If there is a lesson to be learned from Sarah Palin's withdrawal from public office, it is this: if you want to take out a female politician, you go after her children.
There is likely no one and single reason for Palin's withdrawal, and she cited a bunch of them in her disorganized "you won't have Sarah Palin to kick around anymore" speech. But two things seem to explain most logically Palin's behavior: she was ground down by the unusually vitriolic campaign waged against her, and the aspect of that campaign that did the most damage was the attacks on her children. As Palin put it in her speech:
In fact, this decision comes after much consideration, and finally polling the most important people in my life - my children (where the count was unanimous...well, in response to asking: "Want me to make a positive difference and fight for ALL our children's future from OUTSIDE the Governor's office?" It was four "yes's" and one "hell yeah!" The "hell yeah" sealed it - and someday I'll talk about the details of that...I think much of it had to do with the kids seeing their baby brother Trig mocked by some pretty mean-spirited adults recently.) Um, by the way, sure wish folks could ever, ever understand that we ALL could learn so much from someone like Trig - I know he needs me, but I need him even more...what a child can offer to set priorities RIGHT - that time is precious...the world needs more "Trigs", not fewer.
All national politicians take their share of potshots; it comes with the territory, and anybody who can't take the heat, as Harry Truman famously said, should get out of the kitchen. And with that heat inevitably comes some spillover onto a politician's family members - especially if those family members are politically outspoken adults, Washington lobbyists, or businesspeople involved in shady practices. But some grief will come as well to soft-spoken spouses and minor children. It's the nature of the business.
But no politician in modern memory, not even Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, has faced the sort of ferociously personal assault that greeted Palin from the instant she set foot on the national stage, in many cases before her detractors even knew anything about her besides that she was female, attractive, pro-life and pro-gun. And while the pervasive crude sexual references to Palin were horrible, the assault on her family was the worst of all. Palin has worn many hats in her life - Vice-Presidential candidate, Governor, Mayor, Oil & Gas Commissioner, City Councilwoman, sportscaster, point guard, runner, beauty queen, moose hunter - but it's clear that the role that defines her is her role as the mother of five children. And as James Taranto put it, "If you've never met or had a mother, the thing to know about them is that they tend to be very protective of their children."
There is fairly widespread public and media agreement that criticizing, mocking or making more than glancing political use of President Obama's two daughters is an absolute no-no. For the media's part, the effort to spare the President's children dates back to the Clinton years. Yes, there were mean-spirited jokes told at the expense of Chelsea Clinton, but Republicans who did so (John McCain, Rush Limbaugh) almost always immediately apologized, and Saturday Night Live eventually eased off on Chelsea. There was also regular vitriol from the left, mainly in the blogospehere, aimed at Jenna and Barbara Bush, and no apologies of any kind. But much of that was under the public radar. (John Kerry and John Edwards both bringing up Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter in the 2004 debates wasn't, but at least Mary Cheney is an adult). We have simply never seen anything like the targeting of Palin's children, under a variety of flimsy pretenses that no mother would ever accept as a basis for going after her kids.
One must attribute at least part of the vileness of these attacks, among left-wing blogs, to how very few of the leading left-wing bloggers have children of their own - were conservatives tempted to mock Obama's daughters, they would at least have to face their own daughters and sons at the end of a day of doing so. A political movement of the childless has no empathy for children. Empathy for other human beings requires human decency, and decency breeds hesitation - a hesitation the Online Left has never displayed. Were any of these people capable of shame, they would be feeling it. Instead, they have been gleefully dancing on Palin's political grave ever since. It is worth considering what the "New Politics" has looked like when applied to Sarah Palin, because it presents a cautionary tale for Republicans with families.
The most egregious example was posted on Daily Kos on Sept. 12, 2008 by Paul Lewis Hackett III, a trial lawyer and U.S. Marine Corps veteran of Iraq, who ran in 2005 for a vacant seat in the House from Ohio's second congressional district, losing narrowly in a district President Bush had carried easily just a year earlier.
