By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Yesterday, as Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd was announcing that he's not going to seek re-election after 30 years in office, he said this: "Now, there's nothing more pathetic, in my view, than a politician who announces they're only leaving public life to spend more time with their family." I thought it was the setup to a funny or poignant line, in which he'd continue by saying something like, "So call me pathetic, but I'm looking forward to spending time with Jackie and our two daughters ..." After all, his 4-year-old daughter had her hand on his shoulder; his 8-year-old was standing at his other side as he spoke. He had just discussed recently losing his sister and his dear friend Ted Kennedy, who had been like a brother to him. Dodd reflected on his own battle with cancer, and referred several times to his wife, with a whole life-is-short tone to his remarks.
But he didn't turn the lead-in into a wry observation about how difficult it's been for him, deciding between family and public office as he confronts his own mortality. He let it stand that "nothing's more pathetic" than politicians who want to spend more time with their families, and continued, "These young ladies are not the reason for my decision." To be fair, Dodd also acknowledged that his political prospects weren't very good.
Dana Milbank, the Washington Post political columnist, quoted the line about family and admiringly found Dodd's announcement had that "rarest of traits in modern politics: a note of honesty."
I've talked with several women who had a very different reaction. (I wonder if his wife thinks it's pathetic to want to spend time with family.)
Chris Dodd only became a father relatively recently, and spent the bulk of his Senate career as a bachelor, so maybe that's why he said what he said. But his remark shows a disconnect with the majority of people who run for office, especially women. Most people realize the enormous toll being in politics takes on families, and it's one of the reasons good people don't run for office these days.
Especially women. It's well-documented that fewer women run for public office than men, and while there are many reasons for that, one of the biggest is that women are more often responsible for running the household and raising the kids. It's very difficult to recruit female candidates in the first place, much less the ones who are moms with kids at home. Let's remember how many people questioned whether Sarah Palin could handle national office while raising five kids; no one ever seems to ask that of male candidates.
For every Claire McCaskill with a blended family of seven kids and a grandmother at home, there are a hundred more working moms who say it's too much and don't run for office. Balancing work and family is a challenge for most people, not just women, and it's completely understandable that many choose family over public office. I suspect the majority of women would find making that choice difficult and perhaps unfair, but not "pathetic."