Viewpoint: The President as Parent

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Last Friday night in St. Louis, George W. Bush and John Kerry swapped a predictable round of punches on issues ranging from Iraq to health care to jobs, as each candidate desperately sought to land that single, memorable haymaker that voters will replay in their heads on November 2nd. For my money, however, that defining moment came a week earlier in Miami, during the first debate — and it was a knockout blow for Kerry.

Amid a courteous discussion in which the candidates expressed their admiration for one another's families, Kerry turned the subject to the President's daughters.

"I've watched them," he said warmly. "I've chuckled a few times at some of their comments."

The President responded with a laugh. "I'm trying to put a leash on them," he said.

"Well," remarked Kerry with a knowing smile. "I've learned not to do that."

The dialogue was fleeting, never once touching on such weighty affairs as WMDs or budget deficits. And yet hearing the candidates express these distinctly different views on child-rearing spoke volumes to me about how both men view the job of leader of the Free World. Like everything else in my life since becoming a father nine years ago, I view the presidential race through the unique prism of parenting. I've noticed that both jobs require a crucial blend of authority, patience and empathy; and, while he's raised two fine daughters, as President, George Bush has come up short in this regard as national father figure.

According to New York clinical psychologist Gregg Ury, who is currently co-writing a book entitled Seduced by the Right: A Psychological Analysis of the Body Politic, leadership qualities can often take their cue from parenting styles.

"Child development theory frequently describes two different types of child-rearing," Ury told me, "the authoritarian parent, who rules by fiat and commands obedience without open communication; and the more empathic parent, who instills discipline, yet does so by soliciting feedback from his children and valuing mutual respect. When researchers compare the two, the empathic parent consistently produces children who are better adjusted and more capable of handling conflict; while the authoritarian parent produces more rebellion.

"So it's no surprise to hear the President talk about wanting to rein in his daughters," concludes Ury. "He conducts his job in very much the same manner."

To say the least. Since the invasion of Baghdad, President Bush has stage-managed the Iraq war like the patriarchal paragon of an earlier era, flouting his rigid style as not only the best way to maintain rule of the roost, but also the only appropriate one. Wielding a firm hand and a tight leash (literally, in the case of Abu Ghraib), the Bush administration has been crystal clear about its house rules: dissent is disregarded (and, in some cases, ridiculed); information is routinely withheld; and input from members of our global family deemed bothersome.

John Kerry, meanwhile, exhibits a different kind of tactic. Calling for greater candor by those who exercise the job of high command, and stressing the importance of seeking communal harmony among members of our international household, the Massachusetts Senator promises a leadership style that more resembles a kind of new-millennium Ward Cleaver: never abdicating his role as parent, yet ever careful to solicit input from his charges — in this case, the American people. (And, for better or worse, John Kerry is even as corny as the Beaver's dad.)

But most importantly, John Kerry talks about the need for greater empathy from our leaders, and this is where I believe George Bush's performance as president-father has been most wanting. Case in point: At this moment, my five-year-old daughter is suffering through the very natural (but still wholly unsettling) fear of "mommy and daddy dying." Her distress is heartbreaking, of course, and I soon discovered that the best way to soothe her is by showing her that I take her worries seriously, discussing them with her each and every time they bubble to the surface.

Imagine if I employed the same tactics this administration has used in dealing with, say, those Americans who are genuinely fearful that we made a mistake in invading Iraq — mocking her worry (the way Team Bush has consistently derided the anti-war contingent), punishing her (remember Richard Clarke?) or, worst of all, outright ignoring her. Very soon, my daughter would go elsewhere for comfort. And I would deserve the snub.

I don't mean to suggest here that George W. Bush isn't a good dad. In fact, from the look of things, his spirited daughters have inherited the best of their mother's congeniality and their dad's easy-going sense of humor. But when it comes to the current state of our national household — children living in poverty, adults unable to secure employment, and more than 1000 dead on foreign soil — it may be time for the president to take off the iron glove and hold a house meeting.

Then again, as a father I know how hard it is to change one's parenting style. Thatís why Iím just biding time till November, when hopefully we'll get a new dad.

Bruce Kluger, a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors, also writes for Parenting magazine and National Public Radio.