Fretting that the Obama campaign was going to lose Ohio to McCain, Hackett proposed his own solution: A series of savage attacks on the GOP ticket focusing on Sarah Palin and her family. Here is what he wrote:
The message (would be) simple and the professionals can refine it but essentially it should contain these elements: Sarah Palin? Can't keep her solemn oath of devotion to her husband and had sex with his employee. Sarah Palin? Accidentally got pregnant at age 43 and the tax payers of Alaska have to pay for the care of her disabled child. Sarah Palin? Unable to teach her 16 year old daughter right from wrong and now another teenager is pregnant. Sarah Palin? Can you trust Sarah Palin and her values with America's future?
Apparently, Hackett took the rumors of an affair from the National Enquirer, which offered no proof, or even evidence. He then segued into an even uglier line of attack, arguing that it's irresponsible to bring a handicapped baby into the world. This is not "pro-choice," it's pro-eugenics. It's also creepy and illiberal, and reinforces conservatives' worst fears about Democrats and the issue of abortion. And, oh yes, Bristol Palin's age was wrong. She was nearly 18 when Hackett wrote this screed, not 16. This proved a harbinger, too, as misinformation slipped easily from the left blogosphere into mainstream coverage.
TIME Magazine noted that back in August, "National Enquirer sent four reporters to Alaska, hoovering up gossip about drug use by her older children and long-ago marital infidelity"; stories were run on drug use by her oldest son Track, who was serving in Iraq and thus, ironically, unavailable to defend himself. Cannon noted how Trig Trutherism forced the story of Bristol's pregnancy into the fore, and how differently it was handled than crackpot conspiracy theories on the Right:
Also, it's important to remember why the Palin family even acknowledged Bristol's pregnancy: Because a thousand "liberal" Web sites, led by Daily Kos, the favored site of leftist Democrats, filled cyberspace with off-the-wall theories that Trig Palin was really Bristol's child and that Sarah had faked her own pregnancy. This was truly ugly territory, and nutty besides. It's not terribly different from the Obama-is-a-secret-Muslim-not-born-in-this-country stuff, with one crucial distinction: The Obama Muslim stuff was either debunked or ignored by the media --not the conspiracy theories about Trig Palin's birth. In some quarters of the evolving new media - The Huffington Post and Bill Maher's HBO program, to name two - the Palin pregnancy hoax was repeated. Some traditional outlets, including Vanity Fair and, most inexplicably, The Atlantic blog written by Andrew Sullivan, kept hammering away at it after it was proven false by photographic evidence and by Bristol's own pregnancy.
Taranto noted the bile spewed specifically at Palin's infant son Trig:
Palin-haters have been unusually uninhibited in their cruel mockery of the governor's children, particularly Bristol and Trig. HotAir.com's "Allahpundit" notes that Palin's resignation moved one Erik Nelson to write a Puffington Host post titled "Palin Will Run in '12 on More Retardation Platform." (Trig Palin has Down's syndrome.)
Nelson thought better of the post, pulled it, and offered an apology. He should have apologized for being unoriginal. Last September the Onion published a fake op-ed attributed to Palin, lauding "my vote-stealing retard baby."
Daughter Bristol Palin's relationship with her baby's father, Levi, has been ripped open for public consumption in the aftermath as he's appeared on "The Tyra Banks Show" to discuss his sexual experiences with her and was seen shirtless in the pages of GQ magazine. When Bristol attempted to become a spokeswoman for abstinence, based on her experience as a teenage mother, she was pilloried as a hypocrite and mouthpiece for her power-hungry mother.
In the midst of the election season, Mrs. Palin's personal e-mail account was hacked by the son of a Democratic Tennessee representative. Then, an arsonist set her hometown church on fire in December.
