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Leave No Child (or Wife) Behind?

Negative reporting of Republican candidates becomes a family affair.

12:00 AM, Aug 14, 2007 • By BILL WHALEN
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IN THE LONG VOYAGE that is the race for the Republican presidential nomination, the media have adopted a new approach: women and children first.

Or so it would seem after a cursory look at three of the top candidates, where it's not the candidate but the immediate family--the wife and kids--that's under the microscope.

* In Iowa, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney found himself answering questions about his five sons' involvement in his campaign--raising the question of which is more patriotic: serving the nation, or campaigning for dad.

* Back on the East Coast, Jeri Kehn Thompson, aka Mrs. Fred Thompson, has been written up as a much-younger "trophy wife" (the New York Times's assessment) and a "spare-no-feelings" powerbroker (Newsweek).

* As for Rudy Giuliani, first there was the New York Times report that Andrew, the candidate's son from a previous marriage, had relationship issues with his old man ("Son Burned," screamed a New York Post headline). Then came a Vanity Fair hit piece that deconstructed Judith Giuliani, the candidate's current spouse. Most recently, Salon informed readers that his daughter, Caroline Giuliani, had an entry on the networking website Facebook in which she claimed be both a liberal and a Barack Obama supporter.


So what to make of this? To be fair, one could argue that Romney and Thompson led with their respective chins. In Romney's case, it was his own words that got him into trouble. Asked if it was inconsistent to support the Iraq war while his sons chose not to join the military, Romney responded, "My sons are all adults and they've made decisions about their careers and they've chosen not to serve in the military and active duty and I respect their decision in that regard."


But then he arguably went a step too far by adding, "One of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping me get elected because they think I'd be a great president."


As for Team Thompson, words aren't the problem. Rather, it's silence from within the still yet-to-launch campaign.


Jeri Thompson chooses not to talk to the press, which leaves reporters to two of their worst devices: blind quotes and personal biases. In that media vacuum, one of two stories inevitably results: either it's all about the spouse's blinding looks (she's blonde, attractive, and 25 years younger than her hubby) or blind ambition (she's a one-time political media consultant who, unattributed sources whisper, coaxed her reluctant husband into running).


So you can cut the media a little slack. What's not as justifiable is their treatment of Giuliani's personal life. Let's set aside the Vanity Fair article. After all, the magazine has a pathological distaste for Republicans in general and Giuliani in particular (It's worth noting that before slamming Judith Giuliani in its September issue, the June issue of Vanity Fair ran an article actually questioning the candidate's mental stability).

But was it ethical for the New York Times to track down Andrew Giuliani by phone at Duke University, which he currently attends, and pump him for information on his relationship with his father? Did the Times and other publications give the same hype to what Andrew had to say a couple of days later, after that initial outburst, on Good Morning America Weekend Edition: "I do not want to hurt him. No matter what he's done, I love my father . . ."


The problem for Giuliani would be that, in politics, it's often the first story that sticks and the damage control that goes unnoticed. The former ends up on Leno and Letterman; the latter drifts around the blogosphere. Thus, like John Edwards's haircuts, Mitt Romney's hunting gear and Barack Obama's plans for bombing Pakistan, the Giuliani campaign may be saddled for the rest of the campaign with the story that his children don't like him, they won't campaign for him, and they surely won't support him for president.


Then again, this could be the break Rudy is looking for as he seeks to burnish his conservative credentials.


In this, the race to replace George W. Bush, the Republican presidential candidates instead have made a beeline for Ronald Reagan. They've debated at his presidential library, espoused his principles, and all but loaded up on brown suits and Brylcreem in the quest to reproduce the 40th president's charm and savvy.


But for all of his success as a campaigner, Ronald Reagan had two handicaps. For one, the political scribes didn't care for his wife--many reporters dismissed Nancy Reagan as a dragon lady. Add to that the strained relationship between that president and his two biological children (in 1986, son Ron danced on Saturday Night Live in his underwear; daughter Patti didn't vote for her father in 1980, and later wrote a book in which she alleged that her father was cold and distant and that her mother was physically abusive).


Rudy Giuliani may or may not own a brown suit, and he definitely doesn't have much need for Brylcreem. Yet, ironically, he's the most "Reaganesque" of GOP candidates given the drama surrounding his wife and kids. Assuming that Rudy is Reaganesque in another way--ignore intrusive reporters, keep his personal life private, focus on big issues--he too can find success on the primary trail

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.