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Homespun Politics

Guest Post from Meredith O’Brien

The Jib Jab obsession served as my wake-up call, the moment when it finally dawned on me that perhaps my household was a bit…unusual.

During the summer of 2004, two enterprising animators created an online video parody of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” song, lampooning the presidential candidates — Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic Senator John Kerry — with cartoon caricatures of both men singing the ditty in ridiculously exaggerated accents. Once the news media featured the Internet short on various shows, where Bush called Kerry “a liberal wiener” who has “more waffles than a house of pancakes” and Kerry called Bush “a right-wing nut job” for whom a brain “can come in quite handy,” I decided to take a look.

With some judicious editing of a few unsavory parts (re: I either covered the computer screen with my hands or loudly hummed over certain lyrics) I let my then-6-year-old twins and 3-year-old watch it. Not only did the kids reenact the JibJab.com video more times than I could count (I officially began to hate “This Land is Your Land”), but the video prompted vigorous discussions about election issues over bowls of breakfast cereal.

Hardly atypical for our household.

It was my fault. All of this odd behavior. Considering that the kids couldn’t even read at the time but could identify our state’s governor, our U.S. senators, the president and vice president. I’m a politics junkie. Even though I’ve grown quite cynical about the political process since my years as a student of government and as a political reporter, I stubbornly and idiotically cling to a Jimmy Stewartesque, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” idealism about American politics; I love its promise, not always its messy practice.

And when I had kids, I vowed to explain to them the crucial importance of voting and how one should always be well informed on the issues. My twins’ first exposure to politics was sitting through hours and hours of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings on C-SPAN. Of course the kids were just infants at the time, so hopefully they didn’t retain any of testimony in the deep recesses of their brains, though Abbey still has an odd aversion to dresses in any shade of blue . . .

I bought a “School House Rock” CD and attempted to hook the wee ones on that “I’m Just a Bill” song (“I’m just a bill, yeah I’m only a bill and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill”). I frequently show them newspaper photos, read them stories and play selected TV news footage about current events. Following the presidential primaries in early 2004, when former Vermont Governor Howard Dean torpedoed his Democratic presidential campaign with his primal, pollbusting scream after he lost to Kerry in the Iowa caucuses, one of my kids’ favorite pastimes became impersonating Dean’s maniacal shriek. And I know I’m probably the only nerd on the block whose children can complete this sentence: “If it’s Sunday . . . ” (Answer: “It’s ‘Meet the Press’ with Tim Russert,” my kids reply in unison, referring of course to NBC News’ august political journalist.)

But the world of politics can be nasty.

During the 2002 governor’s race in my home state, the patriotic melodies of “School House Rock,” the all-American discussion about freedom and the colonial Revolution fell by the wayside to partisanship. Mommy and Daddy, who were rooting for opposing candidates, were asked by Abbey and Jonah which person would make a better governor. Treading cautiously, we tried to delicately discuss our candidate preferences, trying not to taint the kids’ points of view.

But when we all watched the gubernatorial debates together, the matter became almost humorously polarizing, as we didn’t hide our cringes or our (my) outbursts when we (I) talked back to the TV screen.

We told the kids that no matter who Mommy and Daddy supported, the children could support the candidates of their choosing (although I secretly wanted them to pick the candidate I supported, but resisted lobbying them). In the weeks before the gubernatorial election, Jonah, Abbey and I did a craft project: They made their own “voter registration forms” and picked party affiliations, as I attempted to neutrally explain for what issues and topics each political party stood. (We’re pretty sure that Jonah picked the Green Party because he thought a party with a color was cool.) With a nod to Florida’s hanging chads in 2000, the preschoolers and I made up paper ballots and the kids cast their votes for governor. Abbey chose the female candidate (“Because girls rock”) and Jonah the male candidate (“Because boys rock”).

Our gubernatorial election mania got a bit hairy when our family walked into the high school gym to vote. The two boys were with Daddy and our daughter was with me. Jonah and Abbey demanded to know where their homemade ballots were and, upon being told that only Mommy and Daddy were given authentic ballots, insisted that they get their own to fill out. Seeing as though we didn’t want to go all WWF on the nice senior citizens manning the polls in order to acquire faux ballots for our preschoolers — never mind the fact that there was a nice police officer hanging around — we hushed the kids up with menacing parental glances, explaining the you-must-be-18-to-vote rule once we were outside.

The following morning, after I broke the news to Abbey that her candidate lost, she shed her first political tears. Jonah, who had not yet fine-tuned his gloat-o-meter, started chanting his candidate’s name in staccato-like shouts, fists punching the air like exclamation points.

Two years later in 2004, we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a close, contentious presidential campaign. And Mommy and Daddy were on opposite sides again. Not wanting to poison the rhetorical well or destroy our children’s innocent, idealistic views of government, we tried to temper our viewpoints and tamp down our comments, at least at the dinner table. But the kids came down on gender lines again. Abbey supported Mommy’s candidate. Jonah and Casey supported Daddy’s guy.

So when the Jib Jab parody came along, it had the perfect mix of humor, politics and song. It blended all of the elements of our brand of homespun politics and brought the whole family together. Our three kiddos became obsessed with the parody. It was hard to explain to people at the park, mommies at play groups and the attendees at our Labor Day barbecue why exactly, our 6-year-olds and 3-year-old were clamoring to perform bits of political satire.

Still, there was something about our 3-year-old yelling, “I’m Howard Dean! I’m Howard Dean! Arrrgghhah!” and my kindergarten twins pretending to be Bush giving Kerry a shot of Botox in the cheek (it was in the parody) that was a bit odd.

Politics makes for strange kid-fellows, at least in my house.

—Meredith

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