Mrs. Palin has fended off 15 ethics complaints since last fall, costing her at least $500,000 in legal bills, according to her aides. Most of the complaints would be considered frivolous by most reasonable measures, filed by state-based liberal bloggers for things like wearing a jacket made by a company who sponsored her husband's snow machine races to a public event and conducting television interviews in her state-provided office.
Ben Voth drives home the point about the church-burning in particular - the culprits for which have never been apprehended - which led Palin to apologize to her fellow congregants for the negative attention her career brought down on them:
A public figure openly called for Palin to be raped during the campaign. Months after the losing campaign was over, a major comedian joked about the fictitious rape of one of her daughters. Immediately after the election, her church was burned. It's fairly difficult to reconcile this 'heat' as something conventional in politics. In fact, there might be some good reason to collectively indict Palin critics for their silent complicity.
This would go a long way to explain why many in the public seem more drawn to Palin after the resignation and the absurd media reactions to it. Keep in mind that these incidents remain unrepented public attacks. The media refused to offer much comment on the burning of Palin's church -- a silence which conveyed an implied endorsement of that attack. Imagine if Obama had lost the election and Jeremiah Wright's church had been burned. Where would the punditry be?
Paparazzi regularly stalked the family, once ambushing Bristol Palin when she arrived with her newborn and her father at the Beehive beauty salon. Mr. Palin was forced to wait for her in the car with Bristol's baby, Tripp, whose image was fetching a particularly high tabloid bounty.
If Bristol Palin was avoiding the limelight, her estranged boyfriend was seeking it. Mr. Johnston appeared bare-chested in GQ magazine holding Tripp. He told the talk show host Tyra Banks that he was certain Ms. Palin knew his relationship with her teenage daughter had been sexual.
Then, of course, there was the highly-publicized flap with David Letterman:
During his opening monologue on CBS' "Late Night" Monday, Letterman poked fun at Palin's visit with her family to a New York Yankees game this past weekend. "There was one awkward moment during the seventh inning stretch," Letterman said. "Her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez."
Letterman also said the hardest part about the Palins' trip to New York was "keeping [former New York Gov.] Eliot Spitzer away from her daughter."
Presumably, Letterman thought it was OK to make sex jokes about Bristol - really, does she deserve that? would you feel the same way if she was your daughter going through young single motherhood after a teen pregnancy? - but he misfired badly, as Palin was accompanied by 14-year-old Willow at the game. (Letterman also took the kind of potshot no liberal politician would be forced to endure, cracking that Palin "was in New York to pick up some 'slutty flight attendant' lipstick."). Palin, predictably, went nuclear, and ultimately forced an apology from Letterman, but once again she was off spending time defending her daughters from the national media.
Here are lessons of the Sarah Palin experience, for any aspiring politician who shares her background and her sex. Your children will go through the tabloid wringer. Your religion will be mocked and misrepresented. Your political record will be distorted, to better parody your family and your faith. (And no, gentle reader, Palin did not insist on abstinence-only sex education, slash funds for special-needs children or inject creationism into public schools.)
Male commentators will attack you for parading your children. Female commentators will attack you for not staying home with them. You'll be sneered at for how you talk and how many colleges you attended. You’ll endure gibes about your "slutty" looks and your "white trash concupiscence," while a prominent female academic declares that your "greatest hypocrisy" is the "pretense" that you're a woman. And eight months after the election, the professionals who pressed you into the service of a gimmicky, dreary, idea-free campaign will still be blaming you for their defeat.
All of this had something to do with ordinary partisan politics. But it had everything to do with Palin's gender and her social class.
As the TIME profile notes, Palin closely followed and insisted on a response to every attack hurled her way. It's the polar opposite of George W. Bush's attitude, which for 9 years (including the 2000 campaign) was to ignore criticism almost entirely. The upside of Bush's approach was confident and steady leadership; the downside was a complete abdication of the field of public debate to his enemies, and an emboldening of them (if no charge would be answered, there was no downside in making the most inflammatory or spurious of charges). Palin's push-back-on-everything view, however, has its own costs, as it entangles the leader herself in personally absorbing every body blow. A more logical division of labor is for the candidate to hire people who do the daily work of fighting back, as long as they're given enough information to fight back with.
