It’s impossible not to be touched by Sen. Rob Portman’s words about his son and his reversal on gay marriage. Even if you cling to the belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman, Portman’s love for his son, declaration of faith, and commitment to his own marriage was a rare display of authenticity at a time when almost all of our leaders' utterances seem poll-tested and scripted. Portman revealed that his son’s disclosure two years ago that he was gay “allowed me to think about this issue from a new perspective and that’s as a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister have.”
It often takes personal experience for us to have empathy. Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco city councilman and gay activist, argued that homosexuals needed to come out to family and friends so people could see that gays weren’t outliers, but us. He turned out to be right—for surely the velocity of positions on gay marriage’s acceptance rests on personal experiences like the one Portman shared.
Of course, if you and I need a personal jolt to become empathetic, it’s one thing. That it’s true for politicians has greater consequences because they, arguably, need to be more empathetic than the rest of us. If they’re not, we’re at the mercy of the vicissitudes of their life.
Consider another admirable, eloquent senator, Mark Kirk of Illinois. The Republican was hit by a stroke and before he returned to the Senate earlier this year, the experience left him rethinking health care for the poor. "Had I been limited to [Medicaid] I would have had no chance to recover like I did. So unlike before suffering the stroke, I’m much more focused on Medicaid and what my fellow citizens face," he told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I will look much more carefully at the Illinois Medicaid program to see how my fellow citizens are being cared for who have no income and if they suffer from a stroke."
That kind of empathy is welcome, but it’s also worth noting that with many politicians, it takes a personal experience to make them enthusiastically embrace government action. Back in the '90s I wrote a story for The New Republic about how conservatives, with important life experiences, suddenly look at Washington anew. I also revisted the topic earlier this year. Former Sen. Pete Domenici, a Republican from New Mexico, was among the Senate's great advocates for giving the mentally ill parity in insureance treatment. He was spurred by his daughter who suffered from mental illness. In a similar vein, former Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, who was a classic Republican advocate against government regulation, made a very big—and one could say, deeply admirable—exception for the 55 mph speed limit. His daughter was 22 when she died in an auto accident.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this. We wouldn’t want pols who drew nothing—no rethinking, no change of heart—from their personal pain. Polio helped make Franklin Roosevelt the empathetic leader he was. That’s good. The issue is whether one can learn from one’s own suffering and draw wider conclusions instead of a more pinched definition. If Mark Kirk’s stroke made him think about the poor, then bravo. Same for Rob Portman.
Portman’s empathy and eloquence offers a lesson for other members of Congress, but also for the rest of us. “The personal is political” was a feminist cri de coeur in the '60s and '70s. Although its origins are somewhat unclear, it emphasized the political consequences of personal behavior. The argument was that what now seem like quaint “Women’s Lib” fads—consciousness-raising and group therapy—weren’t less personal acts, but political ones with meaning in the public square. Gloria Steinem used the phrase. Rob Portman didn’t, but the Ohio conservative and the feminist pioneer were in some ways offering examples of this notion.
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