Time.com, October 11, 2004
Viewpoint: The President as Parent
Bruce Kluger argues that President Bush has some
flaws as a national father figure.
By Bruce Kluger
Kerry swapped a predictable round of punches on issues
ranging from Iraq to health care to jobs, as each
candidate desperately sought to land that single,
memorable haymaker that voters will replay in their heads
on November 2nd. For my money, however, that defining
moment came a week earlier in Miami, during the first
debate—and it was a knockout blow for Kerry.
Amid a courteous discussion in which the candidates
expressed their admiration for one another's families,
Kerry turned the subject to the President's daughters.
"I've watched them," he said warmly. "I've chuckled a few times at some of their
The President responded with a laugh. "I'm trying to put a leash on them," he said.
"Well," remarked Kerry with a knowing smile. "I've learned not to do that."
The dialogue was fleeting, never once touching on such weighty affairs as WMDs
or budget deficits. And yet hearing the candidates express these distinctly different
views on child-rearing spoke volumes to me about how both men view the job of
leader of the Free World. Like everything else in my life since becoming a father
nine years ago, I view the presidential race through the unique prism of parenting.
I've noticed that both jobs require a crucial blend of authority, patience and
empathy; and, while he's raised two fine daughters, as President, George Bush has
come up short in this regard as national father figure.
According to New York clinical psychologist Gregg Ury, who is currently co-writing a
book entitled Seduced by the Right: A Psychological Analysis of the Body Politic,
leadership qualities can often take their cue from parenting styles.
"Child development theory frequently describes two different types of child-rearing,"
Ury told me, "the authoritarian parent, who rules by fiat and commands obedience
without open communication; and the more empathic parent, who instills discipline,
yet does so by soliciting feedback from his children and valuing mutual respect.
When researchers compare the two, the empathic parent consistently produces
children who are better adjusted and more capable of handling conflict; while the
authoritarian parent produces more rebellion.
"So it's no surprise to hear the President talk about wanting to rein in his
daughters," concludes Ury. "He conducts his job in very much the same manner."
To say the least. Since the invasion of Baghdad, President Bush has stage-
managed the Iraq war like the patriarchal paragon of an earlier era, flouting his rigid
style as not only the best way to maintain rule of the roost, but also the only
appropriate one. Wielding a firm hand and a tight leash (literally, in the case of Abu
Ghraib), the Bush administration has been crystal clear about its house rules:
dissent is disregarded (and, in some cases, ridiculed); information is routinely
withheld; and input from members of our global family deemed bothersome.
John Kerry, meanwhile, exhibits a different kind of tactic. Calling for greater candor
by those who exercise the job of high command, and stressing the importance of
seeking communal harmony among members of our international household, the
Massachusetts Senator promises a leadership style that more resembles a kind of
new-millennium Ward Cleaver: never abdicating his role as parent, yet ever careful
to solicit input from his charges — in this case, the American people. (And, for
better or worse, John Kerry is even as corny as the Beaver's dad.)
But most important, John Kerry talks about the need for greater empathy from our
leaders, and this is where I believe George Bush's performance as president-father
has been most wanting. Case in point: At this moment, my five-year-old daughter is
suffering through the very natural (but still wholly unsettling) fear of "mommy and
daddy dying." Her distress is heartbreaking, of course, and I soon discovered that
the best way to soothe her is by showing her that I take her worries seriously,
discussing them with her each and every time they bubble to the surface.
Imagine if I employed the same tactics this administration has used in dealing with,
say, those Americans who are genuinely fearful that we made a mistake in invading
Iraq—mocking her worry (the way Team Bush has consistently derided the anti-war
contingent), punishing her (remember Richard Clarke?) or, worst of all, outright
ignoring her. Very soon, my daughter would go elsewhere for comfort. And I would
deserve the snub.
I don't mean to suggest here that George W. Bush isn't a good dad. In fact, from
the look of things, his spirited daughters have inherited the best of their mother's
congeniality and their dad's easy-going sense of humor. But when it comes to the
current state of our national household—children living in poverty, adults unable to
secure employment, and more than 1000 dead on foreign soil—it may be time for
the president to take off the iron glove and hold a house meeting.
Then again, as a father I know how hard it is to change one's parenting style.
That's why I'm just biding time till November, when hopefully we'll get a new dad.