Presidential elections are supposed to be about the future, but more than a few Republicans eyeing the White House this year are throwbacks to the past – the 1800s, to be exact, when the typical American family had five to seven children.
The math is striking: Six Republican candidates and prospects have 34 children among them. And that’s not even counting Michele Bachmann’s 23 foster children.
For comparison purposes, the standard-issue family has two children. That’s where we find former Minnesota governorTim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain.
They are outnumbered, however, by the bigger-is-better contingent. “Has seven children, one from India, one from China,” says a video designed to drum up interest for former Utah governor Jon Huntsman’s official launch on Tuesday. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum also has seven children. Bachmann, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul each have five. So, famously, does potential candidate Sarah Palin.
Given the sheer ego required to run for president, it’s tempting to recall a bit of analysis from Cheaper by the Dozen, the classic memoir about efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth and his huge family. “One reason he had so many children — there were twelve of us — was that he was convinced anything he and Mother teamed up on was sure to be a success,” the authors wrote of their father.
Overweening self-confidence can never be discounted when you’re talking about politicians, but to be fair, religion appears to be a major driver of the GOP population explosion. Huntsman and Romney are Mormon and Santorum is Catholic – both religions that encourage large families. Pope Pius XII called such families “most blessed by God and specially loved and prized by the Church as its most precious treasures.” Mormon leaders have proclaimed that “God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force.” Not surprisingly, heavily Mormon Utah has the highest fertility rate in the nation.
Beyond that, the whole field opposes abortion. Indeed, the anti-abortion movement is what drew Bachmann into Minnesota politics and turned her from a Democrat to a Republican. Paul, a Texas obstetrician who grew up in a deeply religious family, has said that “the womb is not a whole lot different to me than the crib” when it comes to protecting a baby.
Santorum and Palin each have a developmentally disabled child – itself a rare phenomenon in presidential politics. Trig Palin, born in 2008, has Down syndrome. Bella Santorum, also born in 2008, has Trisomy 18, a genetic disorder that is seriously disabling and usually fatal by the teen years. Another Santorum child was diagnosed in the womb with a severe birth defect. He was born in 1996 at 20 weeks and lived two hours. His mother named him Gabriel, brought him home for a night, and wrote a book dedicated to him.
Curtis Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, says the country will benefit from getting to know candidates who have disabled children at the heart of their families. “The visibility of these children will help do away with myths and reduce stigma,” Decker told me. “It will get us away from the pity model to a more integrated, accepting model.”
The Republican field could also help improve perceptions of large families in general. TV depictions of life with a large brood have devolved from the heartwarming adventures of The Waltons (seven kids) and The Partridge Family (five kids). These days there’s the single, strapped Octomom with 14 children, and in the reality-show arena, the arguing, infidelity and divorce that turned Jon & Kate Plus 8 into Kate Plus 8.
Bloggers with lots of children often write about the disapproval they sense from a society increasingly concerned about population growth, environmental degradation and shrinking government resources. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, an author, commentator and father of nine-- who ranked number six last year in NEWSWEEK’s list of the country’s 50 most influential rabbis--has gone further. “The contempt shown to parents of many children is the last acceptable prejudice in our society,” he wrote at WorldNetDaily.com in 2006. “As a father of a large family, I find myself apologizing wherever I go, as if I committed a crime.”
Boteach, who calls himself a fiscal conservative and “more socially liberal,” softened his tone in an interview. He says he was referring mainly to traveling with his family in Europe and his wife’s native Australia (“people see us as a pain, as a nuisance.”) He praised the message sent by the parents of the GOP field. “People who have a lot of children, that represents a certain values system. They love kids and love what kids represent,” he told me. “When I see parents who have made the time for children, that’s something I respect.”
That’s especially true in Bachmann’s case, says historian Doug Wead, author of All The Presidents’ Children. “It takes a very special kind of person, and nerve, to take on a foster child,” he says. “You’ve got to have a special dedication and commitment.”
Yet in this field, even Bachmann’s 23 foster children didn’t make her the winner of the size-matters competition in the first GOP debate. Conan O’Brien cracked on TBS that the candidates seemed “obsessed” with kids and aired a hilarious video of the statistics they were throwing around. No one could top Paul after he said he had delivered more than 4,000 babies.
From a purely political standpoint, large families can cut for or against a candidate. On the plus side, there’s that madcap but wholesome Cheaper by the Dozen dynamic. And the photos are wonderful, especially if the kids are young enough to be adorable or old enough to provide grandchildren.
Still, each additional child exponentially increases the potential for kid-centric controversies and gaffes. Palin’s family has been Exhibit A along those lines, from Bristol’s out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy, to Willow’s anti-gay slurs on Facebook, to the unintended irony of young Piper’s jab at a photographer on her celebrity mom’s tour of historic landmarks, in a bus covered with colorful paintings of the Constitution, the Liberty Bell and snow-capped peaks. “Thanks for ruining our vacation,” said Piper, 10.
So far all we can do is fantasize about the Palins living in the White House. It is, in fact, rare to find young children living upstairs from the Oval Office. You can almost count those of the last 50 years on one hand – Caroline and John-John Kennedy, Amy Carter, Chelsea Clinton, and Malia and Sasha Obama. It’s not like the days of Theodore Roosevelt, who had six children and built the West Wing so more rooms in the White House proper could be used as family space.
Gary Walters, who served seven first families before retiring in 2006 as chief usher of the White House, told me there are 16 rooms on the second and third floors of the White House that are or could be used as bedrooms -- plenty of space for a family with lots of children and grandchildren. Given security requirements, logistics would be even more challenging than the habitual scramble of non-presidential families to get multiple kids to soccer, ballet, tennis, play-dates and piano lessons.
The White House does offer one huge advantage to frazzled parents with kids running to separate activities all over town: Secret Service protection that’s better than a GPS. “You know where they are every minute. They’ve all got phone connections in their ears,” Walters says. And as Obama recently pointed out, in a joking warning to his daughters’ future boyfriends, they also have guns.