Another Perspective

‘Punished With a Baby’

Bristol Palin, 17, brings the GOP -- and America -- to a crisis.

By 9.2.08

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Jay Leno will have a field day with this one, and the writers at Saturday Night Live are probably exchanging high fives at how Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign has made their job so easy.

McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate excited the Republican Party's conservative base, generating $10 million in new contributions and attracting overflow audiences.

Critics carped about her relative inexperience, but Palin struck many as just the right balance for the GOP ticket. Conservatives pushed back hard against the likes of Paul Begala, who denounced Palin as "completely unqualified" for the vice presidency and called McCain's running-mate pick "shockingly irresponsible."

Then, shortly before noon yesterday, Reuters reported that Palin's 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, is five months pregnant. Within minutes, the McCain campaign issued a 131-word statement from the Palins, saying that their daughter would be marrying soon, and that they were "proud of Bristol's decision to have her baby and even prouder to become grandparents."

"As Bristol faces the responsibilities of adulthood, she knows she has our unconditional love and support," the Palins said in a statement that cryptically referred to the presumed father of their grandchild only by his first name. "We ask the media to respect our daughter and Levi's privacy as has always been the tradition of children of candidates."

SYMPATHIZERS IMMEDIATELY focused on the human dimension of Bristol Palin's plight, but cold-eyed realists saw the makings of a first-class public relations nightmare.

Campaign staff told reporters that McCain had known of Bristol's pregnancy and had seen it as no hindrance to putting Palin on the ticket. OK, fine -- so why weren't the Palins advised to disclose the pregnancy before the veep selection was announced?

According to Time magazine, Bristol's situation was no secret in Wasilla, Alaska. Did the McCain campaign suppose the media would ignore the story until Nov. 5, by which time Bristol would be seven months along?

McCain advisors said they went public with Bristol's pregnancy in response to "despicable rumors that have been spread by liberal blogs" asserting that Sarah Palin's fifth child, Trig, born in April with Down syndrome, was actually Bristol's child and that the governor had faked pregnancy in order to keep her daughter's pregnancy secret.

As truly despicable as those rumors were, Bristol's actual pregnancy was indeed kept secret -- at least outside of Wasilla -- and it's possible that the bloggers who spread the rumors were basing their wild theories on garbled gossip from Alaska.

The story was thoroughly mishandled by the McCain campaign and continues to be mishandled. How long do they suppose it will take reporters to identify the mysterious Levi? Less than 24 hours, I'll bet. So why didn't they fully disclose his identity in their statement?

HOWEVER MISHANDLED the story may have been, social conservatives immediately rallied to the pro-life message of Bristol's decision.

James Dobson of Focus on the Family weighed in with a supportive statement. On CNN, Bill Bennett slammed the network for "attack journalism" in trying to tie Bristol's pregnancy to her mother's opposition to sex education in schools. On Fox News, Bill Kristol said it was "inappropriate" and "disgusting" for colleague Morton Kondracke to use the situation to criticize abstinence education.

Perhaps most surprising was the response from Sen. Barack Obama, who told reporters in Michigan that the press should "back off these kinds of stories."

"You know my mother had me when she was 18 and how a family deals with issues and teenage children, that shouldn't be a topic of our politics," Obama said.

Many conservatives, however, recalled Obama's statement in March that if his daughters "make a mistake, I don't want them punished with a baby."

That "punishment" now affects the Republican ticket and, despite Obama's admonition yesterday, the press won't back off. Even if mainstream news organizations initially shy away from the story, the tabloids and blogs will stay after it, and op-ed pundits will weigh in on both sides. Expect it to be the lead topic on Sunday's talk shows.

Most to be feared, however, is the ridicule the story will generate. Maybe Leno will consider a pregnant teenager off-limits for his Tonight show routine, but don't expect Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to avoid jokes at Bristol Palin's expense. And Saturday Night Live will surely pounce on the subject with satirical glee.

WHEN MCCAIN FIRST announced the Alaska governor as his vice-presidential choice, it was seen as a high-stakes gamble -- as Kristol said Sunday on Fox, the GOP maverick went "all-in" and "doubled down" by picking a relative unknown.

It may yet prove a winning bet, especially if the Democrats overplay their hand. Liberal columnist Kirsten Powers has warned that Team Obama faces a trap if they attack Palin's inexperience or treat her with chauvinist condescension.

At this point, McCain and the Republicans cannot win by backing away from Palin. The choice of a running mate doesn't allow for second chances, as Democrat George McGovern discovered in 1972. Having made his bet, the maverick must play out the hand.

Beyond the gambling metaphors, however, lies a sobering reality. The presidency of the United States is at stake, and maunderings about the need to "respect...privacy" aren't likely to quell the uproar.

Strange as it seems in this time of war and economic crisis, the tale of a pregnant teenager could determine who will be the next Leader of the Free World. Surely this wasn't what feminists meant when they coined the phrase "the personal is political." Or was it?

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.