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Have You Used a Kid Today as a Political Pawn?

[Originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, November 14, 1996, and adapted from a commentary for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."]

One of the most curious moments in the late campaign came when President Clinton proposed to force states to withhold driver's licenses from teenagers who do not submit to drug tests. A few years ago such a step might have been seen as unthinkably coercive and invasive, but Bob Dole's only response was that it didn't go far enough: "Too little, too late," he called it.

That fit the tone this year: Whatever else they may have disagreed on, every political candidate seemed to agree on the need to protect children by any means necessary. They all wanted to bring peace to Bosnia or keep poison out of our drinking water for the sake of the kids, not because they'd think of doing those things otherwise.

It's been a trend in national politics for some years, and of course both sides are playing. The Left has its Children's Defense Fund, the Right its Family Research Council. Choose to disagree with them about welfare or taxes and it may be because you don't care enough about little Christopher and Samantha.

Politicians have always sentimentalized children as if they were Hummel figurines. And yet when every issue becomes a child-protection issue it's easy to lose sight of other values.

To begin with, protecting kids makes the perfect excuse for taking away everyone's freedom. Why did Congress move to censor the Internet? Why did Janet Reno send in the tanks in Waco, Texas? Why did the California attorney general bust the club that helped cancer patients buy cannabis for their chemotherapy? Why do we send a 6-year-old to detention for giving his classmate a peck on the cheek or suspend a junior high student for giving her friend a Midol? Same reason, every time.

Notice that, as with the driver's license-drug test scheme, the kids themselves are often the ones whose freedoms we take away. Consider the curfews that many cities have passed requiring children to be off the street by 10 or 11 p.m. They may keep some kids out of trouble, but at the expense of others who have legitimate reasons to go out with their parents' OK.

I remember being awfully dubious about that kind of "protection" when I was a kid. I was happy to listen to my mother about how late I should stay out or whether it was okay to ride a bike without a helmet. She had good advice. After all, she was my mom.

Now we have people like Elizabeth Dole, who spent her time as transportation secretary getting states to raise the drinking age to 21. In fact, she once suggested it be raised to 24. First Lady Hillary Clinton has been talking the same way even though she made her career on the idea of children's rights.

Bill Clinton seems to think the worst danger kids face today is seeing a Joe Camel ad. Under his pending proposal, magazines that have too many teenage readers (which includes not just Mademoiselle, but Vogue and Road and Track) will have to stop running cigarette ads. And for that proposal to work many magazines are going to have to start arranging for their demographics to be reported to the government. In fact collecting subscriber data is just the start. According to Clinton official William Schultz of the Food and Drug Administration, "We would want to know who is reading it, not just who it is addressed to." Just what we need--Big Brother amassing data on who's reading what.

Conservative humorist Florence King says the current public mood reminds her of the signature line from a Joan Crawford movie: "I'd do anything for those kids. You hear me, anything!" And you know how Joan turned out in real life: Mommie Dearest.

Candidates cater to this mood because it wins votes. But I wish a few of them would start talking about leaving a world for America's children that's not just a little safer, but a little more free.