in the context of, essentially, a pro-life argument about fetal life, but then to say, well, but we have a zone of privacy, and nobody can cross this zone of privacy and criticize us.

CONAN: So we can tell our story, but nobody else can tell it.

DOUTHAT: Right. Because other people, you know, I think that the fact that the way that their story was contested was stupid and arguably offensive doesn't mean that it crossed a line of privacy, if that distinction makes sense. And I know it's sort of a fine distinction to make.

CONAN: Another point - case in point, that of Sarah Palin, who, as a vice presidential candidate and as governor of Alaska, campaigned essentially with the Down syndrome baby.

DOUTHAT: Right. And this is something you see again with the Santorums as well, where they have a daughter, Bella, who I believe is about 3 years old, who has trisomy 18.

CONAN: Another genetic disorder.

DOUTHAT: Another genetic condition that has similar but even, I think, worse effects than Down syndrome. And again, in that case, I think in a society where a huge proportion of both Down syndrome and trisomy 18 fetuses are aborted. The decision - one, the mere decision to carry the child to term, you know, can be seen to be the sort of ideological choice, in a sense. And two, then the decision to sort of publicize the decision and to - I mean, Palin incorporated special needs children into her speeches. Santorum cut a video - I think for Iowa - sort of focusing on Bella - a tremendously moving video, but a video that was clearly designed to make a kind of appeal to pro-life voters.

And again, once the politician decides that they're sort of - that they're going to blur the personal and political in this way, you have to expect that people – again, often stupidly and offensively, but are, you know, are going to push back. And in Palin's case, it was, you know, these conspiracy theories about how Trig Palin wasn't really her child. And again, I thought - I think that they were ridiculous, but it wouldn't be fair for Palin to just say, well, you know, I have a right to privacy, because she's already sort of recognized that that line blurs.

And the analogy that I drew maybe persuasive, maybe not, is that, if you're a politician in the Jim Crow South, right, where sex and reproduction are less contested, but race is clearly contested. For a politician to - a white politician to marry a black woman, right, in, say, Alabama 1932, that's inevitably a political as well personal statement, in a sense. And you have to - if you're a white politician who married a black woman, you would have to be ready for the blowback. So Santorum and Palin need to be ready for the blowback as well.

CONAN: Then does that extend to, well, politicians' families? There is no politician - and you think of President Obama, his daughters, Malia and Sasha - appear from time to time. But it can't be said that they are used as poster children. They're on stage from time to time, but they're not part of his campaign...

DOUTHAT: Right.

CONAN: ...not part of his narrative in the same way. Are they fair game?

DOUTHAT: I think they're only fair game if there were a situation in which, you know, if President Obama starts citing Sasha or Malia to make a point about public education, and his position on public education, right? And how his position is vindicated by the experiences of his daughters. Then it would be perfectly reasonably...

CONAN: Who do not attend public school.

DOUTHAT: Who do not attend - right. So that would be a pretty - right - a pretty ineffective way of making the point. But just, you know, in the same way, you know, for a commentator, for instance, the way people did with Chelsea Clinton, right, to make fun of a public figure's child's appearance, I think clearly - I mean, you know, it's going to happen. But I think it clearly crosses a line, and it would be best if that didn't happen. But when the politician employs his children's lives, their stories as part of his, sort of, political or ideological narrative, then the, you know, the sort of claim that, oh, but they have to have their privacy as well, gets harder to make.

CONAN: Well, let's get some callers in on the conversation. Where do we draw the line here? Our guest is Ross Douthat of The New York Times. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Katie(ph), and Katie on the line with us from Orlando.

KATIE: Hi. I think that politicians' lives, their personal lives, should be, you know, talk about. They want to make laws that affect our personal lives, like, for example, gay marriage. You know, I know we're talking about abortion, but, for example, gay marriage, he compares it to bestiality. And he...

CONAN: Rick Santorum, right.

DOUTHAT: Rick Santorum, yes.

