The Politics of the Personal

2013 may be remembered as the year that the political and the personal truly became inseparable.

Joey Heck, 16, the son of the Republican congressman, made a splash with his Twitter feed. He called the president “an arrogant bitch” and said of the first 2012 general election debate that Mitt Romney made Barack Obama “his slave.” He also called Obama a “faggot” and “nigga,” adept at “spearchucking and rock skipping. The sports they do in his home country.”

Heck the younger also said his mother obtained a well-paying job for him with “some company for like voting stuff.” He roamed into security policy: “Obama didn’t make the call to kill Osama … That was the intelligence committee #iwouldknow,” presumably as the son of a House Intelligence Committee member.

These comments follow several recent examples of the personal or family lives of Nevada politicians having an impact outside of the home:

•Assemblyman Steven Brooks displayed a variety of issues in reportedly threatening Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick and behaving bizarrely enough for the Assembly finally to expel him.

•Senator John Ensign resigned just ahead of the Ethics Committee questioning him in relation to his extramarital affair with his chief of staff Doug Hampton’s wife Cindy, who also happened to be a close friend of Darlene Ensign, and the $96,000 that Ensign’s parents gave to the Hampton family out of the goodness of their hearts.

•Jim Gibbons became the first Nevada governor defeated for re-election in a primary after divorcing his wife, being found to have sent thousands of text messages to a woman friend, claiming Democrats had paid off The Wall Street Journal to report nasty things about him and a slew of other actions.

Sometimes the personal can be serious and admirable, and even enhance our understanding of an issue. State Senator Kelvin Atkinson announcing during a legislative debate over gay marriage that he is gay. State Senator Justin Jones, a Mormon Democrat, said his brother-in-law is gay and he couldn’t face him if he denied him the rights everyone else has. Assemblywoman Lucy Flores testified to the need for sex education by recounting her teenaged pregnancy and abortion (prompting death threats from several who call themselves “pro-life”).

All of which begs the question of where and when personal issues matter—or should matter—politically. The examples given above were the work of the individuals involved. Joe Heck is not his son. So, should what his son said be of concern to the rest of us?

Yes, but note the language: of concern. Here’s why.

•The congressman said he never discusses sensitive intelligence information at home. His son claimed otherwise. So he’s a teenager trying to make an impression, which isn’t unusual. But at age 16, he’s old enough to be considered a responsible adult—in court, for example—and his father shows no signs of legislating toward a better understanding of the differences between adults and children and encouraging us to remember the continuing evolution of the teenaged brain. So, Master Heck may need to take some responsibility for his actions and tell us just how he “knows” these things, or his father should make clear that he doesn’t discuss the intelligence committee over the dinner table. (Coincidentally, one of the reasons Gibbons left the House to run for governor was his party’s unwillingness to make him chair of that committee. Perhaps the personal mattered?).

•Joe Heck is a professed conservative Catholic. Conservatives have spent decades now preaching about or claiming to represent family values, directly and indirectly, and the importance of two-parent households (unless they’re same-sex). If Heck has anything to do with his son’s mentality, he should say something. If Heck has nothing to do with his son’s mentality, he should say something.

•It’s interesting to ponder patterns. Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who calls himself a devoutly Mormon family man, has a son who used Twitter to threaten a “faggot” and report that in an online game his handle was “n1ggerkiller,” and to announce on YouTube that Mexicans are the “scum of the earth.”

It’s easy to suggest that this discussion reflects the general Republican problem with anyone who is not a crabby old white man, and that we shouldn’t even talk about this story because it wasn’t the congressional fathers who said it. But we also could be asking the wrong question or having the wrong discussion. These comments speak to issues inherent in modern parenting and modern society, and not just the stupidity and bigotry that the younger Flake and younger Heck expressed. Not long ago, parents were complaining about the difficulty of controlling what their children watched on television, and how the problem worsened with the spread of cable channels. Then the internet posed new problems.

Now with internet-accessible spots like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter—all reachable on even more new-fangled contraptions than computers—we need to ask ourselves how we protect people, especially young people, from the rest of the world. And from themselves.

Possibly the silliest term in the English language is “teachable moment.” But this may be one, and Rep. Heck actually could do us all some good—much more good than he has as a lawmaker.