John McCain and the Invisible Brood

Sorry to keep returning to John McCain (have those words been uttered this year? Ever?), but I wanted to mention his family.

In a race largely defined by families—Romney’s sprawling brood, Giuliani’s mutinous children and torrid affairs, Obama’s diverse heritage, Edwards’ wife and her battle with cancer—McCain has kept his out of the limelight. Aside from his daughter Meghan, who assiduously documents the campaign (and, among other things, the fashion habits of Henry Kissinger) on her blog, McCain’s seven children have avoided the public eye. Nor does their father mention them, even in moments when it would serve his political interest. (His son, Jimmy, is currently serving in Iraq.) Here’s what McCain recently told the New York Times :

“It’s intentional,” he said. “I just feel it’s inappropriate for us to mention our children. I don’t want people to feel that, it’s just, I’d like them to have their own lives. I wouldn’t want to seem like I’m trying to gain some kind of advantage. I just feel that it’s a private thing.”

Compare that to Mitt Romney, McCain’s most recent antagonist . (It’s mutual .) Romney’s five sons have trailed him for the entire campaign, sometimes even holding their own events on his behalf. He constantly mentions ” strong families ” as one leg of the American “stool.” His emphasis on family serves two purposes: It woos the so-called “values voters” who might be squeamish about his Mormonism, and it gently tweaks Giuliani, whose children won’t come within 10 feet of him in public.

I’m not suggesting that McCain rejects the family man shtick as a slight against Romney. But the contrast is important. To drag your family onstage for a big happy photo is to play the game. (Even if, as this video suggests, they all agreed to it.) To decline to mention that your son is fighting in Iraq, even when mentioning it would be perfectly appropriate, is to reject the game and, presumably, those who play it.

McCain’s “authenticity” cred took a hit when he backpedaled on his comment in 2000 that Jerry Falwell was an “agent of intolerance.” But his refusal to drag his family into his campaign should count as one step, however small, toward restoring it. For all of Romney’s talk about respecting family, the ultimate sign of respect would be to leave them out of it.