KATIE: Yeah, exactly, Santorum. And they're going to make statements like that, and they're going to impact the choices that we make in our bedrooms, for example, then, yes. I mean, everything they say and the choices that they've made in their lives should be discussed, openly, because they're usually hypocritical. And he wants to limit women's choice to - when to get an abortion if they can get an abortion. And I read that his wife would have had an abortion if they had any – if things hadn't worked out the way they had. I don't know the exact details, but she would have gotten an abortion.

CONAN: Well...

KATIE: But now he's saying we can't.

CONAN: Woulda, shoulda - we don't know that, Katie, for...

DOUTHAT: Well, what was said, was, I believe, that Santorum was quoted as saying that not that they would have had an abortion in the sense of directly killing the fetus that was their child, Gabriel, but that they - had there been a situation where the only way to save her life was to actually induce labor, knowing that...

CONAN: As consequence, the baby wouldn't...

DOUTHAT: ...the baby wouldn't be able to survive, that they would have done that. And I think what - the difficulty with saying that that's the same as having an abortion, is that most, sort of, pro-life groups...

CONAN: Including...

DOUTHAT: ...including the Santorum's - my own, I should say, the Roman Catholic Church - would say that there's a distinction between the act of direct abortion and an intervention that is necessary to save the mother's life that - with the child. And, you know, in the case of Gabriel, he lived for two hours after delivery. It's not quite the same, clearly I think, as a partial birth abortion.

But I do want to - I want to agree with Katie in the sense that - and I talked about this a bit in the column. In the debate over marriage, for instance, I think it is perfectly reasonable for, you know, in the debate about gay marriage, for instance, for supporters of gay marriage to say, well, you know, someone like Newt Gingrich, who says, you know, gay shouldn't be able to get married, it's - we should look at his personal life and see how seriously he has treated the institution of marriage.

And I think it's a similar thing, where it's easier to say a politician's marital life is none of your business in an era when the definition of marriage isn't contested. And if the definition is contested, then the fact that Newt Gingrich has had two divorces and three wives – it's reasonable to say, well, that shows that, you know, how can we take him seriously in his argument for traditional marriage if he doesn't seem to take traditional marriage seriously himself? So in that sense, I think Katie makes a good point.

CONAN: Katie, thanks very much.

KATIE: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: We're talking with Ross Douthat of The New York Times. It was interesting, yes, the Santorums talk very openly about their story, included in their narrative. There was a not dissimilar circumstance in the Kennedy administration, where Patrick Kennedy was stillborn at Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod and very little made of that. That was kept private.

DOUTHAT: It was kept private, and it wasn't - I mean, I should say that, you know, it wasn't a case - I believe the pregnancy was much further along and they're - I don't think, necessarily, there were, you know, the sort of - the medical details were different. But it was hard to imagine in 1963, that becoming a cultural war flashpoint because at that point, you know, there was a debate about abortion in the United States in early 1960s. But there was a, you know, abortion was generally illegal, and there was at least some kind of consensus around that issue in a way that there simply isn't today.

And I think that's what you see as, sort of - as personal issues become politicized or become less politicized, the space that a politician has for privacy either expands or shrinks. So a politician has more privacy now, in the sense that, you know, he's not going to get attack by segregationists if he has an interracial marriage. But he has less privacy in the sense that issues like divorce, abortion, gay marriage and so on, are more likely to become political issues.

CONAN: The opinion page, you can get a link to Ross Douthat's piece that ran in The New York Times over the weekend, by going to our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Joe is on the line, calling from Lansing.

JOE: Yeah. Hey, Neal. Well, I didn't deter. There's just as many different lines as there are different politicians. You know, most of the journalists out there actually do a great job, and Ross is one of them. Most of them, they actually do a great job observing the lines. The lines are basically created by the politicians themselves. I mean, you just literally spoke of Kennedy on one side, Palin and Santorum on another. These individuals themselves are the ones creating their own lines as to what's private and what's not. So I don't really think that they do have a whole lot of wiggle room to say, woe is me, woe is me, that's off-limits. I, you know, the majority of, I think, journalists do actually do a good job. And as I said, Ross is one of them.

