On Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Bernstein, and Trig Palin
Over at The Daily Dish, my colleague Andrew Sullivan airs criticism from Jonathan Bernstein about his coverage of Sarah Palin, specifically on the subject of her infant son, Trig Palin. Here’s a long excerpt from Mr. Bernstein:
I have to admit that I don’t understand the energy and space that Sullivan has devoted to her family, and especially to her youngest son. I can’t claim that I’ve read every word of Sullivan on Trig, but I’ve read quite a bit, and frankly I have no idea why I should care what the truth is about the situation. I get that Sullivan thinks there’s a high probability that what we’ve been told isn’t the truth. But surely pols have the right to dress up their private business in the nicest possible clothing for public consumption, as long as it doesn’t have any implications for how they would govern, or for anything else. And as far as I can see, it doesn’t. As far as I can see, none of the rumors or possible explanations for behavior Sullivan has identified as odd would really tell me anything important about Palin.
I think I have to be a little less vague about this. Sullivan believes that Palin’s birth story for her youngest son is implausible. I think he has a good case for that, for what it’s worth. As I’ve read over the last two years, I’ve seen three possible explanations. The first is the wild one, that the baby isn’t really hers; she’s covering for someone else’s inconvenient pregnancy and has adopted that child. The second is that she was an irresponsible mother, and took terrible risks given the dangerous nature of the pregnancy. The third is that she made the whole thing up, or most of it: she invented a heroic birth story, and then wound up being stuck with it when she suddenly had a massively larger audience.
So. Let’s say one of these is true. Why should I care?
I’m tempted to say that Sullivan owes it to us to explain what he thinks is at stake in the story of Palin and Trig, but I think that’s not quite right. I’ll leave it at this: as a regular reader, I would like to know what he thinks is at stake here. And I might even believe that he owes it to Palin and her family to explain why the stakes are high enough to outweigh their privacy. At least for me, it has to be more than just her habit of straying from the truth; we have more than enough examples of that. Now, granted, Palin herself has led with her family often enough that I can’t say I feel particularly sorry for her on this score, but — and again, just in my opinion — that’s not a reason to invade her family’s privacy.
What I love about The Daily Dish is that Andrew excerpts posts like this from critics (and that folks like Professor Bernstein, who gets a lot of exposure from Dish links, knows that forcefully disagreeing on a subject like this isn’t in the least seen as a betrayal that jeopardizes future links). If everyone on the right who mocks him on this issue aired dissent as openly, a lot of folks would be forced to grapple with audiences surprised at how powerful are the arguments against their least persuasive posts. And the Web would be a better place.
On the merits, I agree with Professor Bernstein here, even after reading Mr. Sullivan’s rebuttal, though you should go read the whole thing for yourself, because I am just going to excerpt a bit that relates to a narrow point I want to make. I should note, before I begin, that I assume Trig Palin is Sarah Palin’s son, and that I don’t think we should go down the road of demanding hard evidence on these sorts of questions (even if it meant never finding out the truth in an individual case) — it sets a precedent that would mire future elections in ever more absurd accusations and counter-accusations, all of them focusing attention on the personal history of candidates rather than their professional qualifications and policy positions, a road we’ve gone too far down already, and that benefits the least qualified seekers of office (and that is unnecessary in the case of a candidate like Sarah Palin, who wouldn’t even make it past summary judgment in a trial to gauge her qualifications for the presidency).
Here’s one part of Andrew’s post that I want to address:
It may be a loony conspiracy theory, like the 9/11 Truthers and the Obama birthers. But we have all seen mounds of evidence that prove the Truthers are out of their minds and we have seen the birth certificate that refutes the Birthers. What have we seen to back up the maternity of Trig? Nada. Not a single page from what must be a mountain of medical records, no birth certificate, nothing but a single page doctor’s note confirming the birth in passing, issued four hours before polls opened, by a doctor who once spoke freely with the local press but clammed up completely as soon as Palin hit the national stage. Yes, we have three photographs of her looking slightly pregnant (though much less so than in her previous pregnancies) toward the end of her term, but we also have photographs, like the one above, from the same period revealing almost nothing at all. The story she has told about her pregnancy, moreover, has not passed any sniff test by some of the leading obstetricians and pediatricians in the country’s leading teaching hospitals.
One explanation for the disparity in evidence: the persistence of questions about Trig helps Sarah Palin. All along, she has savvily used the notion that the media is treating her unfairly to enhance her popularity. An amoral political strategist would advise her to keep hard evidence of Trig’s maternity hidden at all costs in the hope that critics would continue questioning it — if Professor Bernstein and I, both of us huge Sarah Palin critics, doubt the merits of this line of inquiry, imagine how the average American reacts to it, and how the Sarah Palin base reacts. For better or worse, we live in a country where the politics of umbrage are very effective, and Ms. Palin is expert at them. Indeed I fear that speculation about Trig’s maternity increases the chance that she’ll win the 2012 GOP nomination. If a savvy political analyst can be found who disagrees with that assessment, I’d be surprised.
Later in his post, Andrew writes, “if Palin has lied about this, it’s the most staggering, appalling deception in the history of American politics.” I think that on reflection he’d reconsider. How staggering a lie is must relate to consequences. Consider Dick Cheney and the Iraq War, or the treatment of detainees at black sites around the world, just to name two political lies that resulted in loss of life and incalculable damage to our country. Compared to these issues, which The Daily Dish has covered so well, the saga of Sarah Palin and her son are of little consequence. I appreciate wariness about Sarah Palin as 2012 approaches, and since he conducts even inquiries to which I object with a commitment to regularly airing dissent, I can respect Andrew even when his obsessions and mine part — the Dish is a success in large part due to his obsessions and passions, and as his many longtime readers know, no one agrees with him on everything. As the Obama Administration continues to ignore Bush-era lawbreaking, assemble an assassinations list, and normalize other excesses of the War on Terrorism, however, I’d love to convince Andrew that whatever energy he spends on the Trig story is more profitably invested elsewhere.