"I'm Bob's daughter": the pain and pride of being a candidate's child.
When Obama finally sits down and begins a conversation on policy and domesticity, one supporter asks how she envisions her role as first lady. Obama doesn't offer a policy focus; she is too real for this charade. Instead, she speaks of her daughters, Malia, 6, and Sasha, 9, and her primary focus of keeping "their heads on straight." She gestures to the circus around her and says, "this would be their lives." My heart swells with empathy for those girls, who must miss their father terribly. After a lifetime spent on the peripheries of politics--as the daughter of an elected official, tired of being poked and prodded--I attempted to join the pokers and the prodders, but I simply don't have it in me. I have far too much respect for other people's personal space to be a decent reporter. I am, however, well-schooled in the art of being a campaign kid.
I spent the better part of 2006 on the road campaigning for my father, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. For the first time in my life, I understood the concept of being too busy to eat. Balancing my daytime job as a paralegal, and my night and weekend job as a campaign surrogate, I was like every other young, dedicated campaign staffer--only I didn't get paid and I couldn't be fired. Menendez for Senate was stuck with me. And I, in turn, was stuck with Menendez for Senate.
Being a "child" on the trail does, of course, have its perks. That year, I had the opportunity to hold hands and sing "You've Got a Friend" with the legend who wrote it, Carole King, deliver remarks side-by-side with former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, and eat in almost every diner off the Jersey Turnpike. It was a magical year. But the trail is not without its challenges.
While campaigns dominate the lives of the reporters who cover them, and the staffers and advisors who make them happen, all of those groups still enjoy a delineation between the private and the professional. At the end of the day, members of the fourth estate and the campaign team go home to their own problems: personal relationships worn thin from prolonged absences and a growing domestic to-do list that will have to wait until November. During the day, work is a distraction from those realities. But for the candidates' families, it is all one infinite loop in which day bleeds into night, and night into day, headline into headline, June into November.
The fabrications and half-truths of an opposition research shop somewhere across the state or the country can turn a living room into a war room. The candidate is not simply someone you believe in, he or she is someone you know intimately, someone with whom you share your heartache and your joy. Personal attacks against that person don't just make for an infuriating workday, they cut to your emotional core.
Sarah Huckabee, the daughter of former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, told me as much in a recent e-mail. "I take everything personally and it is hard for me to imagine anyone thinking anything but good things about my dad," she wrote. "It is especially tough when the attacks are against him personally, instead of against his positions or policies." But Christine Pelosi, daughter of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and author of the new book Campaign Boot Camp: Basic Training for Future Leaders, calls opponents' attacks "the price of leadership."
The cardinal rule for candidates' children, whether they choose to hit the campaign trail or not, is the same: Don't do anything stupid. As Pelosi says, "You have a responsibility not to make your parent a target. That's just common sense. In this day and age, your life is an open Facebook." Beyond this self-protection, if a family member chooses to be active in a campaign, he or she will, in all likelihood, be privy to some of the more unsavory elements of the campaign: internal strife, fundraising woes and press leaks. Especially since the job of the family member is to constantly insulate the candidate.
This type of relationship is very counter-intuitive to a child-parent relationship. It means protecting the protector, and keeping secrets from the one person you trust with everything. Two-and-a-half weeks before our biggest fundraising event of the year, Dad's finance director chose to leave the campaign. My first instinct was to pick up the phone and call my dad the way I do in mini-crises ranging from bad grades to bad break-ups. But I sat on my hands. Somebody was being paid to manage the staff, and it was his job to let my father know the news. By holding my tongue, I preserved the sanctity of our father-daughter relationship. Pulling away from your own father was a tough lesson, made easier only by spending less time together than ever before--save for when we were on stage waving, fist-pumping and clapping to a mind-numbing mix of Tom Petty, Tina Turner and U2.
Every consultant I spoke with for this piece agrees that the family's most important role is to serve as surrogate and chief candidate validator. While most children have stuck to this role, others have branched out. Sarah Huckabee was the national field director for her father's presidential campaign. Meghan McCain has a saucy independent blog that offers a behind-the-scenes look at life on the trail. And it was the unconventional involvement of another senator's daughter that inspired me to postpone law school and dedicate a year to my own father's campaign.
