By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Political campaigns require at least as much care and feeding as babies, which is a good reason not to try to manage both at the same time. Those who work in politics are well aware of the dangers of trying to juggle two whiny, unpredictable and demanding creatures at once.
That's why they often plan their babies around the election cycle.
Reader! Lest you be appalled at the idea of scheduling conception around something so profane as politics, consider the specter of having to use a breast pump on a campaign bus.
"I don't think anybody has a child during an election year," says Nicole McCleskey, a Republican pollster, and by "anybody," McCleskey means people like her, people whose lives are dominated by two- and four-year cycles. They shoot for off years, like 2005 -- when McCleskey's son was born.
Off years are a sacred time for political people, the temporal equivalent of having one's BlackBerry on vibrate. They are a time for rest and renewal, for creating the tiny creatures who will grow up to be the campaign aides and reporters and pollsters and strategists who will ensure that bales of hay continue to fulfill their destiny as stage props, and that diners in Manchester, N.H., remain cliches of small-town America.
Some people don't quite get it.
"People say sort of coyly, 'So are you going to have another one? When are you going to have another one?' " says Luiza Savage, 32, Washington correspondent for the Canadian newsweekly Maclean's, who has a toddler with her husband, who also covers politics.
"And I say, 'After the next election.' And they laugh, and I say, 'No, really. After the next election.' "
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People plan their children around all sorts of milestones, like finishing law degrees or turning 30. But the caffeine-fueled and over-scheduled folks who work in politics might be, if not a different species entirely, a few genetic tweaks away from everyone else. They travel more and see less. Leaving behind their families and any hope of proper sleep, they give their all to one person, getting to know this person's foibles and peculiar habits, scheduling this person's breakfasts and drilling him or her on the proper pronunciation of "Ahmadinejad."
Preparation and prognostication are their livelihood. People who do quality time by appointment are less inclined to leave reproduction to chance. They are kings of the calendar.
Thus, if an inordinate number of Mike McElwain's friends have children who were born in the off years of 2003 and 2005, why should anyone be surprised? McElwain is former political director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, now a consultant. His daughter was born in 2005.
"It was perfect because she was born September 30th in an off year," he says. "And it was perfect because she was born when Congress was almost out of session."
Laine Kaplowitz, 30, a publicist for Landmark Theatres, is married to Rick Klein, who writes the Note, ABC's political blog. Their wedding was in 2005, an off year, naturally. As for children?
"All my friends are having kids now and they're like, 'Oh, when are you guys going to get on board?' " Kaplowitz says. But "I'm not going into labor and having him not be there because the big story is about to happen."
(Though babies born to political parents around Election Day do yield great hospital room capers. More on this later.)
Michael Udwin, an obstetrician and gynecologist affiliated with Georgetown University Hospital, says timing is a huge topic among his patients, who try to push their pregnancies up or back depending on the political cycle. But their field poses geographic difficulties in addition to temporal ones. Udwin's political patients travel a lot and are not always in the same city as their spouses when they want to start trying. Even in this modern age, proximity to one's partner is still a prerequisite for making babies, at least the natural way.
"I joke about saying, 'If you're in Philly, he's in D.C., you guys can meet in between just so you can go ahead and start to have your family,' " Udwin says.
Rob Autry, a Republican pollster, married his wife, who works for the State Department, in 2002. When they decided to have their first kid, "we made sure that we weren't going to accidentally have the child in November or October of an election year," Autry says. "We looked at the schedule and said, 'We can't get pregnant before this date. . . . This is when we can do it and be in the clear.' "
The 2000 presidential recount taught our nation -- and its would-be parents -- that elections may not end when they're supposed to. Therefore, Autry says, November of an election year can no longer be considered a safe month in which to have a child. He and his wife aimed for December 2004 or later, and through what he calls "a little bit of luck and a little bit of planning," they managed to have their first son in January 2005. This gave Autry a grace period after the election to do things he'd put on hold, like help get the baby's room ready and go to a birthing class with his wife.
"Wednesday after the election in 2004, I wake up and my wife is giving me a list of 15 things we have to do now," Autry says.
The election cycle so dominates the lives of political people that it is like the seasons, a way of thinking about the future and ordering the past. Political people vacation in August, when Congress is out, or in the fall, after elections. They marry in odd-numbered years.
A Republican media consultant calls a reporter in a panic to correct something he had said a few days before. He was married in April 2005, not April 2007.
"Everything runs on two-year cycles and they run together," he says, asking that his name not be used in connection with this mistake to preserve marital harmony.
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Even when everything goes as planned, politics still happens in off years. Savage, the Maclean's writer, remembers 2005, when she was "seven months pregnant and flying in the back in a center seat in coach class on a flight from Washington to Sacramento to cover some Arnold Schwarzenegger story. And I thought my back was going to snap."
And let's not even discuss what happens if you work on elections overseas. Okay, let's discuss it.
Pete Brodnitz, a Democratic pollster and strategist, successfully planned to have his second son in December 2000. "December is the ideal month," Brodnitz says, because elections are over.
But during his wife's pregnancy, Brodnitz was working in an Asian country that follows the parliamentary system. The election kept getting moved later and his wife kept getting bigger. Brodnitz traveled home to be with his wife at the end of her pregnancy and to witness the birth of his son. A few weeks later, he had to leave his newborn and get on a flight back to Asia.
Those whose babies have come in the midst of the cycle
tell fabulous stories. Mitch Bainwol, now CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, tells of running the 1994 reelection campaign for Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and giving a quote over the phone to a reporter as his wife -- in labor in her hospital bed -- made a slashing motion across her throat.
"Gotta go," Bainwol remembers saying. Their second child was born about 10 minutes later, he says.
That baby, incidentally, was induced to come early. The due date was a few days after the 1994 election, and Bainwol's wife, a nurse, decided to have the baby a few days beforehand so Bainwol could be present for both the birth of his child and for the victory of his candidate.
Democratic operative Paul Begala and his wife did the same thing in July 2000, when they moved up the delivery date of their fourth son by a day so Begala could make it to the Republican convention, which he was covering as an analyst for CNN.
"We were never so fortunate in our timing," Begala says.
What of those who reject Washington's obeisance to the political cycle? Kellyanne Conway, president of the Polling Co., a Republican outfit, was married on the same night as the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2001, and had her twins shortly before Election Day 2004.
"Some of my Washington friends ribbed me for what they perceived to be a real lack of prudent planning of these major life-changing events," she says.
Conway finds it distasteful when people "glibly" talk about their babymaking schedule or announce that they're putting off getting pregnant until, say, a Supreme Court justice is confirmed.
"Everybody just assumes you plan your pregnancies," Conway says. "Everybody just assumes that God and Mother Nature have nothing to do with the natural stages of life anymore."
The thing about elections is, there's always another one coming up. There are new candidates and new campaign aides and new reporters to write about them. It is quite possible to jump from one campaign to the next and never find time for a baby.
"My job was to plan and to see around corners and to know what was coming and plan everything out so meticulously," says Mindy Tucker Fletcher, 37, a former spokeswoman for the 2000 Bush campaign and later deputy campaign manager for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2006 reelection campaign.
Fletcher lives in San Diego now. Recently, she's been trying to get pregnant. She and her husband have tried fertility treatments. She wishes she hadn't waited so long, wishes she'd known how hard it would be. She wishes she'd known that the "adrenaline rush," the thrill of being needed and being in the midst of the news, was a trade-off. That the political cycles are infinite, but the eggs are not.
"I wish I'd known earlier," Fletcher says. "I would have worked it into my life plan."