Dear Sarah, be careful
“How old is your baby?”
“Oh, we’re 22 months now.
Well, no, we’re not; he is. Yet we nod in universal understanding of the profound sense of oneness that evolves in part from pregnancy. For nine months, mother and baby are inextricably “we”—linked in body and spirit, every move and morsel belonging to both.
These thoughts surfaced during Sarah Palin’s latest public scolding of someone who spoke disparagingly of the special needs population. This time, Rahm Emanuel was singled out for using the word “retarded” to describe the behavior of certain out-of-favor Democrats.
Palin’s defense of people with special needs is commendable. Her obvious love for—and pride in—her Down syndrome child, Trig, is touching. But each time she sallies forth as Mama Bear to America’s special needs citizenry, invoking Trig’s name amid demands for her children’s privacy, a tiny bit of uneasiness slithers between text and subtext.
At what point do Palin’s noble intentions become Trig’s unfair exploitation?
The genius of Palin’s good-heartedness is that she can’t easily be criticized. Her public images as Mother and Politician are so entwined that to question one is to impugn the other. Equally unprofitable is any effort to impose perspective on her condemnations lest one appear to be defending the indefensible.
This is virgin territory for politicos and pundits alike. How does one proceed?
Palin herself has hardly been discreet regarding her youngest child. She has spoken and written about her misgivings upon learning that she carried a Down syndrome baby. She told a pro-life crowd that she considered abortion and wasn’t sure she could care for a child with special needs. These were surely sincere and heartfelt remarks shared by others in the crowd.
Doubt always stalks conviction, but does it always demand expression? Might Trig someday read his mother’s abortion thoughts and find them hurtful?
Clearly, Palin is trying to remain true to her 2008 vice presidential campaign promises—to be a friend and advocate of the nation’s special needs citizens. Although she can’t make good on her intended policy goals, she can lend her voice and be an advocate in other ways. A year into Obama’s presidency, Palin has emerged as a moral reflex, playing Mother Superior to the Democrat’s chosen one.
The health care debate became a personal referendum on her child’s right to life when Palin dispatched her “death panel” interpretation of proposed reforms. In March, she came roaring out when President Obama joked on late night TV that his bowling skills were like the Special Olympics.
Palin wasn’t wrong about the inappropriateness of the remark, for which the president apologized to the Special Olympics before the segment aired. But were her objections primarily those of a wounded mother—or those of a heat-seeking politician? Will we be hearing from Palin every time someone uses the R-word or makes a lame joke?
Well, no, not every time. When Rush Limbaugh used “retard,” suggesting a “retard summit” at the White House, it was “satirical,” Palin recently explained to her Fox News colleague, Chris Wallace. When Emanuel used it, it was name-calling. It isn’t clear whether Palin considered Rush’s memorable mimicry of Michael J. Fox’s “fake” Parkinson’s disease symptoms another demonstration of satire, or mere hideous cruelty. Given that Palin obviously made an excuse for Limbaugh, whose stab at humor was nothing resembling satire, means that her “teachable moment” via Emanuel was really using her child as a political tool.
Celebrities who embrace causes are valuable players in raising awareness and advancing policy. That said, the degree to which one uses another’s circumstances to achieve those ends requires a studious self-awareness that seems lacking in the equation of Trig and his mother.
Perhaps the erstwhile governor is still thinking in first person plural, viewing Trig as part of herself. But he is also a separate individual deserving of privacy, if unable to say the words she needs to hear: “No more, Mama, please.”
Another political mother, Hillary Clinton, made good on her commitment to protect her child’s privacy. Agree with her politics or not, most Americans would concede her wisdom in shielding Chelsea from media exposure until her daughter could fend for herself.
In the spirit of which, speaking in second person imperative—mother-to-mother—be careful, Sarah.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.