Sarah Palin electrifies the Republican base and the mommy wars.
From the moment Republican presidential nominee John McCain plucked Alaska Governor and self-described “hockey mom” Sarah Palin from small-state obscurity to place her in the number two slot on the GOP ticket this November, the questions have multiplied like rabbits, leaving pundits and voters alike to wonder just how much, in this election cycle anyway, the personal is political.
Let’s start with the rumors. Within twenty-four hours of the Palin announcement last Friday, the Internet was buzzing with speculation that four-month-old Trig Palin, who has Down syndrome, was actually the governor’s grandson. The blog equivalents of Woodward and Bernstein linked to photos from both official sites (including some that were later moved, taken down, or re-captioned) and MySpace (including those of a girl calling Bristol her “SIS in law!”) to argue that Palin had undertaken a sham pregnancy to cover up for her teenaged daughter Bristol. Given published reports that Palin “simply [didn't] look pregnant” when she announced the pregnancy in March (Trig was born in April), along with a dearth of photos online showing a discernible bump and widespread rumors that Bristol had spent months out of school due to mono, the story sounded both deliciously scandalous and vaguely plausible.
Even those who didn’t believe the Trig-as-Bristol’s-baby meme found some details of the baby’s birth unsettling, what with Palin reportedly boarding an eleven-hour commercial flight home after her water broke in Texas, where she’d delivered a speech, then driving to the tiny regional hospital in Wasilla rather than give birth in Anchorage (despite the baby’s high risk status and prematurity). It takes some serious conspiracy-minded thinking to imagine dozens of hospital personnel going along with a baby switcheroo, but any reasonable woman who has had a child might find Palin’s choices around Trig’s birth questionable at best.
As the Web heated up, the professionals took over. On Monday, the day the GOP convention was set to open – and the day Hurricane Gustav took aim at New Orleans and the Gulf Coast – the Palin campaign made a statement. Seventeen-year-old Bristol, they said, was five months pregnant, expecting in December, and she was planning to marry her boyfriend and make it all official. Presented as part precious miracle, part parental cross-to-bear, the Bristol pregnancy announcement was intended and timed, according to spokesperson Tucker Eskew (the Republican operative who, while working for George W. Bush in 2000, torpedoed McCain’s primary bid in South Carolina), to “flush the toilet,” a charming political term for releasing all a candidate’s negative baggage at once. The family later promised that Bristol’s fianc’, Levi Johnston, will be attending the Republican National Convention and presumably appearing with the Palin family when she accepts the nomination Wednesday in St. Paul. That is, if she does accept; as I write, odds-makers calculate a twelve percent likelihood that Palin will drop out as the VP candidate.
In the seventy-two hours since the country’s second female Vice Presidential nominee was named, the country has ridden a roller coaster of revelations and assumptions, leaving the complex work of separating rumor from fact, distraction from revelation. In the wake of what seemed like lax vetting from McCain, as Jack Shafter of Slate pointed out, any story about Palin felt like a scoop. And given that McCain’s choice seemed calculated to both energize his party’s far-right social conservative base and appeal to any remaining disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters, any questions raised about Palin’s children, pregnancies, pregnant children, etc., were sure to invite scrutiny for sexism and double standards.
But it’s Palin’s positions on social issues like abortion that make it so hard not to comment on, or at least ask questions about, her family life and choices. Palin, a member of Feminists for Life, an anti-abortion group that favors overturning Roe v. Wade, says she chose to continue a pregnancy after she was told at four months that the baby had Down syndrome. Supporters see her as someone who “walks the walk” of her conservative positions, even at a time when some 80-90% of women (including, presumably, thousands who consider themselves “pro-life”) choose to abort in the same situation. If the campaign chooses to share the Palins’ very personal story to gain favor among these voters, can it on the other hand ask for privacy as they deal with Bristol’s pregnancy? Similarly, many social conservatives see the Palins’ support of Bristol as a sign of strong family values during difficult circumstances; is it off-limits to ask whether Palin (or McCain) would consider abstinence-only education a success? How about their position on birth control, itself under attack by the lame-duck Bush adminstration? Or funding to health and other services for pregnant teenagers, a budget item Palin cut as Alaska governor?
When a candidate is chosen in large part for her biography, how can her life choices be off limits? It’s certainly true that most of those who have worried about Palin’s ability to handle her family crises while running for VP did not express similar qualms about her counterpart Joe Biden’s decision to serve his first Senate term even while his two sons recovered from the car accident that claimed the lives of their sister and mother. Yet is it fair for the campaign to suggest that any query about Palin’s qualifications for office is itself offensive and sexist? When a candidate is chosen in large part for her biography (as a friend put it, her foreign policy credential is “son in Iraq,” while her family values credential is “son with Down’s”), how can her life choices be off limits?
Certainly there are other, non-maternal scandals in Palin’s portfolio, and I’d like to see the media get to work on them. Her one-time membership in the Alaskan Independence Party, which advocates secession from the Union, is intriguing, as are the statements of her pastor, who believes that God speaks to him and allows him to read people’s minds. I would like to know more about her attempts to ban books from the Wasilla Public Library, especially since her vast executive experience is often cited to her credit.
But when even Lindsay Lohan, a lifelong expert on lousy parenting, goes online to criticize your parenting choices, this is clearly a mommy issue.
For most women, most mothers anyway, Sarah Palin’s situation will seem both alien and familiar. Most of us have never run for high office but we’ve all had to justify our work lives to our families and vice versa. The question in her case is, just what does her family life tell us about how she’d do the job she’s asking us to give her?
What do you think about all this? How do you think Sarah Palin’s mothering relates to her potential as V.P.? Tell us in comments!
Photo courtesy JohnMcCain.com. (Seriously, this is an official press photo.)