Politics: A family affair

A six-pack — think beer, not abs — hangs around the waist of a Senate leader’s college-age son in one photo. In another, the too-young daughter of a House candidate drinks alcohol. A Senate hopeful’s daughter shares an embrace and kiss with a woman in a third photo.

“Buy one, get one free,” was how Bill Clinton summarized his campaign when he first ran for president in 1992, speaking of himself and wife, Hillary, as sort of a package deal. In politics, though, it’s really more like “buy one, get the whole family” — warts and all.

“It’s been a double-edged sword for history,” says author Robert P. Watson. “Family members can be a big asset for a campaign and family members can be a big liability for a campaign.”

Photos of newsmakers’ children doing unthinkable things aren’t new. What is new is that these photos showed up on the Internet, which feeds an audience far broader than the candidate’s local newspaper. The photos also highlight the role — positive or negative — of the Internet in modern politics.

The pictures originally were posted on the social networking Web sites Facebook and MySpace, according to the gossip site Wonkette, which got the snapshots and put them on its own site.

The networking sites, popular with teens, do more than just help them keep in touch. The sites act like electronic versions of the dreaded supermarket tabloid, spreading teen embarrassment farther, faster.

Imagine if MySpace were around when George W. Bush was “young and stupid” and Bill Clinton partied without inhaling. Some of tomorrow’s leaders are building portfolios today that may haunt them down the road. Instead of being outed by the paparazzi, these kids seem happy to expose their own exploits on the Web for themselves — even when Dad is running for office.

In the photos, Jonathan Frist, the middle son of retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, wears a belt that holds six cans of beer.

Julia Corker, the daughter of Republican Senate hopeful Bob Corker of Tennessee, is hugging and kissing a woman.

Andrea Ellsworth, the 19-year-old daughter of Brad Ellsworth, sheriff of Vanderburgh County, Ind., is drinking beer. A supporter of Ellsworth’s opponent, Republican Rep. John Hostettler (news, bio, voting record), alerted the local media to the pictures after the sheriff announced his campaign in February.

Two children of Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., appeared in similar photos.

Briana Bilbray, 19, holds a Corona beer in one shot. In another, she sits on the floor beside an open cooler, with beer bottles lined up nearby. Separately, brother Patrick, 21, appears sleepy-eyed, flashing a thumbs-up and sporting a cap that says “Town Drunk.”

None of the behavior seems to have hurt their parents’ political aspirations.

Frist already had decided to retire at year’s end. Corker, winner of Tennessee’s Republican Senate primary, hopes to succeed Frist. Ellsworth was unopposed for the Democratic nomination.

The photos of Bilbray’s children surfaced after he won the right in June to serve out the term of Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who is in prison for taking defense contractors’ bribes. Bilbray, a surfer, is expected to coast to a full, two-year term in November.

Sandra L. Quinn-Musgrove, who wrote a book about White House children, said people should worry more about the politicians and their behavior than the children of politicians.

She said of Julia Corker: “If her father was caught kissing a girl, then we’d have a problem.”

Watson, who has written books about presidents and their families and teaches political science at Florida Atlantic University, said some of the behavior caught on camera could be “rebelliousness” against parents who spend long hours away from home.

“We all make mistakes as a kid and the teenage years are so fraught with anxiety as it is. I can’t imagine the pressure,” Watson said of growing up in a public family.

After the photos of his daughter became a public issue, Ellsworth said he did not condone underage drinking and promised to handle the matter privately.

“Wouldn’t this be a nice place to live if everyone made a perfect decision every day of their life?” he offered. “Like President Bush, who has also had to deal with issues like this with his own college-age daughters, I realize no one is perfect.”

Months after becoming president in January 2001, Bush’s twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, then 19, had highly publicized run-ins with the law for alcohol-related offenses at home in Texas.

Their cousins — children of Bush’s brother Jeb, Florida’s governor — have run afoul of the law, too.

All four of President Reagan’s children gave him heartburn. Son Ron quit Yale to become a ballet dancer and daughter Patti Davis wrote a tell-all memoir and posed nude for Playboy magazine.

Embarrassments aside, relatives can be political assets, too. They often help spread the campaign message, either in person or on TV, raise money and provide advice and support.

Bush relied on his extensive family ties during both presidential campaigns. His wife, brothers and sister, famous parents, his daughters and at least one nephew all campaigned for him.

“For better or for worse, kin are part of the story,” Watson said.


On the Net:

Corker site: http://www.bobcorkerforsenate.com  

Ellsworth site: http://www.ellsworthforcongress.com  

Bilbray site: http://www.bilbrayforcongress.com  

Wonkette site: http://www.wonkette.com

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press