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Washington Diarist: Angels In The Infield

"I've got to go--it's time for my son's soccer practice," I apologized to an editor of mine in the middle of a phone conversation a while ago. "You must be a great mom," she sighed. (She's a great editor.) "Oh no, completely standard," I told her, sounding modest but feeling flattered and virtuously beleaguered. (The team meets in a park, inconveniently far away, where the toniest dogs of Georgetown also go for their evening romps, so the stench is as high as the pedigrees on display. Practice is not picturesque.) Just how completely standard, I was then only half-aware: this happened on a day, now hard to remember, before the "soccer mom" had become the cliche of the fast-waning 1996 campaign. Jacob Weisberg, writing in Slate, was among the first to demolish the notion that the soccer mom represents anything so coherent as a new swing constituency, crucial to a winning presidential strategy. But what about her status as a new social category with the power to alter maternal psychology? What happens when, unloading your little athlete and the team snack, you suddenly catch sight of yourself in the sideview mirror of your Taurus (or Dodge Caravan, or Volvo, or Jeep) and have to think, soccer mom?

What happens is that it becomes difficult to feel so praiseworthy or so virtuously beleaguered anymore. Baby-boomer parents, certainly busy ones in the affluent suburbs, have so far counted on feeling both, often. On Saturdays in fall and spring all boys and girls over the age of 5 in leafy Northwest D.C. put on a team T-shirt, shin guards and cleats--soccer best, the secular descendant of Sunday best. An air of sanctimony has a way of hanging over the day's proceedings. Some mothers are rapt, and loud with praise and blame from the sidelines. Others of us who have vowed not to berate the players or the referees (our team does its best to adhere to the it's-a-learning-experience philosophy) can't count on basking in the glow of our children's triumphs all that often, so instead we bask in our own: out there on the big green, the village is vigorously raising its children. We are the very models of modern, major child-rearers. You can almost hear us humming.

Now all of a sudden we're plain old soccer moms. It's an anticredential, the kind of thing that gives our generation hives. "I hate to be a whole breed of something," one candidate for the category complained to The New York Times, "but I admit I have a talented soccer player, so as long as it is Dr. Soccer Mom, because I have a Ph.D., I accept." I'm inclined to think, which the Times clearly didn't, that this mom was making a little fun of herself. In fact, the undesigner label could be liberating for all of us. No, we're not going to make or break this presidential election. Nor, let's face it, are we really going to make or break that other election a decade or so down the road, either--you know, the race for an open freshperson seat and a four-year term. Having a soccer mom who's big on well-roundedness can't be the edge it once was when it comes to filling out those college applications. Now everybody's got one.

I'm surprised pollsters didn't discover the "baseball dad." The New York Times did this summer, and made quite a fuss over him--Michael Sandel, a TNR contributor as it happens. He "schedules his paid job, as a Harvard professor and political philosopher" around the time-consuming avocation of coaching a little league team of fourth graders, the article marveled. But I suspect that Sandel, who never rewards "individual heroics, a home run, say, or a double play" (instead the whole team gets Snickers bars for cooperative efforts), would be the first to point out that there's nothing very individual or heroic about what he's doing. Busy fathers everywhere are ripping off their ties and sprinting for the suburban diamond at inconveniently early hours like four in the afternoon. (They do this for soccer, too; in fact, they're more likely than moms to coach.) Why didn't the election mythographers have a field day with them?

The Sporty White Male replaces the Angry White Male: it's a myth as good as any other, since men rather than women have arguably been the more volatile constituency, as Weisberg pointed out. Flightly females always make good campaign copy, but in fact Clinton's 1992 victory and the Republican triumphs of 1994 reflected a swing in the male electorate as much as anything. So who are the baseball dads, exactly? I have no statistics at my disposal, but "experts on gender politics," as the Times calls them, don't seem to let numbers get in their way, so I won't either. These men, to judge by the Sandel portrait and my own experience, cut a considerably mellower profile than the harried soccer moms of pollster legend. They're not pacing the sidelines and being pushy (or working hard at not being pushy). They're pitching, and distributing Snickers bars. T-shirts that proclaim "I don't have a life. My kids play baseball" aren't their style at all. They actually enjoy sneaking out of work early--and they can get away with it without risking their careers. If moms were comparably secure at work, and got to be on the mound and hand out prizes, instead of just carting the Gatorade, they'd probably lighten up, too.

As for what Sporty White Men think about government, they're divided, undecided, inconsistent, some of them down to the very last minute--in short, potential soulmates of either candidate. So, the key question the presidential aspirants might have put to them as the campaign wound down is, If you had to miss a day on the diamond, whom would you like to have coaching your kids, Clinton or Dole? Both candidates look pretty great in baseball caps, as they took lots of opportunities to show as Election Day drew near. For gruff umpire material, you can't beat traditional-values Dole. By contrast, Dick Morris's effort to make the incumbent seem like a credible authority figure, the kind of guy who can make the really tough calls, was laughable. Still, there has never really been a contest. Clinton makes a natural baseball dad, full of energy and overflowing with empathy. I can see him in the dugout now, wolfing down the kids' Snickers supply.

On the subject of sports and dads, one historical highlight stands out in the 70th Anniversary issue of Parents magazine, which I've been reading. Among the decade-by-decade excerpts is a piece from February, 1977, called "Meet Superstar O.J. Simpson: Home Is Always Where the Heart Is." Those were the days, now hard to remember, when O.J. was famous not just as a model athlete--a really nice guy who was great at the game--but as an exemplar of family values, too. O.J. "advocated stern discipline," readers were informed. He gave warnings, and then he spanked. "I found this is the most effective method with my children," he explained. "Talking to them endlessly gets us nowhere, whereas if I spank them, they are calm and repentant afterward." So that's what it takes to make a Simpson fess up.

Ann Hulbert is a senior editor at The New Republic.

By Anne Hulbert