A Clarifying Family Scandal


The scene was almost heady enough to make a captive of the Astrodome welcome one outrageous and clarifying family scandal: Thank you, Woody Allen -- I think.

There were more words about "family values" released into the atmosphere last week than balloons. The Republicans have joined the Democrats in a knockdown fight to prove that they deserve sole custody of the American family.

The party devoted an entire night to "family values" which turned out to be Ladies Night at the convention, or more accurately Wives Night Out. And the president in his warm-up act made this distinction between the two parties: "On the one side the Democrats have their liberal agenda. On the other side, the Republicans stand for those family values that we all share."

In the court of public opinion, each side is struggling for the role of family defender. They want to describe the other as family offender. But if the party rhetoric is growing, the party differences are actually shrinking.

The hard-core Republicans gathered here may still be more concerned with family form than function. But the traditional model they favor now includes at least mothers who are working because they must and mothers who are single because they were left.

As for the Democrats, they are still more comfortable talking about economics than morals. But it was the Democratic platform that proclaimed this time: "Governments don't raise children, people do. People who bring children into this world have a responsibility to care for children and give them values, motivation and discipline."

It's hard to know the parties without the scorecard.

Enter Woody Allen. Not laughing.

In the scandal that wiped the president off the tabloid covers last week, the 57-year-old Allen proclaimed his love for the 21-year-old daughter of his former companion, Mia Farrow. Talk about defining moments.

There are now all sorts of charges flying back and forth. But the mother-daughter affair, the sexual liaison with the girl who was for all emotional purposes his stepdaughter, broke enough cultural taboos to qualify for an anthropological study.

"Regarding my love for Soon-Yi," he announced, " It's real and happily all true. She's a lovely, intelligent, sensitive woman who has and continues to turn around my life in a wonderfully positive way." After decades of much heralded and much filmed psychotherapy, Allen has escaped the clutches of guilt only to fall into the arms of narcissism.

The national gasp that followed this admission -- how does this horrify me, let me count the ways -- offers a bit of shock therapy in the "family values" debate. Guess what? We do have a common bottom line in this whole dicey business of values.

I won't make too much of one outlandish scenario that springs out of a Woody Allen movie past and future: Take the daughter and run. But this is one startling starting point that shows us how much more often Americans agree.

If nothing else, we agree that elders -- parents, stepparents or pseudo-parents -- are there to take care of the young, not exploit them. If nothing else, we agree that the grown-ups are supposed to support family ties, not wreck them.

When you cut through the rhetoric, what matters most about family isn't its form but its human relationships. It's how we are to each other.

In our very collective value system, families are not just roommates, or for that matter co-workers. They are at root and at best, the web of intimate, trusting, personal relationships that form our designated haven in the heartless world. They may not always succeed, but they offer that ideal.

Family values mean a lot to people. And they mean a lot of different things. But in any debate, start with commitment and caring. All the rest is politics.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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