The second prong of the attacks that brought down Palin was the abuse by left-wing bloggers of Alaska's wide-open system (previously supported, ironically, by Palin herself) allowing almost anyone to file an ethics complaint against the Governor that would automatically trigger a costly and distracting investigation. Martin A. Knight has looked in detail at how this system was gamed by left-wing bloggers, sometimes pseudonymously, and the more than $500,000 in legal bills it imposed on the Palin family, in addition to the costs to Alaska taxpayers as the Governor's legal staff was swamped by the assault. The ethics charges against Palin were all unsuccessful and generally frivolous, but that wasn't the point; the effort to taint her good name and bankrupt her financially was. As TIME noted:
Since the election in November, Palin has been hit with at least 10 ethics complaints for such alleged offenses as allowing her picture to be used to promote Alaskan fisheries and wearing a logo on her snowmobile gear. One complaint was filed under a pseudonym borrowed from a British soap opera. Most were quickly dismissed. And yet, Palin says, she arrived at the conclusion that there would always be more and that the complaints would consume her remaining time as governor.
Followers of Palin's Twitter feed in recent months would have to notice that her most enthusiastic posts involved the dismissal of these various complaints. The ethics complaint machinery was even used to block Palin from accessing funds raised to defray her legal expenses:
While the defense fund has raised more than $250,000, according to its trustee, the money cannot be spent pending resolution of an ethics complaint that contends that the contributions could amount to improper gifts.
That financial strain, unknown to most national politicians, put hardship on her family as well:
Her husband, Todd, her most trusted adviser, was spending less time at her side both because they needed money from his oil industry job, friends say, and because questions had been raised about whether he had been too involved at the Capitol.
The bogus ethics complaint machinery has rolled onward, as witness her attorney's statement on the 18th and 19th ethics complaints filed against Palin:
When Governor Palin announced that she would be resigning, in part, because of the unusual number of frivolous ethics complaints burdening the state of Alaska, that was not intended to be an invitation to file more frivolous ethics complaints. Not everyone got the message. As if to underscore the Governor's point, two more frivolous complaints were filed this week.
For example, Raymond A. Ward (DOB 1947), has apparently filed a state ethics complaint (No. 19) incorrectly alleging that the Governor has appeared on "television and radio variety shows earning and accepting money for personal and private use on state time." These allegations are categorically false. Though signed under "penalty of purgery" (sic) it is apparent that Mr. Ward has no factual basis for the statements he has made.
Governor Palin has never been paid an appearance fee or received other remuneration from any "television or radio" show. She has not been paid for any media interview. The allegations made by Mr. Ward have no basis in truth.
In releasing the complaint publicly today, Mr. Ward violated the confidentiality provision of the Ethics Act.
All of this is on top of the campaign of innumerable falsehoods flung at Palin daily through the campaign, such as when Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times reported falsely that Palin had belonged to an Alaskan third party without bothering to consult voter registration records showing that she's been a registered Republican since being old enough to vote. The Left keeps up the campaign of deliberate smears even now, inventing a story that Palin was resigning under an FBI investigation, which an FBI spokesman unequivocally denied:
"There is absolutely no truth to those rumors that we're investigating her or getting ready to indict her," Special Agent Eric Gonzalez said in a phone interview Saturday. "It's just not true." He added that there was "no wiggle room" in his comments for any kind of inquiry.
The FBI story was spread with deliberate malice by many left-wing blogs; it had no basis in fact, but who cares? And no line of attack was too petty; when Palin Tweeted that Todd "left fishing grnds to join me this wkend; but now he’s back slaying salmon & working the kids @ the site; anxious to join ‘em!," left-wing Washington Post writer Greg Sargent, his sensibilities strained to breaking by the thought of salmon fishing, sniped that she was "looking forward to spending more time with my family killing animals." Perhaps the most amusingly baroque theory was a radio caller to Al Sharpton's show who suggested that Palin was dropping out because she had murdered Michael Jackson. Sharpton called the theory "interesting."
