Thursday, September 4, 2008

Gawk at the Palin brood, but don't press it

Family values are under the spotlight at the GOP convention, and much criticism has been launched at the media for following up on the announcement by Sarah Palin that her teenage daughter is pregnant. Palin's initial beef was with bloggers, who had questioned whether her last child was actually her grandson because of the Governor's reported delay in seeking medical attention in a high-risk birth. This Associated Press analysis examines the contradictions in the Republican party's mixed messages to the 4th estate, on a day when the stage threatened to collapse under the combined weight of what some bloggers call the Clampetts of the North, associated with John McCain's "trophy vice", as Maureen Dowd dubbed the feisty fundamentalist politician otherwise known as Sarah Barracuda.

ST. PAUL, Minn. - People: Make up your minds.

For two days, the chorus from Republicans on TV news and in the halls of the convention has been resounding: Back off and let the Palin family be. "That's out of bounds," said Minnesota's Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty. "There's no need to be intrusive and pry into that."

Yet Wednesday found the following scenes unfolding:

_Sarah Palin's pregnant, unmarried 17-year-old daughter and probable future son-in-law stood in a nationally televised, politically packaged airport receiving line to meet and greet the Republican candidate for president.

_The extremely cute and bubbly Piper Palin, 7, made her debut on her mother's behalf, appearing in a video on John McCain's daughter's blog. "Vote for my mommy and John McCain," she said, giggling as Meghan McCain grinned.

_Bristol Palin and her 18-year-old boyfriend, Levi Johnston, sat and held hands as they watched the Alaska governor deliver an acceptance speech that, in its opening minutes, focused heavily on her family and children. Later, the family — including Johnston — ascended the stage, basked in an extended ovation and waved.

Huh? The Republican message about the Palin offspring comes across as contradictory: Hey, media, leave those kids alone — so we can use them as we see fit.

If you doubt this scenario, consider this: On Wednesday morning, a teenage boy from Alaska stood in a receiving line on an airport tarmac, being glad-handed by the potential next president of the United States — because he got his girlfriend pregnant. TV cameras were lined up in advance. The mind boggles.

"Either the children are out of bounds, and you don't put them in the photo ops, or you don't complain when somebody wants to talk about them. You can't have it both ways," said John Matviko, a professor at West Liberty State College in West Virginia and editor of "The American President in Popular Culture."

"Right now, it looks like they're being used by the campaign more than the media are using them," he said.

Though candidates for national office, and those close to them, are under more intense scrutiny than ever before in the American information culture, there is more to this situation than simple celebrity chasing.

These are two young people trying to figure out what to do in a difficult personal situation. The global scrutiny of it is a teenager's worst nightmare, and under normal circumstances they would be allowed to find their way unbothered.

But one big obstacle stands in their way: Sarah Palin the candidate.

Yes, she has asked the media to "respect our daughter and Levi's privacy as has always been the tradition." Yet Palin has packaged herself as a PTA member and "hockey mom" — culturally loaded terms calibrated to evoke appealing images of middle America, the middle class, exurbia and strong 21st-century family values.

"Our family has the same ups and downs as any other, the same challenges and the same joys," she said, one of many general and specific references to her family in her speech.

Using one's relatives as accessories in the political arena can have its pitfalls, despite McCain's remark to ABC News on Wednesday that Palin has "got an incredible resume, including a beautiful family." Candidates open themselves to charges of hypocrisy if they demand the ability to boast but reject the attention that can ensue when the road gets rougher.

McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds, however, takes issue with that conclusion. He says both positions are possible.

"There's a long-standing precedent of children of the candidates being in the public eye as members of families involved in public service," Bounds said Wednesday night. "There is also a long-standing precedent of candidates' children being left out of the hardball politics of campaigning for higher office."

Barack Obama said flatly that the Palin kids should be "off limits," but he has engaged in the same thing — though to a lesser extent.

In July, he and his wife, Michelle, appeared on a four-part "Access Hollywood" interview with daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. Obama later expressed regret about his decision to put them forward, saying, "I don't think it's healthy, and it's something that we'll be avoiding in the future."

Nevertheless, the Obama girls have made other appearances. They stepped on stage twice at the Democratic National Convention last week — once to talk to their father via video hookup after their mother's speech, and again after Obama accepted the nomination during the convention's climactic moment.

Let's remember one thing, though: Behind all the political machines and maneuverings, these contenders for the country's highest office are human beings and parents. And a parent is no more infallible than a candidate.

On her blog Monday, Meghan McCain expressed solidarity with the Palin kids, saying she understood the things they were grappling with. "It's a rough go being the son or daughter of a politician," she wrote. "You can't fully understand it unless you have lived it."

The road is bumpy for sure, and the media probably aren't helping. Sadly, though, the candidates themselves aren't doing much to make things better, either.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Ted Anthony covers American culture and politics for The Associated Press. Comments about Measure of a Nation can be sent to measure(at)

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