The relatives of presidents and presidential candidates can be wonderful sources of information. I once sat on Neil “Moon” Reagan’s couch in Southern California, listening for two hours as Mr. Reagan told revealing family stories about the younger brother then campaigning for the White House.
Relatives close to seats of political power also can be, and historically have been, targets for joking as well as serious criticism. Who can forget Jimmy Carter’s younger brother peddling “Billy Beer.”
But in the modern era, at least, one class of relative has become off-limits: children and grandchildren. Sen. John McCain found that out when he had to apologize for what he acknowledged was a “stupid and cruel and insensitive” comment he had made about Chelsea Clinton during a Republican fundraiser in 1998.
The issue came up again this week when MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry issued an emotional apology for mild jokes she and her guests had made about one of Mitt Romney’s grandchildren – an adopted baby boy of mixed race who stood out on the Romney’s Christmas card photo of an otherwise all-white large extended family that includes 22 grandchildren.
It was suggested by one of Ms. Harris-Perry’s guests that young adopted grandson Kieran perched on Mr. Romney’s knee "really sums up the diversity of the Republican Party…”
Harris-Perry – herself of mixed race – quickly posted a series of tweets, one of which said, “As black child born into large white Mormon family I feel familiarity w/ Romney family pic & never meant to suggest otherwise.”
Then on Saturday, choking up at times, she read a fuller apology.
“Without reservation or qualification, allow me to apologize to the Romney family,” she said. “Adults who enter into public life implicitly consent to having less privacy, but their families, especially their children, should not be treated callously or thoughtlessly. My intention was not malicious, but I broke the ground rule that families are off-limits. For that, I am sorry.”
“Allow me to apologize to other families formed through transracial adoption, because I am deeply sorry that we suggested that interracial families are in any way funny, or deserving of ridicule,” Harris-Perry continued. “On this program, we are dedicated to advocating for a wide diversity of families, it is one of our core principles. And I am reminded that when we do so, it must be with the utmost respect. We’re genuinely appreciative of everyone who offered serious criticisms of last Sunday’s program, and I am reminded that our fiercest critics can sometimes be our best teachers.”
On “Fox News Sunday,” Romney accepted the apology as “clearly heartfelt.”
“I recognize that people make mistakes," he said. “And the folks at MSNBC made a big mistake. They’ve apologized for it. And that’s all you can ask for.”
“People like me are fair targets," Romney said. "If you get in the political game, you can expect incoming. But children, that’s beyond the line. And I think they understand that. I think it’s a heartfelt apology. And for that reason, we hold no ill will whatsoever.”