Naturally, the Palin camp suspects that the blog and media assault is more coordinated than it appears:
"A lot of this comes from Washington, D.C. The trail is pretty direct and pretty obvious to us," says Meg Stapleton, a close Palin adviser in Alaska. Awaiting a flight back to Anchorage from distant Dillingham, Stapleton adds that the anti-Palin offensive seems lifted straight from The Thumpin', which describes the political strategies of Rahm Emanuel, who is now the White House chief of staff. "It's the Sarah Palin playbook. It's how they operate," Stapleton says.
Palin and her Alaska circle find evidence for their suspicions about the White House in the person of Pete Rouse, who lived in Juneau for a time before he became chief of staff to a young U.S. Senator named Barack Obama. Rouse, they note, is a friend of former Alaska state senator Kim Elton, who pushed the first ethics investigation of Palin, examining her controversial firing of the state's public-safety commissioner. Both Rouse and Elton have joined the Obama Administration.
Regardless of the source, at the end of the day, all of this presents something of an ethical conundrum for the Right: whether to find a way to disarm these kinds of assaults, or failing that, to imitate them. Either way, it won't stop until the other side has a downside for continuing in this vein. The history of national politics suggests, unfortunately, that the latter is more usually the path taken: after absorbing years of harrassing Independent Counsel investigations and a bogus sexual harrassment flap, the Right turned those same weapons on Bill Clinton. After Newt Gingrich mastered the machinery of House Ethics complaints to bring down Speaker Jim Wright, the same machinery was used to help topple Newt. The Right will have a decision to make: whether to make like villians on "24" and adopt the war of personal attrition against family members used by the left-wing blogs, or accept that some punches should not be thrown and some playing fields simply can't be leveled. Neither choice is an appealing one, and for now at least the fact that the Right lacks the paid online 24/7 resources of the Left suggests that it is not even capable of the former. But in time, that worm may turn, and it's hard to see how anything in the world of politics will be improved as a result.
As for Palin herself, she remains a galvanizing figure who commands attention with every move, and we have almost certainly not heard the last of her. There are many ways for her to contribute to the public debate - op-eds, TV appearances, maybe a TV or radio show, book deals - and most of them are not fettered by Alaska's Lilliputian ethics system, while staying outside of public office and formal campaigning may make it easier to shield Palin's children from further abuse. Ironically, less time spent governing Alaska may give her more time to study and reflect on national politics. Only a fool would count her out of the political scene entirely, especially in today's volatile populist climate. But it's hard to see her as a serious presidential contender in the future. Presidents have to put all other things aside for their jobs, even their families. Maybe Barack Obama has broken the mold of requiring presidents to have some relevant experience, and maybe her primary opponent in 2012 would be a one-term Governor (Mitt Romney), but at the end of the day, a one-term governor who didn't even finish her term is not a credible presidential contender.
My reaction to Palin's decision, the more I think about it, is in some ways the opposite of my reaction to Mark Sanford. Palin has been a deep disappointment politically - she could have accomplished a lot more. Those of us who saw in her toughness, combativeness and joyful presence on the campaign trail a possible President are inevitably disappointed, as we've been disappointed again and again by Republicans - Sanford, Rudy, Fred, McCain, Romney - who one way or another always seemed to lack the fire to take the battle to the other side day in and day out for the cause. But as a human being, she walks away a success in a way that few people in Washington can contemplate, and few of her detractors could ever relate to. The salmon are biting, the sun is shining, the kids are playing, and the road is rising before her, and she's going where she's needed. If that's the epitaph for good, decent mothers in politics, well, we're a smaller, meaner nation for it.