Life, Art and Family Values

ELLEN GOODMAN

September 15, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- Is there some way to close off this endless, surreal exchange between fact and fiction, real life and sitcom, Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown? It's become as wearisome as witnessing a couple fighting for the last word.

First it was Dan taking Murphy to task for the malfeasance of unwed motherhood. Next it was Murphy waving an Emmy and a finger at Dan for picking on single mothers.

Then last week, Dan tried to turn this heavy stuff into a Lite controversy by doing a promo for Murphy reruns at an L.A. TV station. ''So what's your favorite TV show?'' asked the station manager as the tape rolled. ''Murphy Brown -- Not,'' said the vice president.

And next week, the show's season opener will have Murphy watching Dan attack her on a TV set inside our TV set. She'll answer back.

This is turning into a series of its own.

It's bad enough that George Bush is running against Hillary Clinton without having Dan Quayle run against Murphy Brown. The only one who can keep a grip on reality here is Candice Bergen. But then she had some experience in fantasy, growing up with a ventriloquist father who treated a wooden dummy as if it were her brother.

fTC Mind you, I am not one of those people who regard the ''family values'' debate as some vast distraction from the ''real issues'' of 1992. My dictionary defines issue as ''a major topic of discussion.'' Family may be the major topic of discussion in any gathering less formal than a focus group.

But the Dan-Murphy dialogue about family forms distracts us from the dialogue about family functions. It's the functioning of families, or maybe the dysfunctioning of families, that worries Americans today. There is an uneasy and looming concern that we are shortchanging the people we love.

Like most people, I have spent decades worrying about this as both a working mother and working daughter.

I know that parents with growing children are supposed to monitor what is on their children's television and in their schools, to check for lead paint and the seven signs of drug abuse, to have family dinners, oversee homework, know their friends.

I know that adult children with aging parents are supposed to serve as their buffer with the world, their ombudsman with the system, and sometimes their caretaker. I know how often we don't live up to our own expectations.

Like most Americans I believe that families should take care of their own. But these days we often have to choose between being with our children or housing them. We have to choose between taking care of our elderly parents or preparing for our own old age.

Americans do not wake up in the middle of the night worrying about whether an unwed television mother is corrupting the country's morals. We wake up worrying about money and love, work and family. The balancing act.

The Dan-Murphy debate about family forms, morality and motherhood, is a diversion. It turns attention away from what can be done to mute these conflicts. It focuses on private, not public, choices. On what government can't do rather than what it can do.

Consider what happened last week. While Dan said ''not'' to Murphy, the Bush administration prepared to say no -- again -- to the Family and Medical Leave Act, passed by the Congress Thursday.

This bill asks much, much too little. It would give full-timworkers 12 weeks leave to care for a newborn, or for a seriously ill child, husband, parent. The leave would be unpaid and it would only apply to companies with 50 or more workers. But it is a classic example of the way government can begin to ease family life.

If the president can convince Americans that such a modest bill is too risky because it endangers jobs, then we will have truly sacrificed family to the marketplace. If we go through this season, avoiding a debate on family policies and prolonging a shouting match on family shapes, we will have nothing to lighten our load except bitter judgment of each other.

So much then for the Dan and Murphy show. Life imitates art imitates life imitates art. Any way you look at it, in this too-long running family sitcom, the comedy is wearing thin.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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