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.

10 Responses to “On Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Bernstein, and Trig Palin”

  1. davidlosangeles Says:

    Mr. Friedersdorf,

    Here is the short version, no one cares. Everyone knows that Sarah Palin will never get elected President or Vice President. She simply lacks the attention span, the perseverance, and the job of POUTS pays less than she is making now as a non-POTUS – that she would never garnish enough votes.

    So no one has anything to gain by investigating her squirrely story. Any investigation only increases her marketability among those who adore her but does nothing to worsen her standing among anyone else. There is no pay-off. On the other hand, any investigator would only be attacked as part of the liberal media elite. There are only down sides, no up side to this story.

    It is exactly like the story of WMD and the invasion of Iraq. No one wanted to piss-off their valuable “inside” sources and question the story and everyone wanted make a buck selling the fabricated tale of Saddam Hussein, Nuclear Villain. Plus, no one wanted to be tarred as being weak and unpatriotic, if actually treasonous and a tool of al Qaeda. All down side and no upside (unless telling the truth is any importance).

    The math is pretty simple.

  2. Justin St. Giles Payne Says:

    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

    What about demanding any evidence?

    If Sarah Palin’s story about the birth of Trig Palin was that he was born on the Moon (a story as equally plausible as the story she does tell), are you really saying that the job of the media is to report this as though it’s a matter of fact? That they should refer to Trig Palin as the first human being born outside the Planet Earth?

    If the story of Trig’s birth is true it’s an astounding story, a veritable miracle, newsworthy in its own right completely distinct from his mother’s political significance.

    That strikes me as exactly the kind of story that the media should demand some evidence for. That would be true even if Sarah Palin was not an otherwise significant person. The idea that there’s some kind of media embargo on matters of pregnancy and birth simply isn’t born out by reality – newspapers even have a distinct section for reporting on the circumstances of births in the community. Presumably, they apply the same standards of journalism to that section as they would to any other. For some reason, you’re arguing that they should not do so – that, on the Births section of the paper, complete credulity towards any and all claims, even the impossible ones, should be the order of the day.

    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

    Your fear seems to be of a media environment where politicians are afraid to tell absurd lies and fabrications for fear they’ll be subject to scrutiny. That’s a press environment I’d like to encourage, not discourage. Even if that scrutiny is applied to lies about a politician’s family. I don’t think those lies are OK, and I don’t want the media to ever say “well, that’s ok; we consider it part of our job to let public figures lie about stuff like that.”

  3. andylevinson Says:

    RE:“if Palin has lied about this, it’s the most staggering, appalling deception in the history of American politics.”

    Obama and kagan have lied about everything….and I bet this guy loves them

  4. lasorda Says:

    I just don’t think her birth story is outrageous or indicative of a horrible parent. I wake up every day thanking God that the world doesn’t know all of the questionable decisions my wife and I have made as parents. Pregnancy and parenthood are hard and we all make mistakes. After three kids you’ve heard so many crazy stories from other parents that this sort of thing just doesn’t seem so bad. Got on a plane after her water broke? I mean, I doubt that my wife would have done it, but I can imagine it happening. It doesn’t shock my conscience. It might shock some parents. That wouldn’t surprise me either,. But I think even those parents would concede that there are all sorts of things that parents disagree over when it comes to something as complex as childbirth and parenthood. In short, being a parent is very messy, and parents are typically pretty forgiving.

    One of the reasons conservatives have so much fun mocking Sullivan over this is that the whole thing betrays his extreme alienation from middle class, heterosexual life. He just has absolutely no clue what he is talking about. I have a feeling that my reaction is fairly typical of parents out there. Sullivan needs to get his arms around that.

    • bluegalangal Says:

      @lasorda – did you check with your wife before you posted your claim that she might have gotten on two flights, 12 hours after her water broke, after experiencing contractions?

      I think your comment displays your extreme alienation from motherhood and the experience of labor. I’m a middle class heterosexual woman and I can no more contemplate the idea of having gotten on an airplane in the 8th or 9th month of my pregnancy (unless I was, you know, fleeing Hanoi) than I can contemplate sacrificing my son on an altar for the glory of God.

      If you add to that the fact that she knew she was pregnant with a special needs child, and she had a two hour layover in Seattle, and she bypassed two hospitals to drive an hour to a small non-ICU hospital, her story is not just bad decision making. It’s – dare I say – crazy.

      This has nothing to do with bad decisions parents sometimes make. It has to do with the absolute nuttiness that this woman displays on a weekly basis – and expects otherwise sensible people to believe. Anyone who’s given birth would understand how crazy this story is. It doesn’t even have to be about whose child it is. Why can’t at least one reporter ask, “Why were you flying in your 8th month of pregnancy against all medical advice?” The conference was so much more important than her child’s health and well being?

      Well. We’ve seen how that works in Palin-world: her vice-presidential nomination was, after all, much more important than her oldest daughter’s privacy and emotional well being.

      • lasorda Says:

        We vacationed at a tropical resort during the 35th week of my wife’s second pregnancy. It was a great trip. The baby was fine. The OB Okay-ed the whole thing. You are very sensitive. Others are not. Embrace diversity!

    • John McGuinness Says:


      Is it possible that Sarah Palin knows her body better than Andrew Sullivan does?

      • Justin St. Giles Payne Says:

        Maybe, but why should we believe her?

        Just because she asks us to?

        Conor’s advocating a standard where the press says “well, we could investigate that, but we’ve decided that for certain subjects, we’re going to allow politicians to lie.” Do you believe that standard serves the interests of the public?

  5. jake brodsky Says:

    It seems we want perfect people for our highest offices. However, humans are flawed. Show me a middle aged person with no regrets and I’ll show you someone who is either delusional or who has absolutely no life whatsoever.

    I don’t care what personal peccadilloes our politicians may have. I care about the policies they want to implement. As such, I don’t care about Al Gore, I don’t care about Sarah Palin, I don’t care about Obama’s extended family, Dick Cheney’s daughter, or any of a whole bunch of family issues.

    It’s about the policies. Leave family life out of it.

  6. mizlinda Says:

    Let me try to help you understand the importance of exposing this crazy story Palin concocted.

    Change the name. Replace Palin’s name with Hillary Clinton. Let’s pretend for a moment that Ms. Clinton announced that she was having a baby one month from now. Everyone is puzzled. She doesn’t look pregnant. She’s a bit old to have a baby.

    Okay. Now. At this point, you’ve got to think to yourself, “Geez, that lady must be crazy. Why would she do such a thing? It’s bizarre. It’s not even about the baby anymore. It’s about someone who is so odd, so irrationally motivated to use a baby to inflate her pro-life credentials that…that…she’d be willing to fabricate a narrative that has so many holes in it a bucket-wheel excavator could drive through it?”

    This is what Palin did. She made up a lie so grand that people, especially men, would find it so utterly fantastic as to be unquestionable–because, who would do such a thing, if it weren’t true?

    The best way to conceal the lie of a sociopathic personality is when that question, who would do such a thing?, is asked to discourage further investigation.

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