McCain's Family Matters

By Frank Schaeffer
Wednesday, January 9, 2008 12:00 AM

I don't agree with John McCain on all the issues. But I found his victory in New Hampshire last night gratifying for one simple reason: Like me, he is the father of a Marine.

As this campaign has unfolded, I have been thinking about how military parents should think about this election and decide which candidate to support. I settled on a determining question that may well resonate with other military parents: Where will each potential commander-in-chief's children be when our troops are ordered to make additional sacrifices?

This question was inspired, in part, by the resentment I felt while my son was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and while President Bush's daughters -- like many young-adult offspring of our country's elites -- seemed to be on a perpetual spring break. (To be fair, after graduating from college, Barbara Bush spent time working with AIDS patients in Africa and Jenna Bush worked for UNICEF in Panama and is now employed at a D.C. elementary school.)

But if it's legitimate for candidates to trot out their children for "family values" photo-ops on the campaign trail, it's legitimate to consider the values the candidates have, or have not, passed on to their children. And, in a wartime context, attitudes toward military service seem particularly relevant.

Of course, we don't have a draft. The freedom not to volunteer for the military extends to any president's children. And I don't want to suggest that politically ambitious parents should push their offspring to serve. Moreover, as a parent I'd hate to be blamed for everything my children do or don't do.

That said, all parents -- including presidents and potential presidents -- are free to encourage or discourage their children to volunteer. And voters have every right to demand an especially high standard of example-setting from those claiming they are fit to lead our country in wartime.

So how did the candidates stack up?

My question wasn't particularly helpful in thinking about Barack Obama, whose children are both very young, or Rudy Giuliani, whose children won't have anything to do with him. But it was useful in clarifying my thoughts on some of the others.

Mitt Romney, for instance, has five military-age sons. They're all helping with his campaign and write the Five Brothers blog. And when CBS's Mike Wallace asked them whether, in addition to their church missionary work, any of them had thought about serving in the military, the answer was a universal no. "I feel guilty having not done it," said 32-year-old real estate developer Josh Romney. His 29-year-old brother Ben admitted: "I've seen a lot and read a lot that has made me say, 'My goodness, I hope I never have to do that.'"

Hillary Clinton's only daughter, Chelsea, has had a similarly privileged and protected life. She went from Stanford to Oxford and then on to a consulting job with a starting salary over $100,000. Now 27, she works as a hedge fund manager and has made cameo appearances with her mother's campaign.

There's nothing wrong with Chelsea Clinton and the Romney sons making a buck or boosting their academic credentials instead of serving their country -- unless Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney are going to ask other people's equally gifted children to serve. Do their children's decisions make Romney and Clinton unfit to be president? No. But these strong-on-defense candidates would be more credible if their children were more open to military service. Likewise, it would be hard to trust someone selling himself as a health-and-fitness guru if his children were grossly overweight.

By contrast, McCain -- himself a veteran and the son and grandson of two Navy admirals -- has two children in the military. Nineteen-year-old Jimmy is a Marine and 21-year-old Jack is at the Naval Academy. The fact that his sons are willing to fight a war McCain has vowed to try to win lends moral credibility to his words. He wouldn't ask others to do anything he and his family wouldn't do. (Joe Biden, who recently withdrew from the presidential race, also has a son in uniform. That he would be willing to serve in a war his father disapproves of shows that service trumps politics in their family and made Biden, like McCain, a compelling candidate.)

Among the remaining candidates, McCain's family's commitment to service separates him from the crowd. Certainly it's not his only credential. And certainly he doesn't have everything right. But that service ethic matters more to me than whether he's "correct" on lesser issues.

It will be easier for Americans to take the next president's inevitable call for sacrifice seriously if that president's children are in the military. We need a president who can honestly say: "We're all in this together."

The writer lives in Massachusetts and is co-author of Keeping Faith: A Father-Son Story about Love and the United States Marine Corps.

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