Prior to the 2000 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, I had read an article about how Karenna Gore was Vice President Al Gore's right arm. His speeches were marked with her edits, and she weighed in on big decisions. I was 17 when I watched her speech from the convention floor; too young to cast a vote for her father, I was charmed. Years later, in discussions with friends, I learned that Karenna's speech made her the thinking girl's Elle Woods for an entire generation of young women. My friends shared my sentiments: so smart, so accomplished, such great hair. Karenna offered a blueprint for my own involvement in my father's public life.
Each summer during my childhood, in the last days before Congress would go back into session and my brother and I would head back to school, I'd steal away to the balcony to find my father. What was his next move, I'd ask. Where was he in line with committee seniority? What would his theme song be if he ran for president? Now that I was in the fifth grade, could I stay up until 9:30 p.m.? If he'd entertained all these questions at age 10, certainly in my early twenties I was now ready for some real responsibility. If Karenna could do it, so could I.
My younger brother, Rob, who won the genetic lottery and looks like a young Robert Kennedy, was fairly content to focus on his own role in the field. (I've never seen someone who could work a senior citizen building for an hour and leave with a list of converts like my brother.) But I had spent the last few years winning my father's trust with good behavior and fierce loyalty. I knew my father. I knew New Jersey. I was ready to continue my role as trusted advisor.
So you can imagine my shock when more than one senior staffer warned me not to be "a Karenna Gore." Apparently Karenna had developed a reputation in political circles for demanding too much of a serious role in the campaign. I don't think that any of the people who said this to me had ever met Karenna Gore, nor did I know how to tell these people that Ms. Gore's well-documented "Ms. Magoo" tendencies, the stories of her dashing through Harvard Yard in one sock, floppy disk in hand, had informed my choice of college; or that during Al Gore's post-recount concession speech I cried for Al, and for Tipper, for a system gone terribly awry, but mostly, for Karenna. These staffers told me that if I wanted to be helpful I would stick to my stump speech and leave the serious work to the professionals. It was like dreaming of being the quarterback only to be given head cheerleader as a consolation prize. At first, I was angry. Who were these people, anyway, who had descended on our lives to tell me what to do? "You and your billable hours may know campaigns," I thought, "but do you know Bob Menendez? His ability to bowl a strike with his eyes closed? His standard IHOP order? Did you talk with him the night before his Iraq War vote while you should have been studying for your first college exam? Where were you as a trusted advisor then?"
I'd sit in debate prep, allowed to listen but not speak, wanting to tell the consultants who encouraged Dad to "smile more" that they might have more luck getting my jovial but decidedly not-smiley father to do a mid-debate Macarena.
Most often there are already too many cooks in the campaign kitchen. It is undoubtedly frustrating for professionals to contend with someone with limited campaign experience wanting to weigh in on decisions, when what everyone really needs is a little more elbow room. A non-doctor would never tell a surgeon how to perform a life-saving operation on a loved one, but if life is politics, then anyone can be an expert. Unfortunately, even with those spouses and children who actually have some business being involved, love and devotion can cloud otherwise sound judgment. One political staffer, who has worked in the upper management of several campaigns, says simply, "The problems arise when you have family members who start to exercise veto power over campaign decisions, or even worse, start to view themselves as co-candidates."
While I never considered myself a co-candidate, I did consider myself my father's protector. After months of mean-spirited personal attacks from our opponent and his campaign, my instinct was to fight back and throw bombs. I admit: I took the bait. I was too close to the person being attacked. I loved the candidate too much to think rationally. It took a professional--in this case, our campaign manager, Steve DeMicco--to keep the team on message. We were going to focus on Iraq, Dad's vote against the resolution and a plan for bringing our troops home. That's what New Jerseyans cared about, and that's what we cared about.
