I vividly remember the first time I was introduced to the phrase “Family Values.” It was the early 1990′ and I was driving in my car. I looked out of the window and saw the strange verbiage promoting a new subdivision on a towering billboard above the highway.

The sign didn’t perturb me, but I was puzzled by the slogan. Having grown up in a series of subdivisions, it went without saying that the existing cul-de-sacs were always brimming with families.

So, what made this development so different? Did they forbid singles from living behind the gates? What if a divorce occurred, did the broken family have to move? Did offspring have to eventually leave if they had not married by a certain age? Were gay people forbidden from living there?

What I found most bewildering was the idea of promoting family, as if it were a prefab product that could be marketed, packaged and came with 2 ¬? bathrooms. That seemed as forced and unnatural as the wax fruit placed on the coffee tables of model homes in such developments.

At that time, my parents had been together for more than 20 years (They celebrate their 40 year anniversary in August). Their lifetime together was just an organic experience that didn’t need to be trumpeted. They never had to say, “look at us, aren’t we just the healthiest, happiest family you’ve ever seen? Check out our wonderful morals and values. Aren’t we special? And, by the way, vote for a specific political party to keep us together.”

Aside from politicians kissing babies and posing with their brood, I always imagined the value of family to be a private affair. It was an intimate bond between two people and their children. The ostentatious commercial worship of this unit seemed jarring and exploitative. Indeed, it seemed anathema to actual healthy families. If one’s family were so wonderful, after all, why would it need a special subdivision?

Shortly after I saw this billboard, President George Bush and his vacuous Vice President, Dan Quayle, brought the “family values” mantra into the political arena. Religious scolds, who worked to transform marriage from a private institution to a very public one, championed this moral marketing campaign. The GOP soon recast itself as the great defender of family and assiduously catered to this crowd, who eventually took over the party.

In reality, of course, strong families don’t need to be defended. If a husband and wife are busy cuddling, they don’t need candidate crusaders. If parents are taking their children to soccer practice, they don’t need James Dobson socking imagined enemies.

Come to think of it, the perceived family foes were always of straw. The main villains were dreaded liberals — such as my parents and the Obamas. You know, the ones who actually kept their families together without a media campaign promoting their virtues. Even the Clintons, the bane of the right, have managed to keep their family together.

Twenty years later, the inconvenience of life has run the family values fraud off the rails. This racket is now the realm of fakes and flakes, phonies and freaks. The Republican Party is now dominated by news of preachy pols and their sordid affairs, with soap opera lives of tabloid fare. (Like a line-up of bad reality TV, we’ve got Sarah and Sanford and Ensign and Rush — and let’s not forget Vitter and Newt.)

At this point, the astonishment has worn off. Let’s just be honest and admit that the modern GOP is a pathological party of head cases and closet cases.

The bombastic base consists of many people who lack self-control. They can’t keep their hands out of the cookie jar, so they work the political system to ban the container, so no one can enjoy a treat. What must eat these hypocrites alive is the fact that many “immoral liberals” are actually more likely to take one cookie and walk away from sweet temptation.

In retrospect, Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings oddly cast the president in the role of Jesus Christ. He was pilloried by the self-righteous and they thirsted for his blood to atone for their own seismic sins. It is no coincidence that those who most stridently nailed Clinton, were the most likely to be nailing someone who wasn’t his or her spouse. (Who can forget Sen. Larry Craig calling Clinton a “bad naughty” boy)

The family values ad I saw in my youth makes no more sense today than it did two decades ago. Perhaps, families never belonged on billboards to be politicized and commercialized in the first place. Seriously, if you need a congressman to save your family, maybe your marriage isn’t worth saving.

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