Where the boys aren’t

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by Jeff Fecke • Barack and Michelle Obama are the parents of two girls. This is not news to you; Sasha and Malia Obama are going to be the youngest kids in the White House since Amy Carter, and while Barack and Michelle deserve credit for keeping them reasonably seqestered from media scrutiny (because kids should be off-limits), they seem like decent kids from what anecdotes have come out.

Jeff Fecke is a freelance writer who lives in Eagan, Minnesota.In addition to his own blog, Blog of the Moderate Left, he also contributes to Alas, a Blog, Minnesota Campaign Report, and AlterNet. Fecke has appeared as a guest on The Today Show, the Alan Colmes radio show, and the Mark Heaney Show. Fecke is divorced, and the father of one really terrific daughter. His debut novel, The Valkyrie’s Tale, is now available.

That Sasha and Malia are girls, though, is relatively normal for the White House. For some reason — most likely random chance, given the small universe of people we’re talking about — presidents who’ve had kids in the White House have tended to have girls. Dubya had Jenna and Barbara (for a little while, anyway), Bill Clinton had Chelsea, Jimmy Carter had Amy. Gerry Ford had three older sons, but his daughter, Susan, was the only child left when he was in the white house. Dick Nixon had Trisha and Julie; you have to go back to John F. Kennedy, who had John-John and Caroline, to find a presidential son who was of the right age to grow up in the White House.

Of course, that doesn’t mean presidents haven’t had sons. Dubya’s dad obviously did, and so did Reagan and Ford. Kennedy did, and so did Eisenhower. It’s just that with the exception of Kennedy, the sons haven’t been quite at the right age to be White House kids.

Melissa McEwan puts forth a reasonable theory to explain this — men with daughters tend to be more feminist and better able to relate to women, and therefore better able to win the votes of women — but the truth is probably more prosaic. People who run for president tend to be at least in their 50s. At 47, Barack Obama will be the fifth-youngest president in American history. It’s simple math that the older you are, the older your children are likely to be. Ronald Reagan had sons, but given Reagan’s age when he took office, it’s unsurprising that those sons were grown-ups. Given that most of the men to serve as president in the past fifty years were older than 55 when they took office, it’s hardly a shock that a good chunk of them didn’t have kids in the White House. Of the six who will have as of January, one will have had a boy and a girl, two a girl who was an only child, two will have had two sisters, and one will have had one girl — but one with three older brothers. In other words, we’re hardly talking about anything other than an apparent statistical fluke.

Or maybe it’s just that boys suck, as Belinda Luscombe argues in the pages of Time:

So why no modern manlings in the east wing? I have a theory, born of careful historical analysis and solipsism: It’s impossible to be elected to the White House if you have young sons, because that would mean you have to campaign with them.

Campaigning and raising sons are mutually exclusive. Campaigning requires lots of travel, enormous amounts of time in the public eye and months and months of sitting down quietly listening to the same guy talking while wearing your good clothes. It’s like 11 straight months of being in church when you’re the preacher’s kid — with long car rides in between. It’s torture on adults, let alone children. But it’s worse for boys. Try this experiment: next month ask your son to be on his best behavior in front of other people, from now until November 2009. See how far you get.

To be fair, you won’t get very far asking a son to be good for nine months. Of course, you won’t get very far asking your daughter to be good for nine months, and anyone who thinks you will has obviously never met a little girl. Kids are kids — they do dumb things, act out from time to time, and generally misbehave. And that’s good, because they’re kids, and that’s how they learn what misbehaviors will get them in trouble and what misbehaviors won’t.

“Boys are generally more competitive, risk-taking and defiant, which makes them less manageable,” says Meg Meeker M.D., author of Boys Should be Boys and Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters. And the 24/7 scrutiny of the modern campaign makes every small risky and defiant act a public affair. So if you get a little bored of what dad’s saying, because he’s dad and you’ve heard it eleventy million times before, you end up here.

Yes, Andrew Giuliani was a rapscallion in that video, which I remember as being an endearing thing; certainly more endearing than the fact that a decade or so later, Andrew all-but-disowned his own father over Rudy’s serial infidelity and mistreatment of his mother. Certainly, of all the things that I think of as being embarassments to Rudy, his son being a kid when his son was a kid is at the bottom of the list.

The Obama campaign was noted for its discipline, its rigor and its self control: three things most young boys are not noted for. Of course, Obama didn’t take Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, everywhere he campaigned. But long fatherly absences may make the boys even more likely to be unhelpful. “If dad’s away on the campaign trail a lot, [boys’] tendencies towards defiance and impulsivity are exacerbated,” says Meeks.

Young girls, on the other hand, can be an asset to a candidate’s image. “There’s definitely something in the father daughter-relationship that makes being in the public eye much easier,” says Meeks. “Girls want to please their mothers and particularly their fathers. Their dads can take their daughters places and do things with them and the girls won’t act out.”

Oh, really? I see, so when my daughter refuses to listen to me and get her coat on, despite my telling her to do it seventy-five times, that’s her trying to please me? Don’t get me wrong, I have the best kid ever, but she’s more than capable of being defiant when she wants to be. So are the Obama kids. You may recall that when Barack Obama bought his informercial, he said Sasha’s first question was whether it would pre-empt Disney. Certainly, she wasn’t looking out for her dad’s welfare there; she was being an ordinary kid.

What the Obama campaign did with their children was to minimize their time in the spotlight; yes, Sasha and Malia would show up from time to time, but by and large, the campaign let them go to school and live reasonably normal lives. If the kids had been Sasha and Barack III, I suspect that the results would have been much the same — we would have seen the kids from time to time, they’d be cute, as kids are wont to be, we’d hear stories about the kids wanting a puppy when they got to the White House and occasionally playfully ribbing their dad — you know, exactly what we’ve heard thus far.

The simple truth is that boys aren’t beasts who are going to run amok at a minute provocation, any more than girls are perfect, pristine creatures who never raise their voices above mezzo-piano. Kids are kids — rambunctious, goofy kids. And they are more than capable of being beastly or pristine at any given time, just like adults. And that has nothing to do with gender.

originally published December 26, 2008