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NRA’s tactics McCarthy-like

In 2008, just after Barack Obama was elected, I gave a TV interview regarding what the Obamas might expect on becoming the new first family. I was asked specifically how Malia and Sasha’s lives would change. For a start, I said, they won’t play outside without armed guards.

I know something about that. For the eight years that my grandfather, Dwight Eisenhower, was president, I had Secret Service protection. Known as the “Diaper Detail,” these armed agents protected my sisters, brother and me from potential kidnappings or other targeted attacks. Such threats might be aimed at hurting us, but they would also strike a devastating blow to the president and possibly our national security. I repeat: We had Secret Service protection because we were seen as potential targets.

That’s why any thinking person has to be disgusted by the National Rifle Association ad suggesting that the president is an “elitist hypocrite” because his children have the benefit of armed protection at school and the nation’s children as a whole do not. This is absurd. The nation’s children are not individually at risk the way the Obama children are.

And the Obama girls are not exactly lucky to have a protection detail. How lucky is it to grow up with a loss of privacy and freedom, along with the psychological effects of a childhood shadowed by armed bodyguards? As sensitive, respectful and kind as these agents are, having Secret Service protection is part of the sacrifice that presidential families make in the name of public service. Those who have had armed protection can suffer lifelong feelings of physical vulnerability, a sense of always being watched or a longing for the feeling of continued dependency.

Having armed guards at school, even for part of the day, is not the environment we should wish for America’s children, nor does it foster a tension-free educational experience. So let’s turn the national conversation back to how we can make our schools safer without creating fear and anxiety.

The NRA’s attack ad should be condemned for exacerbating the dangers faced by the president and his family. Regrettably, it is emblematic of a new trend in public policy and communications strategy. Instead of arguing the merits of an issue, broader public questions are spun into personal attacks. The NRA has tried to assure the public that the argument is not about guns but about some negative personal image it has concocted for the president. At the end of the ad, a voice intones, “President Obama demands that Americans pay their fair share of taxes, but he’s just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security.”

This brilliantly diabolical non sequitur hurts more than the president and his family. It hurts our democracy by twisting the nature of the public debate.

Even a longtime Washingtonian such as I thought these ads couldn’t get worse. So I have a question for the NRA and others who use such tactics: Have you no sense of decency, sirs?

Susan Eisenhower is chairwoman of leadership and public policy programs at the Eisenhower Institute. She wrote this for the Washington Post.