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Jewish World Review April 14, 2000 /9 Nissan, 5760

Tony Snow

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Elian's bull market in hypocrisy -- ELIAN GONZALEZ has set off a bull market in hypocrisy, and very few people in Washington have emerged unscathed.

Begin on the right side of the political spectrum. Conservatives traditionally agree that there's something special about the bonds that link parents and children. These ties derive their strength not from legal statutes, but from something more profound. Moms and dads have sacred duties to their daughters and sons.

Conservatives have demanded that fathers live up to their responsibilities because kids turn out much better when they grow up with dads than when they don't. Right-wingers also regard the family as the most essential building block of democracy. The family teaches, nurtures and loves. It protects one from the hardships and challenges of the outside world.

But now comes Juan Miguel Gonzalez and these principles go pfffft!

Inalienable rights have become expendable rights -- and a 6-year-old boy has become a poster child because he has revived the Cold War.

The most common argument against parental rights in this case is that Fidel Castro views Elian as property of the state. This is true, but it ignores the appropriate question: What does the father believe?

Historical analogies are quite popular, too. Many have asked me: Would you return a child whose mother died pushing him over the Berlin Wall, or whose mother died escaping slavery during the Civil War?

The answer is: No. But the analogies don't work. Slave-masters began their denigration of the black family by separating spouses and ensuring that young men grew up with masters, not fathers.

As for the Berlin Wall hypothetical: Nobody shot Elian's mother. My friend and fellow pundit Chris Matthews has suggested viewing the controversy from a different angle. Suppose Elian came over not with his mother and her boyfriend, but his father and the dad's girlfriend. Suppose that the mother were crying to get him back. Would anybody question her motives? And would anybody be arguing this case?

If America's superiority over Cuba dissolves Juan Miguel's custodial rights, we ought to seize his 6-month-old boy right now and deliver him to a land and future of liberty. But of course nobody is suggesting such a thing because kidnapping would render meaningless such terms as "rights" and "freedom."

Americans traditionally have regarded freedom as a byproduct of three things: limited government, the rule of law and private virtue nourished by religion. If we keep Elian here without his father's consent, we violate the first two of those conditions, and perhaps all three.

But enough about the right. This isn't the left's finest hour, either.

Janet Reno earned her national reputation by prosecuting men and women on child-abuse charges, many of which were meritless. She shredded families for political gain.

Early in the Gonzalez drama, she and the Immigration and Naturalization Service said the boy's case belonged in Miami's family courts. She knew how judges likely would rule on the Gonzalez case. (They would be friendly to the Miami relatives.)

But Fidel Castro pitched a fit in December and the Justice Department reversed course. Since then, the administration has shown solicitude for the Gonzalez family that it has not shown elsewhere. Rep. Charles Rangel and others have argued that if Elian were Haitian, he would have been back in Port au Prince for Christmas.

Team Clinton shifted gears in part because the president wanted to begin normalizing relations with Cuba. He had a strategy. He had a timeline. He had deals in the works. And the a little boy gummed up the works. So here we are with Janet Reno dithering, the president running for shelter, Al Gore stuck on the end of a shaky limb and everybody else arguing.

The problem with this case is that we are missing some critical facts: What was the mother's motivation? What kind of father was Juan Miguel? Does the dad secretly want his boy to stay here? Are the Miami relatives fit guardians? What awaits the Gonzalez family in Cuba? And so on. These missing data could help us pick the best course. But we're never going to get the information.

That leaves one option: Pick a principle and stick with it. For me, family rights come before all others. To tinker with them is to invite the whirlwind. There are plenty of cases of disgruntled spouses snatching children and heading for such paradises as Iran. If we transform family bonds into bargaining chips, we may save one boy -- but at the cost of legitimizing such kidnapping and placing the family under even greater assault than it already faces today.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate