It's awful, the bigoted things Senator Jeff Flake's son said in online commentary. And it's also awful what Representative Joe Heck's said in racist and homophobic tweets.
But is it really fair or necessary to put both elected officials before the public jury, forced to defend or apologize for the offensive comments?
It's not worth repeating what either teenage boy wrote on Twitter. Suffice it to say the boys used the n-word and other language that has no place in civilized discourse. But both cases have taken on an unfair political tone, with both Flake and Heck apologizing publically for their respective sons' behavior, and being criticized by association in the media and on their Facebook pages.
Both elected officials were right to publically denounce the comments and say they had conducted a good talking-to to their children. The story, at least as it relates to these specific cases (though not bigotry on the Internet in general) should end there. Instead, it's become a way of tainting both adult men as racists by association.
I haven't gotten to know Heck, but I've known Flake for years, and what is remarkable about him is his ability to maintain a sunniness and a gentlemanly demeanor despite the rancor on the Hill. This isn't about politics or even policy; it's about manners. I've never even heard Flake raise his voice, let alone use offensive or demeaning language. And I can't in a million years imagine him uttering anything like the horrible things his son said. I'm sure he's utterly horrified and humiliated. But is it fair to blame the fathers for the sins of their sons?
Political parties and candidates are increasingly playing the politics of personality, instead of actually discussing policy. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat seeking to make background checks for gun purchases more uniform, is being targeted by the NRA in an ad putting him next to a (seemingly darkened) picture of President Obama, as though it's the agreement with the president so despised by conservatives that is at issue, as opposed to gun policy. And Massachusetts GOP Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez is fighting accusations that he'd be just like Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. It's all about picking teams, instead of picking sides on an issue – let alone compromising.
The problem is that things have gotten so hostile and angry on the Hill that people have moved to a default position of looking for things to fight about and to criticize each other for, instead of trying to find any kind of common ground or mutual understanding. It's not an excuse at all for what the boys wrote, but tying the adult officials to their children's behavior just exacerbates the divisions in Washington.
These episodes should spark an overall public dialogue – not just about racism and homophobia and sexism, but about social media, and the way it is used to attack other people semi-anonymously (somehow, I doubt Heck's son would have the courage to make the anti-Hispanic comment he tweeted about Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez to the athlete's face). But it's terribly unfair to blame Heck and Flake for the behavior of their sons.