A rare show of political civility

Sunday, March 6, 2011
By Daniel J. Bauer

American “first ladies” typically adopt a few favorite causes, and use their celebrity status to promote those causes. Michelle Obama is no exception. Two of the causes she has brought to our attention are healthy food and healthy eating. Mrs. Obama has encouraged increased consciousness of the importance of vegetables in our diets, for example, by allowing photographers to observe her own garden at the White House. She has made highly publicized visits to schools to talk with children about fitness and food. Her activities along this vein appear gentle to many and perhaps even unremarkable.

The media reported this week that two big names in the Republican Party, one a possible future presidential candidate, have spoken in defense of her championing of healthy eating. The entry of the Republicans into her efforts was in fact something of an oddity.

Leaders of one political party in the United States do not often praise or defend the mates of U.S. presidents who belong to the opposite party. (Local readers will forgive a gentle reminder here, I hope, that President Obama belongs to the Democratic Party. Presumably, his wife is not, at least at this time, a Republican.)

The Republicans saying kind things about Mrs. Obama, ex-Arkansas governor and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, have disagreed with Republicans who have made a full time avocation of attacking Democrats in general and the Obamas in particular.

The unholy trinity of former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Minnesota legislator and Tea Party favorite Michelle Bachmann, and conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh have criticized Mrs. Obama's activist stand on healthy eating. They charge that her words about American eating habits are a scary prelude to intrusions by the federal government into the private lives of its citizens. Talking publicly of wise versus foolish decisions on what to put into our mouths, they say, is tantamount to trampling on topics of life-style, and privacy and personal life. The next thing we know, hint Palin and Company, the Obama administration will outlaw fries and burgers, chocolate and ice cream.

Republican Huckabee terms himself a “recovering 'foodaholic.'” He once weighed 135 kilograms, a whopping 300 pounds. When the former governor heard Michelle Obama's tune, he began reminding Americans that their country relies on volunteers for its armed forces. At the moment, he says, 75 percent of the young people eligible to join the military are actually not eligible at all because they are obese or too overweight to pass muster. Huckabee labels the situation “no longer a health [or] economic issue,” but “a national security issue.”

Stop pummeling the first lady about her drive for healthy food, is his advice to disgruntled Republicans. She is not trying to lock up the cookie jar or drive pizzerias underground.

Fellow Republican New Jersey Governor Christie admits to a 30 year battle with his weight. With reporters, he is apt to dip into the present tense for his verbs. “And it's [still] a struggle,” he says. His view is that children are smart to do all they can to avoid his difficulties. “More power to them,” he says. “I think the first lady is speaking out well.”

I will readily bet next month's pocket money (a modest sum, I confess) that this is the tamest column about politics that you've ever read. Perhaps in a Mark Twain-like way, I am here to ask a simple question: How long has it been since you heard a political leader of one party say something even remotely kind about a leader (even a spiritual leader, such as Mrs. Obama) of a rival party?

I may never vote for Mr. Huck Finn, (oops), Mr. Huckabee, or Governor Christie. I like it very much, however, that those two gentlemen are willing to admit that, upon occasion, even a Democrat can be right.

I apologize for not writing this week about Taiwan. We all know we have no overweight people here, young, middle-aged, or whatever. And, of course, our political leaders, unlike those in other lands, are constant paragons of civility.

Father Daniel J. Bauer SVD is an associate professor in the English Department at Fu Jen Catholic University.

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