A Post-Clinton Childhood
Though my oldest daughter, now seven, lives in New York and has a father who writes a column for one of the city’s tabloids, she does not know who Anthony Weiner is. She has never—never—watched the news, except when I’ve been on a cable channel for a few minutes here and there as a talking head. She reads headlines in the newspaper, but doesn’t inquire much about them. A few months ago she said she wanted to run a lemonade stand to help Japan, but she did not seem to know the details of the tragedy there. My daughter knows I edit this magazine, and she glances at the cover with interest—but knows it’s not for her and puts it down.
The point is that somehow she knows it’s all not for her. And she is fine with it. She has been raised with a sense that there is a clear bifurcation between the adults’ realm and the children’s realm, and she is perfectly happy staying in the one intended for her.
She decided in 2008 that I had voted for John McCain because his name is John and my name is John, and she says it still; she knows it’s more complicated than that now that she is no longer four years old, and so saying it is a form of teasing. If she chose, she could ask more, and I would answer her forthrightly, but she has not so chosen. And as she is actually a remarkably clever person, there is no question her choice is conscious and deliberate.
The same choice was unavailable to my wife and me when we were children. She watched the news every night with dinner; my parents and older sisters did little but talk politics. It would not have occurred to either of our families that this was inappropriate—because it wasn’t then. When I was my daughter’s age I certainly knew about Vietnam and the protests against it. She seems to have some vague knowledge that something is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, though perhaps not about Libya. I am sorry she doesn’t, because she should, because she is an American and she should know about the sacrifices other brave Americans are willing to make for the freedom and security she enjoys, even at the age of seven.
But allowing her to know about Iraq and Afghanistan by exposing her to the news in print, online, or on television means she will also come to know things she needn’t and shouldn’t—things about Anthony Weiner and his sexting and Tweeting, about Weiner’s former colleague Chris Lee and his search for transgendered company on Craigslist (which, in turn, means she would also come to know of Twitter and Craigslist, which is itself frightening).
This is what makes worldly knowledge different in our day from the time when my wife and I were young. It was possible then to learn about the world without learning about issues of the most private nature that bear no relation to a child’s experience and the knowledge of which would not inform a child’s experience or expand a child’s sense of things in any enlightening way.
And for this there is really only one man to blame.
It has become commonplace for conservatives as well as liberals to look back with some fondness at the presidency of Bill Clinton. As a parent of young children growing up in its wake, I look back on it with horror. Clinton’s appalling and undisciplined personal behavior precipitated the total collapse of the distinction between public and private, and gave implicit permission to the likes of Anthony Weiner (at whose marriage Clinton officiated), who might otherwise have felt themselves constrained by the existence of an implied common standard of conduct for public officials. Since the president Weiner worshipped allowed himself leeway, why shouldn’t Weiner?
I’ll tell you why.
Because of my kids, that’s why.