It wasn't until Election Day, once I'd let go of the narcissistic idea that I could single-handedly sway the electorate, that I naturally landed where the campaign had been trying to place me all along. After a few hours spent doing door-to-door, I made a pitstop at our outpost in Hackensack to thank the dozens of volunteers who worked the phones. That's when we got the call telling us that Mayor Rudy Giuliani and my father's opponent, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., were campaigning a few blocks away. For months, I had stood on the sidelines and watched the Kean campaign fire what I thought were unfounded ruthless attacks at my father. But once the campaign launched an attack ad that closed on a photograph of me, my brother and my father, and another with racist underpinnings, I was ready to bring it. With the crowds and the megaphones, Kean wasn't hard to find. As I wiggled my way through the crowd, I couldn't tell if I'd be able to compose myself, or if nerves would take over and cause me to projectile vomit on my father's opponent. Fortunately for me, and for Kean, nerves are no match for good parenting. I thrust my hand forward and said, "I wanted to wish you good luck."
"Thank you," he said.
But that wasn't enough, so I went on: "I'm Bob's daughter."
I'll never know why I didn't introduce myself as Alicia Menendez, nor will I ever know for sure if he knew which Bob I was talking about. If only retroactively, I know he got the message. For a second time he said, "Thank you," before jumping into his car.
As I turned around, two reporters were there with recorders and notepads. They asked how I was doing, in that disarming way reporters do, as though they're saying "Hey pal! What's shakin'?" when they know you can't be honest and say, "I'm burnt. And I could use a hug or a beer ... or both." I had a lot of feelings, and I was ready to share one of them. I told them how painful it had been to watch our opponent's campaign attempt to swift boat my father and added, "It's very easy to be negative when it's anonymous, but that's somebody's Daddy you're talking about." After I said it, the only thing I could think was, "I am a 23-year-old woman who just referenced my father as 'Daddy' in front of two national reporters." A random reference to your "daddy" is the kind of thing that hurts a girl in the pre-first date Google search. I could only comfort myself by praying that the comment wouldn't make it to print.
Within an hour the red bulb on my BlackBerry started flashing. First came an e-mail from Dad's communication's director, Matt Miller. I was out of luck. Richard G. Jones at The New York Times had already blogged about the encounter. And yes, the word "daddy" appeared front and center. But before I read the piece, I read Matt's e-mail: praise through and through. Jones wrote: "The impromptu meeting between the children of two of New Jersey's most prominent politicians--Mr. Kean is, of course, the son of the popular former governor and chairman of the 9/11 Commission--provided a rare moment of graciousness and civility in a campaign marked by particularly mean-spirited personal attacks." Kean had once been in my shoes, and it isn't unthinkable that I might one day be in his. It's funny, we entrust elected officials with the most human elements of our society, yet we rarely imagine them as human themselves. Until I read Jones's piece, it hadn't occurred to me that enduring the mudslinging and juggling expectations might be as hard for our opponent and his family as it had been for us.
The Times titled the entry, "I'm Bob's Daughter." They got it just right. Left to my own devices, representing myself only as Alicia Menendez, I would probably have dropped an expletive or two. But I wasn't there as Alicia, I was there as Bob's daughter, and she is a much classier lady than I am when I'm off-duty.
I learned in that year that there is a big difference between giving what we want to give, and giving what is needed of us, both on the trail and off. Who knows what lies in the hearts of the Obama girls, the Huckabee children, each member of the McCain clan, and one understandably private only child who grew up in the White House? Whether each loved one is giving what he or she wants to give--and whether that is in harmony with what he or she needs to give--only they know. The true giving, the one that each of us needs to be thankful for, is the willingness of each of these individuals to share their loved one for the future of our great country. It takes enormous faith in an individual to sacrifice a year's worth of what little personal time you as a family already have. I know. I did it. And I would do it again. I am proud to be a true believer, proud to be a Democrat--but most of all, I am proud to be Bob's daughter.
Alicia Menendez is a freelance writer based in Washington, D. C. Read her blog at www.aliciamenendez.com.
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|Title Annotation:||Bob Menendez|
|Publication:||Campaigns & Elections|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2008|
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