Lynne Cheney recently sparked a big laugh at a National Press Club luncheon with her remarks about the criticism that her husband, Vice President Cheney, has taken from Sen. Barack Obama.
"Now, I have told Barack," she quipped, "he really does need to keep these disputes in the family."
Those who keep up with the news know that Mrs. Cheney was referring to her discovery, while researching her new memoir, that the Illinois Democrat is a distant cousin to her Republican husband.
As the electric-haired, rags-to-riches boxing promoter Don King likes to say, only in America! Mrs. Cheney apparently agrees.
"I just thought it was such an amazing American story," she said, "that one ancestor could be responsible down the family line for lives that have taken such different and varied paths."
And, as if that were not enough evidence that this is a small country after all, the Chicago Sun-Times reported in September that Obama is distantly related to President Bush, too. Bush and Obama are descended from Samuel and Sarah Soole Hinckley of 17th-century Massachusetts, Chicago's second largest daily said. Cheney and Obama's ancestors were Mareen and Susannah Duvall, 17th-century immigrants from France.
Obama took the revelation in stride. He told Jay Leno only that he doesn't plan to accompany the vice president on any hunting trips. Smart move.
Politically I don't see a downside for the Cheneys, Obamas or Bushes, except maybe in deciding whether and whom to invite over for Thanksgiving dinner. Lengthy American bloodlines are seldom a negative for American politicians, as long as they don't turn up too many horse thieves.
In fact, for all of our talk about blue bloods and family pedigrees, there's hardly anything more American than having a mulligan stew of races and ethnicity in your family tree.
We learned how rich that stew could be earlier this year when the New York Daily News revealed to the Rev. Al Sharpton that one of his ancestors was not only a slave, but one who was owned by relatives of the late segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond.
The South Carolina Republican died in 2003, long before Sharpton learned about their family connections. If Sharpton had known, who knows? The New York-based minister-agitator might have tried to hit Thurmond up for some reparations.
And Thurmond turns out to have been, shall we say, less of a segregationist in his love life than he was in public. After his death, a retired schoolteacher, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, 78, revealed that she was the offspring of a fling he had with his family's black housekeeper. Like many other segregationist politicians, ol' Strom was more than willing to let his conscience be everyone's guide but his own.
Modern DNA science is adding new dimensions to what we Americans know about ourselves. DNA is even telling us new information about who and how many people our nation's Founding Fathers actually fathered, as Thomas Jefferson's offspring have learned.
On the flip side, it also has produced cases like Wayne Joseph, a Chino, Calif., high school principal of Creole descent who took an ethnic DNA test a few years ago out of curiosity about his genetic history. Much to his surprise, the test found Indo-European, East Asian and Native American DNA, but none from Africa!
Back in the bad old days of segregated Louisiana, it turns out, his ancestors apparently passed as light-skinned blacks in the Creole community instead of trying to pass as Indian or Asian in the white community. Yet after more than 50 years of living as an African American, Joseph told reporters, he could not abruptly stop now. His chromosomes might not show African roots, but his identity was produced by the African American experience.
Stories like these raise thought-provoking questions about how we Americans see ourselves. Culture, which is the values shared by various communities, has a lot more to do with who we are than our skin color does.
The word "multiculturalism" frightens a lot of people. They fear it means a loss of the good things about the culture with which they feel comfortable. But when I asked Mrs. Cheney, a former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, she said she was all for "multicultural" education, as long as it is "balanced and coupled with a very deep and strong education in the history of the United States."
I agree. The Founding Fathers were hardly perfect people, but let's give them proper credit. The foundation that they laid for this increasingly diverse country was so imperfect that it allowed slavery. But it also brilliantly included the mechanism for its own improvement. A woman or a black man, for example, could hardly have dreamed of being president in this country's early days. Today they can. In fact, it's looking more possible with each passing day.