Kith, Kin, and Presidential Campaigns
As far back as Martha Washington, family members have helped their candidates, but stakes higher now
One of the greatest assets for a presidential candidate is his or her family — this has long been the case.
Ever since the days of George Washington, candidates of all parties have been using their spouses and their family members to help drive home their points, show a more personal side, and win over voters. During the American Revolution, Martha Washington made speeches on behalf of then-General Washington from her coach while on the road to and from winter encampments.
Children and wives usually make a candidate seem more user-friendly and congenial.
From the winter of 1775 through the winter of 1778, Mrs. Washington traveled at great personal risk to be with her husband during the war. There she was, bundled up to protect herself against the elements — and she would have no problem stopping to address the crowds that would gather along the way to hear news about the general and the fighting. She also entertained visiting dignitaries and military officials at Valley Forge and other encampments to help promote her husband’s views and policies with a softer touch.
Flash forward to the conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia these past two weeks — and the world watched as the spouses of the candidates, as well as the Trump children and Chelsea Clinton, delivered carefully crafted speeches in support of their loved ones. None of this is an accident.
In America’s past, some candidates kept their children and families as far out of the public eye as possible. The Cleveland, Garfield, and Theodore Roosevelt campaigns come to mind as examples of this. Why, you may ask, in light of the positives just mentioned? For starters, security back then wasn’t what it is today. Public access to the candidates and their families was virtually unobstructed, and in some corners there was genuine concern for the safety of the candidates’ young children and the families’ privacy.
The press and the public can be cruel — and raising children in the white-hot political spotlight can be difficult.
But children and spouses usually make a candidate seem more user-friendly and congenial, even as using them effectively and responsibly in a campaign can be a tough line to walk.
A gregarious and affable wife — such as a Dolley Madison or a Grace Cleveland — can put gruffer husbands in a better public light. A clever candidate can use his politically savvy spouse and adult children to reach an entirely different audience and send important messages to benefit the campaign. These family members become surrogates and can even find Cabinet or administration positions in the event their family member wins the election (think of Robert F. Kennedy, who served as U.S. attorney general in the administration of his brother, John F. Kennedy).
This plan was used effectively by the Jimmy Carter campaign in the 1976 election, as one example. Rosalynn Carter organized and mobilized a group called the “Peanut Brigade,” which employed the Carters’ three adult sons — Jack, James, and Donnel — as well as Jimmy Carter’s mother, Miss Lillian. Their grassroots efforts and sheer numbers covered a lot of ground and helped introduce a relatively unknown Georgia governor to the masses.
The Bush family has campaigned tirelessly for three different Bush men up to this point. And while it didn’t work out so well for Jeb, earlier on for the Bushes, their work did show the power of family and the ability to get a candidate’s message out there.
The Clintons are a known factor. With two presidential terms, a Senate career, and four years as secretary of state between them, the public knows Bill and Hillary Clinton pretty well. Chelsea Clinton grew up in the public eye. Then she all but disappeared for a little while, and now she’s emerged again as an adult with a husband, two children, and a voice that could prove effective on the campaign trail. Chances are, if you like the Clintons, you will like Chelsea — and she could take some of the negative attention of controversy and scandal off Hillary — and perhaps even minimize Bill Clinton’s past indiscretions.
When it comes to children, the Trumps seem to have the best of both worlds. Donald Trump has adult children who can campaign on their own and deliver serious policy and issue speeches. He also has a young son, Barron, age 10, who can travel with either of his parents and bring the family vibe that Americans love so much. Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric are all highly educated and have proven themselves more than capable of delivering a clear and effective message for their father.
Both Donald Jr. and Ivanka made very well-received speeches at the RNC, as did Tiffany Trump, and if that kind of clarity and positive reception continues on the road, the Trump children will prove to be huge assets to their father.
What the candidates need to remember is this: As soon as those family members are brought to the national stage, they become fair game for the public and the press. This is hardly the kindest platform — and having thick skin is a must. Candidates’ children and family members need to ignore the criticisms, stay on message, and keep the ultimate goal — the White House — in their sights.
Most of the folks involved know the risks before they enter the game of politics. Like all games, there are winners and losers. The election in November will write the next pages of history — and tell us which political family played the better game.
Andrew Och is the author of the new book, “Unusual for Their Time: On the Road with America’s First Ladies.”