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Margaret Truman, a soprano from the United States, had all the tickets at Constitutional Hall packed for her 1950 concert with National Symphony Orchestra. As was customary for Washington’s elite, the evening saw enthusiastic applause. Because her father was the current President, she could not have expected anything less. bravaThis would have been rude.
Washington Post’s music critic didn’t get the memo. Writing the next day, Paul Hume was blunt: “She is flat a good deal of the time—more last night than at any time we have heard her in past years. It is rare that one feels relaxed and confident during the recital. … Miss Truman has not improved in the years we have heard her.”
Hume was sent a reply by President Harry Truman to White House stationary: “Some day[,] I hope to meet you,” Truman wrote. “When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!” He signed the iconic screed simply “H.S.T.”
Such has been the posture of a good number of Presidents, politicians, and Washington players for decades: come for the official but leave the family alone—even if they’re in the public arena themselves. But, just maybe, it’s time to finally bury the Washington myth that political figures’ kin are off-limits and acknowledge that the lines aren’t quite as simple as those in power would have us believe. A trio of developing stories in Washington might require politicians and the press to rethink the claims that critical coverage of a public figure’s family is the third rail of polite conversation.
First, there’s—as ever—the Trump family. Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of Donald Trump, met yesterday virtually with members of the inquiry committee into the Jan. 6th 2021 insurrection. Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, served all four years of that Administration as a top adviser in the West Wing and has become the highest-ranking insider to testify before the committee. Talk lasted six hours. Separately, the Jan.6 committee sought an interview with Ivanka Donald, who White House staff advised to speak with her father on that particular day in order to calm the rioters.
The panel has also subpoenaed Kimberly Guilfoyle, an aide on Trump’s 2020 campaign who is engaged to marry Donald Trump Jr. And it’s entirely probable the committee will eventually invite—if not summon—Don Jr. to explain his texts to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on Jan. 6: “We need an Oval office address. He must lead right now. It has gone too far and gotten out of hand.”
Then there’s the unfolding family drama involving Hunter Biden, who between his father’s election to the White House and Inauguration Day acknowledged he was under federal investigation. Federal agents are investigating potential civil and criminal issues related to Hunter Biden’s lobbying, financial transactions, and even an unusual incident that involved a gun. A laptop believed to be the first son’s is in FBI hands, although Republicans through Washington seem to have endless copies of it available for reporters to review. It’s tough to get through any hour of Fox News’ programming without a reminder about the “laptop from hell.” And Republicans, as they did during the 2020 campaign, have been relentless in asserting—without evidence—that Joe Biden himself made millions from Hunter Biden’s consulting and business-development work that made other Bidens a hefty sum.
Finally, let’s consider the marriage of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to conservative activist Ginni Thomas. Justice Thomas has already voted against the Jan.6 panel’s access to Trump documents regarding the riot. Many speculate that this may also include his spouse’s correspondence. Mrs. Thomas’ text messages to Meadows have shown her urging White House officials to keep Biden out of power and to “stop the steal.”
Ginni Thomas is one of D.C.’s fixers, a power player who has long been known to hold fringe views. For every message of encouragement she sent to Meadows to have patience for the MAGA movement to show up on Jan. 6 (“It takes time for the army who is gathering for his back”), there is a corresponding QAnon-esque claim in the trove of texts the Jan. 6 panel has in hand. “Biden crime family & ballot fraud co-conspirators (elected officials, bureaucrats, social media censorship mongers, fake stream media reporters, etc) are being arrested & detained for ballot fraud right now & over coming days, & will be living in barges off GITMO to face military tribunals for sedition,” she wrote.
Justice Thomas faces increasing pressure to get out of Jan. 6 high-court cases. Democrats are increasing their pressure on Thomas, urging him to renounce any involvement in these cases and to resign completely. While a few Democratic lawmakers are suggesting impeaching the Justice—the only real teeth Congress has at the moment—most are urging for an investigation and the resurrection of a stalled good-government bill that includes a judicial-ethics component. Ultimately, though, the Justices police themselves, and absent Congress yanking Thomas from the bench, they can’t do much but make noise.
These three examples—on their own and as a whole—represent how Washington often responds to uncomfortable questions about those in power and their families. Trump aides have adopted their former boss’ line that the Jan. 6 probe is a “witch hunt” meant to embarrass the ex-President and his orbit, including his kids. The Biden campaign dismissed the whiff of scandal around Hunt, as his dad calls him, as “Russian disinfo.” And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell this week suggested the release of Mrs. Thomas’ texts were meant to “bully” Justice Thomas against rulings that may help the insurrectionists, or maybe pressure him into retirement.
The reality is that families are an unfortunate part of politics. They don’t run for office themselves but are part of the package. Campaign season is when everyone sings from the exact same hymnal. Political families are out of bounds. Until they’re not.
John Quincy Adams’ intervention wasn’t enough to block his son’s expulsion from Harvard. Jimmy Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt were openly patronized by segregationists. The feds—and a young Sen. Joe Biden—rightly dogged Billy Carter’s dodgy financial entanglements. Nine-year-old Amy Carter’s first day of school became a media mob. Jenna, Barbara Bush, Sasha and Malia Barack Obama had their unwelcome moments in youth national attention.
And don’t forget the scrutiny paid to then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, whose media treatment left her so weary that she once remarked as she read her coverage, “I wouldn’t like this person either.” The press was so brutal that Bill Clinton secured a replica of Truman’s letter to the Post’s critic for his own private office and once threatened The New York TimesColumnist William Safire, with his own sucker punch.
Washington now has to figure out how it wants to process this new trio of complicated cases—a First Family with West Wing phone extensions, a President’s wayward son, and a Justice’s activist wife—each with its own nuances. Each case provides an opportunity for Republicans or Democrats to jump on the political field and shout out about the system that favors the elites. However, it would lead to retribution on the part of the opposition. Republicans have acknowledged that, if they capture the House in this fall’s midterm elections, they will use their majorities for unrelenting payback for Democrats’ actions now in how they handle the Trumps and Ginni Thomas. Democrats are already steaming at Republicans’ chatter about Hunter. That doesn’t suggest easy choices in the real world where many decisions are meant to preserve and expand political power. D.C. could find it hard to go back to the end, even though there are real issues and questions that each case raises. status quoTo leave political children and spouses alone. After all, every single politician has a family relation they don’t want standing in for them as a proxy.
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