Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Parallels between Caroline Kennedy and Sarah Palin?

One thing that has stuck in my head from Caroline Kennedy's early statements about her informal candidacy for the soon-to-be-vacant U.S. Senate seat for NY regards her credentials to hold that post. Kennedy gave this response a couple of weeks ago regarding her qualifications:
“I’ve written books on the Constitution and the importance of individual participation. And I’ve raised my family. I think I really could help bring change to Washington.”
Read the full story here.

One reason this comment has lingered for me is that it is so similar -- the parenting/mothering part, anyway -- to Sarah Palin's presentation of her credentials to become U.S. Vice President. While stumping on the campaign trail, she frequently played up her experiences raising five children. Here's the video of her self-identification as a hockey mom at the Republican National Convention. While Republicans tended to valorize Palin's motherhood, Democrats tended to downplay its relevance, if not outright scoff at it. (Of course, Palin's critics also had some things to say about the quality of her parenting).

In sorting through my own thoughts about the relevance of motherhood to the role of politician (or, for that matter, any work outside the home) I recalled this op-ed piece in the New York Times on Mother's Day, 2005 (memorable for me as my first Mother's Day as a mother). Katherine Ellison's piece was titled "This is Your Brain on Motherhood," and it asserted that having children can improve your intelligence. She explained how the human brain creates cells on an ongoing basis and that the cells that get used are more likely to survive. Because parenting often provides emotional, challenging, and novel experiences, those neurons get exercised. Ellison writes:
Children constantly drag their parents into challenging, novel situations, be it talking a 4-year-old out of a backseat meltdown on the Interstate or figuring out a third-grade homework assignment to make a model of a black hole in space.
* * *
[Children] fail to thrive unless we anticipate their needs, work our empathy muscles, adjust our schedules and endure their relentless testing. In the process, if we're lucky, we may realize that just this kind of grueling work - with our children, or even with others who could simply use some help - is precisely what makes us grow, acquire wisdom and become more fully human.
So, Ellison argues, we should see a mother's brain (and presumably a father's, too, if he's engaged with the full range of parenting tasks and experiences) as an asset rather than a handicap.

Does Ellison help convince you that raising children is relevant experience for one seeking public office? As a related matter, it is surely also worth considering how we view people who have never married or never had children. (Read Gail Collins recent column, "One Singular Sensation," here). Don't we sometimes see the absence of a spouse and children as a negative factor? Are women and men equally damned if they do, damned if they don't when it comes to being married? to having children?

Whatever relevance you assign to it, mothering roles are not the only experience shared by Palin and Kennedy. Another similarity is now being revealed, and it is the subject of an AP story by Jennifer Peltz today. Here's the lede:
If Caroline Kennedy had, you know, only known. Tracking the would-be New York senator's verbal tics has become a political parlor game in the days since she gave her first round of in-depth interviews, even spawning a hip-hop-style mash-up online blending her "you knows" with President-elect Barack Obama's "uhs."
Peltz goes on to report that one video on YouTube counts 30 "you knows" in 147 seconds of Kennedy excerpts. The other YouTube video referred to is here.

Remember how Palin was roundly and soundly criticized for her accent and use of language. Among those who got in on the act were Judith Warner, Roger Cohen, Maureen Dowd, and many others.

I have queried elsewhere whether all of this criticism of how Palin communicates is sexist. After all, various Presidents have spoken using colloquialisms (a wonderful example is here), and some have had (oh no!) Southern accents. Now I'm rethinking whether the criticism of Palin was more about gender or more about class. After all, no one doubts Kennedy's elite pedigree and education (Harvard and Columbia), yet she makes some of the same verbal blunders that Palin did--and she's being criticized for it.

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