Political Children

By Kate Smith

Far from looking bewildered, nine-year-old Malia Ann Obama and her little sister Natasha, seven, bestrode the podium in Denver with all the confidence of two children oblivious to the nature, scale and significance of the situation.

As Barack Obama’s family walked into the history books at the US Democratic convention, the children were pristine, courteous and waved sweetly at the audience.

Unfazed as they were by the world’s TV cameras and thousands of flashbulbs, a question emerges – how did Michelle and “Barry” get them to behave like that? The thought of appearing on any political stage with my children makes my blood run cold.

The limitless capacity of a child to undo you means the risks are higher than giving your personal data and bank details to the government. Unfettered by the constraints of self-awareness and self-doubt, children have the ability to cut to the chase, tell it how it is and prick the bubble of delusion and hubris that adults require just to get through life, let alone a political career.

Political children are props, totems of reliability, dependability, normality and religious values. They symbolise family values and an unspoken virility. As politicos parade their children, they present an idealised version of the parent-child relationship.

The impact on the child is often an afterthought. Some wither in the shadow of a parent who is a world leader. Others may even be paying attention and, after an apprenticeship served at their parent’s knee, go into the family business, take public office and form a political dynasty like the Bushes, the Kennedys or even the likes of Hilary Benn, son of Tony and now a Cabinet minister.

The life of political offspring is not an easy one. While political spouses have the choice to opt in to the deal, the children find out the hard way that you cannot choose your family, and cannot even opt out.

As for getting uproariously drunk, stumbling out of a club at 3am and puking on the pavement, well we only have to look at Euan Blair’s rap sheet to know it’s a cruel world.

As a fresh-faced 16-year-old, Euan was arrested for being drunk and incapable in 2000. He gave his name at the police station as Euan John, his age as 18 and an old address. Typical behaviour for a teenager, but this came only days after Tony Blair had made a speech on drunkenness and advocated on-the-spot fines.

Then there’s Jenna Bush, who in 2001 was charged for possessing alcohol under the age of 21. All very well, but it gave the media an opportunity to wheel out her father President George W Bush’s battle with the bottle and ask if she was a chip off the old block.

A month later she was charged again, for attempting to use fake ID to buy alcohol. Images of her sticking her tongue out at photographers sealed her reputation as a bad girl.

But rebelling might be the only chance a political child may have of retaining an identity or their integrity in the face of the enlarged super-ego of their parent.

Carol Thatcher, now 55, still strives to carve out her own identity through reality shows, books and interviews. As a working journalist in her twenties and thirties, many editors refused to use her own name on the byline, so she was left nameless.

Like Jenna Bush, Carol has a golden twin – Sir Mark Thatcher, her mother’s favourite. While Mark was leading a glamorous jet-set existence, Carol created outrage when it was discovered she had failed to pay her poll tax in 1991.

While Sir Mark fled South Africa after an alleged involvement in a failed coup in Equatorial Guinea, Carol hit the headlines for refusing to admit urinating in the middle of the camp on the TV show I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here!

Even her journalism is framed by her relationship with her mother. In 2007, Carol travelled to Argentina to make a documentary on the legacy of the Falklands conflict called Mummy’s War. Her life and career suggest that political children are destined always to be a satellite to the parent’s mother ship.

The cynicism with which children can be used in politics would be bearable if only the parents paid the price. In some cases, political children have even been used to conceal the truth.

When, at the height of the mad cow disease scare in 1990, Tory agriculture minister John Gummer desperately tried to persuade his four-year-old daughter, Cordelia, to eat a beefburger to prove British beef was safe to eat. It was a photo opportunity to make the hardiest of souls wince. She wisely refused. When Carol Thatcher’s ex, Jonathan Aitken, was convicted of perjury and perverting the course of justice in 1999 and jailed for 18 months, it is alleged he had been prepared to have his teenage daughter, Victoria, lie under oath for him.

As for Malia Ann and Natasha Obama, they face the possibility of eight years at the White House if their father attains the maximum two terms, emerging as 17 and 15-year-olds respectively. It’s not as free as being a celebrity’s child, like Peaches Geldof, because a politician’s child has to learn very quickly at a young age that there is a potential political cost for everything they do. The burden of high office often rests on small shoulders.