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Fair Game?

Are families out of bounds in politics? A newspaper columnist's recent unflattering piece on Anita Perry has what passes for a Royal Court at the Capitol debating that question.

Inaugural of Texas Governor Rick Perry on the south steps of the Texas Capitol 01-18-11.

Are families out of bounds in politics?

Start here: A newspaper humor columnist — a phrase found in a surprising number of journalism controversies — at the Austin American-Statesman wrote either a tasteless and sexist, or an edgy and funny, column on Anita Perry, the first lady (headline: “Somebody needs to goose Anita Perry to get a smile out of her”).

John Kelso’s column quickly became the talk of what passes for a Royal Court at the Capitol — the lobbyists and consultants and reporters and staffers who traffic in political gossip. And that quickly morphed into a conversation about who is and who isn’t a fair target of public comment.

Here’s one view: How dare the media or anyone else go after a noncombatant like Anita Perry, who’s not the politician in her house and who, by the way, is a decent person who doesn’t deserve a snark attack. Feel free to figuratively fold, spindle and mutilate the governor, who signed up for the gig. But observe the unwritten laws and leave the family out of it.

Another: This sort of thing is as old as the rumors that Mary Todd Lincoln was, um, difficult. Or the occasional stories about various offspring of various Bushes; or Chelsea Clinton; or whom Jack Ford was dating, or which child of Ronald Reagan was misbehaving. Don’t forget Billy Carter. And have you heard of Bristol Palin?

Or this: If the state’s taxpayers are going to pay for a press aide for the first lady and she’s going to do some official or semi-official events, political or governmental, on behalf of the governor, isn’t she opening the door to this?

Like other unwritten rules, this one’s hard to nail down. It’s difficult to argue the family is off limits when someone breaks out in a public way: getting arrested; trading on the power or position of the family politician; jumping into the political fray themselves; or pulling a “do you know who I am?” But there are ways to limit the exposure of family members when mom or dad chooses politics as a profession.

Three of Ann Richards’ children kept relatively low profiles while she was governor and after she left office, while one, Cecile, got into politics and public life on her own. Her choice. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton have been political figures all along, from their Arkansas days to Washington — fair game, as it were — but did what they could to keep their daughter out of it (and Rush Limbaugh arguably got the worst of it when he boorishly went after her on his show). George and Laura Bush sheltered their daughters as best they could. (That got tested when their underage daughters were caught drinking in public.)

The rules are different (and also unwritten) in campaigns, where voters are looking at a candidate’s character. Is the spouse a criminal? Do the kids take drugs? Are the pets house-trained? In that forum, almost anything that reflects well or poorly on the candidate can get into the mix.

But once voters are done, there’s an assumption that the families are off limits until and unless they make news. Anita Perry’s infraction? There wasn’t one, except that the look on her face in a particular photograph provided the columnist with an opportunity to make her imagined displeasure the vehicle for a swipe at her husband.

That proximity thing can work. President Obama gave a State of the Union address Tuesday night while behind him, on camera, Vice President Joe Biden was mugging for members of the audience and John Boehner looked like a man fully engaged with a kidney stone. But they’re both combatants, and easy prey for comics.

There’s a difference between being in politics and being near politics. Which is Anita Perry? You’ll find a “First Lady” link at the top of the governor’s state Web site, with pages for her priorities, her news releases and her blog. Her bio is also on his campaign’s Web site. But there are a lot of people in Austin who think that Anita Perry isn’t in the game. Maybe this episode will provide an unwritten amendment to the unwritten rule.

There’s a great line from E. B. White about humor — that it, like poetry, plays “close to the big hot fire which is Truth. And sometimes the reader feels the heat.”

Sometimes, it’s the humorist who gets burned.

It would’ve helped, maybe, if it had been funny.

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Politics Ann Richards