January 17, 2013
President Obama, wife and daughters
President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia and Sasha board Air Force One on Nov. 7, 2012. (Jewel Samaad/AFP/Getty Images)

Readers of opinionated columnists have every right to question whether a given commentator adheres to a single standard, or instead applies one standard to politicians he agrees with and a different standard to those with whom he disagrees.

This is for those readers. In my most recent column, I used the word “vile” to describe the NRA’s advertisement that used “Secret Service protection for the president’s daughters to make a small-minded political point.” I don’t expect much from the gun manufacturers’ lobby, but I was still astounded that they would even get into the question of insuring the safety of a president’s kids. No one ever raised this issue about previous presidents – and rightly so.

But I have a broader objection: The lives of a president’s children, particularly minor children, should be out of bounds for public discussion, whether in advertisements or in the media, unless those kids exploit the parent/president’s power in an inappropriate way.

I made this case about Chelsea Clinton, and I made exactly the same case about then-President George W. Bush’s daughters back in 2001, when they received some bad publicity. Here is part of what I wrote in a Post op-ed published on June 5, 2001:

[T]here is absolutely no case for wide public scrutiny of two 19-year-olds who did not themselves choose to run for office, have not sought to cash in on their father’s fame, and seem inclined to preserve their privacy.

The question of whether journalists should cover the children of politicians is often miscast. The choice to minimize coverage is often said to be a way of “protecting” the politicians. It is nothing of the sort. It is a way of protecting their kids. Deciding to run for office does not mean you waive your children’s rights.

In fairness, both Bush and former President Clinton have been careful not to exploit their children nearly as much as some politicians have. But even in the worst cases, if the media use such exploitation as an excuse to violate the privacy of those children, we are merely compounding the exploitation.

…. Those who opposed impeachment [of President Clinton] on the ground that there’s a distinction between a politician’s public and private lives should be more sensitive than anyone to the privacy rights of Bush and, especially, of his daughters. If you believed that too much attention was paid to Clinton’s personal life, surely you must believe that Bush’s daughters should get all the breaks now.

Regular readers of this column know it gives me no particular pleasure to agree with Ari Fleischer, Bush’s top spokesman. But Fleischer is correct that there is no public right to know what Bush told his daughters about their recent troubles. Most journalists believe this. That’s why, absent new fuel, this story will flicker out.

To make Bush’s life more difficult because of what he’s doing on taxes, the environment, energy, judicial appointments and a slew of other matters is honorable. To make his daughters’ lives more difficult is not.

An amusing side note: This column was the only one I wrote through the entirety of the Bush presidency for which I received a thank you call from Ari Fleischer. That’s no knock on Ari. On the contrary: (1.) I don’t expect thank you calls from White House press secretaries, period, and they make journalists uncomfortable anyway; and (2.) if I had been Ari Fleisher, I would not have seen much else to thank me for, given what I wrote when Bush was in office.

But that’s the point: This should be a thoroughly non-partisan, non-ideological question. A politician’s kids should be left free to live their lives. Shame on the NRA for violating a rule that has largely held even during our most divisive moments.

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”