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The family man takes a leap

For women, a step back

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The August 1987 article in the Chicago Tribune ran under the headline "The Family Man Takes the Leap."

It was about U.S. Sen. Joe Biden's first run for the presidency. In it, the reporter recounted the most trying time in Biden's life. In December 1972, just weeks after Biden was elected to the U.S. Senate for the first time, his wife, Neilia, and his infant daughter, Naomi, were killed when the family station wagon collided with a truck. His two young sons, Beau Biden, 3, and Robert Hunter, 2, were critically injured in the wreck.

Here's how the Tribune described what happened next:

"The new senator, the winner, was now a widower. He thought first of forsaking his Senate seat. But Majority Leader Mike Mansfield talked him out of it, and Biden was sworn in at his sons' bedside in the hospital."

That story was repeated by the media dozens of times in the 1988 presidential election. A LexisNexis search of newspaper articles and television news transcripts shows that the story of the accident was retold in media accounts more than a hundred times after U.S. Sen. Barack Obama announced he'd selected Biden as his vice presidential running mate.

Never once was Biden's decision to take the Senate job described in anything but glowing terms. Never mind that it meant leaving his two young children, who would go through years of physical recovery, who had just lost their mother, behind every day in the care of someone else while he took a train an hour and a half each way from Delaware to Washington every day.

Last month, Biden's years of shuffling back and forth on the train to his family every night would be part of the "family man" and "regular guy" narrative the Obama campaign would use to sell their vice presidential pick to the public. And no one in the media batted an eyelash. Nowhere can I find a single instance where anyone questioned if Biden's choice was the right one for the children.

But two weeks ago, when Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, mother of five, including a four-month-old son with Down syndrome and a 17-year-old daughter who is pregnant, was named U.S. Sen. John McCain's vice presidential pick, she was viciously attacked by the media for attempting to do exactly what Biden had done when his small children needed him -- pursue her dreams.

Here's a small sample of what Palin faced, a surprising amount of it from female journalists:

Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn had this to say: "It's interesting that here I am, supposedly part of you know, the -- what one would call the liberal elite media. That's what we've been all -- the critics of Sarah Palin have been called. And yet, taking the position that a woman with five children, including one with special needs, and a daughter who is a 17-year-old child who is pregnant and about to have a baby, probably has got to rethink her priorities. It seems to me that there is a tipping point, and I think that she's crossed the tipping point. I believe that it's going to be very difficult for her ... I think this is -- this is too much."

CNN's John Roberts was equally skeptical that Palin could pull it off. "Children with Down syndrome require an awful lot of attention," he speculated on air. "The role of vice president, it seems to me, would take up an awful lot of her time, and it raises the issue of how much time will she have to dedicate to her newborn child."

New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, asked in an interview what she would do if asked to be vice president when her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant, said: "I think that's exactly the question. Then it becomes more of a question of parenting and of judgment on her part."

Again that was just a small sample. In Palin's case, her husband quit his job to care full time for her children when the family moved to the governor's mansion. In Biden's, no parent was left in the home to care for young, injured children, a job that was left to others. And still no one questioned him. And damn if Biden's kids didn't turn out just fine. (Minus the hedge fund scandal and the corporate payments from companies whose interests Biden championed in the Senate, of course.)

As a mom who wouldn't be writing this column if someone else wasn't caring for my four-month-old baby at this very moment, I'm wondering just what year these old media crones are living in. Did they miss the part about Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown? What's the message here? Mom can have a career only if no one at home needs her?

Try telling that to the two-thirds of American women with a child under kindergarten age who are in the workforce.

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