Back when men were men and women were women, conservatives were conservative on the subject of child abuse. That is, they were in favor of it. “We all got the belt that night,” Pat Buchanan wrote in his autobiography, describing his father’s preferred form of punishment. On Crossfire, Buchanan could always be counted upon to defend the educational advantages of a good lashing, whether in Singapore or Chevy Chase. In Depression-era Russell, Kan., it was Bob Dole’s mother, Bina, who acquainted her children with the salubrious effects of the strap on Saturday afternoons. For Republicans, a sound whipping always meant good values.
Those days, it appears, are gone. With Shine and Sling Blade–films about men damaged by their abusive fathers–nominated for Best Picture, and Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss moving up the best-seller list, conservatives want to tell you: We were abused too. As adult children of alcoholics, sons of deadbeat dads, witnesses to battered-spouse syndrome, and victims of every sort of paddling and walloping and thwacking, Republicans are no longer ceding ground to Bill Clinton when it comes to feeling the pain of a dysfunctional nation.
The latest example of this weird phenomenon is Dan Burton, the super-right-wing representative from Indiana who is set to run the House investigation into Democratic fund-raising practices. (Burton is the one with the Vince Foster fetish whose AIDS hypochondria prevents him from eating soup in restaurants.) In a profile in the Washington Post last week, Burton recounted the story he has told before–in People, among other places–of how his father, a 6-foot-8-inch, 280-pound bully, used to pummel the whole family. Charles Burton hit his son for getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and hit him for wetting his bed if he didn’t get up to go. When Burton was an infant, his father beat him black and blue for crying in a movie theater. After his wife tried to leave him, Charles Burton abducted her. Charged with kidnapping, he was convicted and spent two years in prison. When he got out of prison and came around to where the family lived, Dan Burton, age 14, faced him down with a shotgun.
Burton first raised the subject of his experiences to underscore his support for a bill to aid battered wives. Now he is deploying his pain in a legislatively less specific way, to try to show that he is not the reactionary bogeyman most people think he is. One doesn’t wish to indicate any lack of sympathy for what sounds like a truly wretched and brutal childhood. But if we are to draw a lesson from Burton’s story, it is not that he is a sympathetic and caring man because of his experiences, but rather that he is working out an inherited disposition to abuse children on a more ambitious level. It was Burton who advocated using nuclear weapons against Iraq during the Gulf War. He doesn’t beat his own three kids–he just wants to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent Arabs.
Burton has company that includes the Republican leaders in both houses. Trent Lott, the Senate Majority Leader, is not the kind of fellow who wears his heart on his sleeve, so it came as something of a shock when, several weeks ago, he revealed his own wretched childhood to a reporter for the New York Times Magazine. Lott’s father, a shipyard worker in Pascagoula, Miss., was an alcoholic who died in a drunken-driving accident in 1969. “That sort of problem does affect you. You are forced into problems between your mother and your father. It makes you grow up maybe a little early,” Lott said. But he added that his wasn’t a dysfunctional family. “After I was 4 or 5 years old, I don’t think my father ever laid a hand on me.”
Most Republicans must be satisfied with one abusive father. Newt Gingrich had two. According to various profiles, his natural father, Newton McPherson, stayed out late at the pool hall one night soon after marrying Newt’s mom. When McPherson’s young bride tried to wake him the next morning to go to work, he slugged her. The next man she married, Bob Gingrich, was not physically abusive, but he was cold and uncommunicative toward his stepchildren. Newt has compared him to the Great Santini, the inflexible military father in Pat Conroy’s novel. “It was a sort of classic broken home,” he has said. When Newt, age 19, married his high-school math teacher against his stepfather’s wishes, Bob Gingrich not only refused to come to the wedding, he wouldn’t let Newt’s mother or sisters attend, either.
Moving to the back benches, one finds Jim Nussle, a Republican House member from Iowa, dealing with his anger over an absent father. “I have a deadbeat father I have never met,” Nussle said on the House floor in 1995, arguing for a provision to compel states to get tougher on child-support collection or risk losing federal aid. “I don’t want to have anybody else go through it.” On his side in support of the measure was another Republican representative, John Ensign of Nevada, who told of his own father abandoning his family, forcing Ensign’s mother to support three children by working as a “change girl” in a Las Vegas casino.
When Republicans start talking about being neglected and abused, you can bet that they’re about to violate some sacrosanct conservative principle like states’ rights or the need to shrink government. “I’m a conservative,” Nussle said, apropos of the issue of child-support enforcement, “and when I hear people talk about states’ rights, I say, ‘Hold it, guys, there is a duty here for the federal government.’ ” Burton used the same phraseology when explaining his willingness to intervene against domestic violence, despite the otherwise highly constricted role he sees for the federal government. “I’m not advocating more government or Big Brother in Washington trying to solve the problem,” he said. “But I’m not saying that government shouldn’t have a role in trying to get the job done.” The exceptions to conservative orthodoxy that these Republicans carve out are victim-specific, narrowly tailored to their own miseries. Burton is anti-abuse, but doesn’t fret about missed child-support payments. Nussle, by contrast, wants to punish deadbeat dads, but not abusive ones; he’s a co-sponsor of the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act, which says it’s fine to smack the kids (the phrase used is “reasonable corporal discipline”).
These little contradictions aside, one wonders why stodgy Caucasian Republicans are playing the victimology card at all. The basic explanation: the powerful lure of what Wendy Kaminer calls the Recovery Movement. A decade ago, politicians didn’t boast about being abused. They all sounded like Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan. In the early 1980s, even Bill Clinton ran a TV ad in which he folksily asserted, “My daddy never had to whip me twice for the same thing.” By 1992, Clinton was telling the country about how he stood up to that same daddy for slapping his mom around. Republicans, a little behind in the game, are trying to say, “We feel your pain too.” They’re finally cottoning on to the political value of the confessional culture. With their party intellectually adrift, the appeal of this style of content-free, Oprah-fied populism continues to grow for them.
Or maybe there’s a simpler explanation. These guys need professional help, but are afraid to be seen near a psychiatrist’s office. Pouring their hearts out to reporters is the only therapy Republican politicians can get.