DOUTHAT: That's very - I really appreciate that caller.

CONAN: You didn't know you had...

DOUTHAT: I think he's a wonderful human being.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: You didn't know you had cousins in Lansing. But it does, though, raise the question of, all right, what if it's not part of the narrative? What if it is something that is kept private? Where do you draw the line there? Is it - it could be just as hypocritical, but nevertheless, not something that the politician was trumpeting in any way.

DOUTHAT: Right. And I agree that it becomes more of a gray area, clearly when, you know, if, for instance, you know, Rick and Karen Santorum's personal tragedy had not been something that they had discusses publicly - Mrs. Santorum wrote a book about it and so on - then, yeah, then it gets murkier. And there - as the caller said, you know, there are sort of just judgment calls that the press, as a beast or as an institution, or as an individual, has to make.

CONAN: Joe, thanks for the call, and we'll expect you at the Douthat's Thanksgiving next year. Here's an email from Valerie in Roanoke. I think personal stories, anecdotes, et cetera, are used for political purposes - whether that's to humanize the candidate, illustrate their commitment to an ideal, show the importance of family life, et cetera - then those aspects of the candidate's life are fair game. However, if something is outside of the political campaign and the rhetoric, then it should be viewed as off-limits. The commenter should also stay away from personal attacks and stay in the realm of political relevance. Well, boy, there's another blurry line.

DOUTHAT: It - well - but, you know, right, and that's the goal. But it's a good, you know, it's - you saw this - I think it was three or four Republican debates ago, right, where there was the...

CONAN: I'd lost track.

DOUTHAT: ...the question. Well, it was when Gingrich was surging in the polls, and there was - the question was post to the assembled candidates. You know, do you feel that a candidate's personal life is fair game and so on? And it was this tremendously awkward scene where they sort of all took turns, basically saying, don't vote for Newt because he is - he was an adulterer. But obviously, didn't say it in the...

CONAN: Those terms, those terms.

DOUTHAT: The said, well, of course, it's, you know, it shows whether you keep your word and so on and all the rest of it. And it is - and then Gingrich had, I think, actually a pretty effective and humble response in that case. But it is - I think that what - my answer to the blurriness is that, when you can draw a line between policy and personal life, and when, sort of, that line - when there's that, sort of, particular level of hypocrisy that's achieved - for instance, a pro-life candidate, you know, whose wife had an abortion - I don't think it's fair for the pro-life candidate to say, well, that's a private matter, right? Because that goes to the heart of the policy question under dispute. But it's trickier with things like, you know, is a politician's adultery an issue if you can't necessarily draw a line between that and policy?

CONAN: So as we go ahead, it is going to be instructive... To some degree, it's been patty-cake up until now. The gloves started to come off a little bit in Iowa, a little bit more on Sunday in New Hampshire. South Carolina, it looks like it could be very tough.

DOUTHAT: Right, although they're coming off - I mean, what's interesting about the Republican campaign now, is that, at least as far as we know, the front-runner, Mitt Romney, has led a - well, with the exception perhaps of the, you know, the story about putting a dog on the roof of his station wagon while driving...

CONAN: Right.

DOUTHAT: ...but has led a exemplary personal life, you know, married to the same woman, not a whisper of adultery, you know, seemingly, children at least well-adjusted enough to campaign for him. And so the attacks now are, you know, increasingly harsh, but they're all focused on his professional career and so on. I mean, it could be that we're headed for a general election between Romney and Obama, where you have two candidates who - again, whatever their sort of policy flaws are sort of generally viewed as admirable family men, because I think that's how a lot of people - even people who don't like Obama see him in that light as well.

CONAN: Ross Douthat, thanks very much for your time.

DOUTHAT: Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: Ross Douthat, a columnist for The New York Times, with us here in Studio 3A. Tomorrow, fact checkers off in the booth reviewing exaggerations, tall tales and all-out lies politicians tell. Who checks the fact checkers? Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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