Can Politicians Have It All?

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Mitch Daniels and the price of public service: Is our leadership suffering because of the pressure of public life on families?

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Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival -- See full coverage

In all the lively and fascinating discussion of Anne-Marie Slaughter's smash hit Atlantic cover story, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," one aspect that hasn't gotten a lot of attention is the particular type of work Slaughter found herself unable to balance with her family life -- a career in public service.

As the State Department's director of policy planning, Slaughter was a top-level Obama administration political appointee, and she writes frankly in her article about the different challenges this type of career posed versus her previous life in academia. Though she frames her story as applicable to women in all the top professions, from business executives to partners in law firms -- and there are certainly broad lessons to be drawn from it -- many of her examples are naturally drawn from the policymaking world she's most familiar with.

Public servants at the highest levels, whether elected or appointed, face two principal challenges not shared by other professions. First, they're not paid as well as those at the equivalent levels of corporate life; and second, they're subjected to a unique level of public scrutiny.

Men and women alike seem to have gotten increasingly vocal about of the pressures of public life on family in recent years. One of the most notable recent examples was Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, the fiscally hawkish Republican whom GOP elites tried strenuously to conscript for the presidential race last year.

A talented politician and manager with a knack for combining the folksy and the wonky, Daniels was tempted by their pleas, he told me in an interview at this weekend's Aspen Ideas Festival. But ultimately, his wife and four adult daughters vetoed the idea.

"When a number of people I respected enough kept coming around and urging me, I did finally think seriously about it," Daniels said. "But, one, I wanted to finish the job I was elected to do and do justice to that, and two, my family was very united in believing it was a bad thing for them."

That Daniels deferred to their judgment is itself a remarkable sign of how times have changed. It is rather impossible to imagine LBJ, say, curtailing his own ambitions out of family considerations. Expectations have changed in America for fathers and mothers alike, but politics, with its enduring great-man-on-a-pedestal tropes, hasn't caught up. More than one ally of President Obama has wondered to me whether part of the rap he gets for being detached from official Washington is that he sets aside time to attend his daughters' school events and put them to bed at night.

Daniels told me he feared the intrusion of a national hashing-out of his family's difficult history -- his wife, Cheri, left him and the children and lived with another man for several years, then returned and remarried him. But he was equally leery, he says, of the way their lives would be distorted by the White House bubble.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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