“Republicans trust parents and believe that they, not courts and lawyers, know what is best for their children.”
So declares the 1992 Republican platform. This ancient document works itself up into quite a froth over what it calls “parental authority.” Republicans in those days were specifically alarmed over the notion that children have legal rights independent of their parents—and might even be allowed to bring lawsuits that would break up the nuclear family. “For more than three decades,” we learn, “the liberal philosophy has assaulted the family on every side. Today, its more vocal advocates … deny parental authority and responsibility, fracturing the family into isolated individuals, each of them dependent upon—and helpless before—government. This is the ultimate agenda of contemporary socialism under all its masks,” no less.
Even in a generally hysterical tract, this emphasis on the less-than-pressing issue of lawsuits by children stands out as a bit odd. The explanation is that it was part of an effort to make Hillary Clinton that year’s Willie Horton: a symbol of wretched liberal excess. As a law student, Hillary Rodham had published an article arguing that children have legal rights and in some circumstances they should indeed be allowed to sue for separation from their parents. Speaker after speaker at the convention that renominated George H.W. Bush warned that if Hillary’s husband was elected president, children would soon be suing their parents for making them do their homework or take out the trash. The Clintons and other Democrats responded that the article was being grotesquely misrepresented (which it was). They weren’t about to be trapped defending an idea as un-American as children’s independent legal rights.
You see where this is going, of course. But wait: It gets better. The Republicans tried to use a specific case to illustrate the depraved, socialistic road the Hillaryites were leading the country down. It involved a 12-year-old Florida boy who was suing for the right to remain with a foster family rather than return to his natural parents (or suing to “divorce” his parents, as the headline and talk-show shorthand had it). His mother had repeatedly abandoned him and was living with a man with a criminal record who had recently been arrested for allegedly beating her. His father, the suit alleged, was an alcoholic who had abandoned the family. But the GOP party line was that a 12-year-old was far too young to decide he’d rather not live with such people and that anyone who wanted lawyers and government to keep these parents apart from their child was a liberal sociopath.
Autres temps, autres moeurs. The harvest of ironic counterpoint from this past Sunday’s news and talk shows alone is almost too rich to bear. Republican critics needed a reason why, after five months of fruitless negotiation and brazen defiance of the law by the Miami contingent, Juan Miguel González’s obviously loving “parental authority” should not be honored. Most of them grasped onto the circuit court ruling that 6-year-old Elián may have an independent legal right to live in the United States, against his father’s wish.
There was Rudy Giuliani, of all people, emoting sensitively about the “traumatic damage” that can be caused by forceful police action. (Besides the rule of law and “family values,” the whole realm of psychobabble is a subject on which Republicans are sounding distinctly un-Republican these days.) Hillary Clinton’s Senate-race opponent declared that Elián’s “rights” had been “trampled.” He stated flatly that, “This boy is entitled to an asylum application in the United States.”
Kate O’Beirne, professional Hillary-hater and possibly the most reliable right-wing apparatchik on television: “The child has rights separately distinct from his father.”
House Republican Whip Tom DeLay, endorsing the court ruling, declared the Elián case to be a custody battle just like “what I have been involved in with my wife.” That ‘92 platform failed to explain that a great-uncle has the same “parental authority” as a mother or father.
Perhaps most sublimely, there was Newt Gingrich, reduced to subbing for some Fox News host who wouldn’t have been allowed to carry Newt’s ego around behind him in a wheelbarrow back in 1992. After Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Miami, and therefore not guilty on grounds of constituents’ insanity) stated that the courts had given “little Elián” the right to asylum, Gingrich forgot to remind her that “Republicans trust parents and believe that they, not courts and lawyers, know what is best for their children.” Instead, he criticized Janet Reno’s timing on the adorable grounds that “This is a time for Easter egg hunts. This is a time for the Easter bunny.”
George W. Bush also seems to believe in the Easter bunny. He said he was “profoundly saddened and troubled that the administration was not able to negotiate a resolution and instead decided to use force.” It would be good to know how much longer than five months President W. would be willing to negotiate and whether he plans to conduct many negotiations by giving up all his leverage in advance. It used to be that Republicans had a better handle on this sort of thing.
All these critics of the operation that reunited father and son seemed more than open to the possibility that the government, or a 6-year-old child, or strangers such as themselves, might all be better judges of the child’s welfare than the child’s one surviving parent. And they may even be right about that. No one ever thought of this particular scenario back in ‘92. Maybe it’s an exception. But then, maybe there are other exceptions, too. In fact, maybe if you’ve been self-righteously indignant on both sides of an issue, you should conclude that it’s not an issue about which self-righteous indignation is called for.
And maybe you should apologize to Hillary.
Clarification, April 25: Rep. Tom DeLay and his wife work with children’s charities; they are not personally involved in a custody battle.