Raw Journolist emails on ‘Palin’s Downs child’

Lindsay Beyerstein
Aug 30, 2008, 11:39am

What’s the outcome? McCain’s running mate reset the movie “Chinatown” in small town Alaska.

Come to think of it, Chinatown effectively dramatizes what’s morally rotten about grandparents posing as parents. Imagine the anguished daughter exclaiming of Trig: “He’s my brother and my son!” Forcing your family to live a lie is unforgivably cruel, and/or catastrophically misguided.

A hoax by the governor wouldn’t make a lot of sense for an ordinary teen pregnancy. Palin’s daughter wouldn’t be the first prominent Christian teen to get knocked up. If the story were true, then the question would arise: What else were the Palins hiding? We’ve just come off a major scandal where lies were probably told to protect the
identity of a famous father of an illegitimate child. (The motive for the maternity hoax in “Chinatown” is to cover up an incestuous pregnancy.)

FTR, the hoax hypothesis is a classic flawed conspiracy theory. There are too many people with too few plausible motives and opportunities to carry out such a deception. As Katha said, this story is roughly on an epistemic par with Hillary’s alien baby.

Harold Pollack
Aug 30, 2008, 11:43am

Ezra said what I think better than I can. A few final amplifications.

1. Most infants with ds are born to women <35, but that’s because the traditional amnio testing threshold is 35. That is now changing rapidly. I’ve actually been working on decision analyses of less invasive technologies for younger women. My tables are unavailable this moment, but Wikipedia gives the basic incidence figures: At maternal age 20 to 24, the probability is 1/1562; at age 35 to 39 the probability is 1/214. Above age 45, the probability is 1/19. (Unfortunately they left out the 40-44 group, but the number is greater than 1%.)

2. As for the implausibility of an unintended pregnancy, we’re not talking about Abraham and Sarah here. Ladies with 5 kids are known to have a 6th.

3. Lindsay, Palin would not be a liar or hypocrite even if this were true. Talmud instructs lies are sometimes permissable in difficult family circumstances. I would tell a public lie to keep an important family secret for my kid that is nobody else’s business.

4. Tough campaigns mess with our minds. This is obviously way out of bounds. If Republicans were spreading some similar meme about Jill Biden or a Democratic woman, we would all be freaking out about it. We can attack McCain for his horrible judgment in selecting someone so unprepared without going into this other stuff.

Katha Pollitt
Aug 30, 2008, 11:50am

In chinatown, the “sister” was the product of incest. She really WAS both daughter and sister. the horror of that situation came from the incest. I like what you said about this possibly being a dirty trick, intended to blow up in our faces. so let’s just leave it alone. Unfortunately, palin is kind of cool. she’s not a brittle pastel- suited nut, like some of the eagle forum types. if she weren’t in politics, we would probably really like her.

Mark Schmitt
Aug 30, 2008, 11:56am

In earlier days, it was not unheard of for a daughter’s baby to be quietly raised by the mother as if it were her own. Jack Nicholson, I think, discovered as an adult that his sister was his mother and his mother his grandmother. I’ve read similar stories about other people. Jack turned out alright! Now if it turns out that John Edwards is the dad, this will be an intersting story.

Thomas Schaller
Aug 30, 2008, 12:03pm

but at least nicholson didn’t discover that his sister was actually his mother and that his father was actually also his grandfather—a la his discovery at the end of Chinatown of faye dunaway’s situation. (sorry, spoiler for any of you who have not–sinfully–seen chinatown.

Kathleen Geier
Aug 30, 2008, 12:15pm

Speaking of Chinatown — Jack Nicholson’s mother and grandmother did what this wacky rumor accuses Palin and her daughter of doing. That is, his mother became pregnant with him while she was an unmarried teenager, but that was covered up, and Jack was raised thinking the woman who was really his mother was his sister, and that his grandmother was his mother. As Katha says, this kind of thing used to be pretty common. I believe the same thing happened with the singer Bobby Darrin. I’ve read that Nicholson never learned the truth about his family until he was an adult, back in the early 70s. It reportedly shook him up pretty badly. Which gets to the point about why pulling a stunt like that is such an unconscionable thing to do. I have sympathy for any woman who found herself pregnant and unmarried back in the day (and Nicholson was born in, what? the 1940s? or maybe even the 30s?). But every person deserves to know the truth about who their parents are, and to allow a child to grow up believing a lie like that is extraordinarily cruel and abusive. I mean, imagine how learning the truth would mess with your head and destroy your sense of trust in people! You’d suddenly realize that the people you loved and trusted the most were perpetrating an enormous deception. You’d look back over your childhood and suddenly interpet everything in a completely different light. I don’t care what the Talmud says, living a lie like that is deeply wrong. As I said, I have sympathy for the women who participated in this sort of masquerade in the days before the sexual revolution. But in this day and age, when births out of wedlock are widely accepted and bear little stigma, I think that participating in such a sham is inexcusable. And if Palin did this, I’d find it hard to believe it was a purely selfless act. Sure, I’d believe she did it partly to protect her daughter. But she probably would have done it at least as much to protect her political viability and her “perfect family” image as anything else. And btw, I’d have no problem believing that young women who grow up with the kind of “family values” that Palin represents are probably more likely to have unwanted pregnancies than those who grow up in more liberal families who make sure their daughters have appropriate sex education and know about birth control options. Three of my cousins (that I know of) got pregnant in their teens, and each of them came from very strict, conservative Catholic families. Two of them had and kept the baby and one of them got an abortion.

Lamar Robertson
Aug 30, 2008, 12:17pm

speaking of edwards. there’s been plenty of speculation about whether any legit journalists should look into this. i think it’s safe to say that the national inquirer has already dispatched a team to alaska, and if there’s something there, they’ll find it.

Ezra Klein
Aug 30, 2008, 12:18pm

Jack Nicholson definitely did not turn out alright.

Laura Rozen
Aug 30, 2008, 12:23pm

check this out (and apologies if it’s already been posted) http://www.ktuu.com:80/global/story.asp?s=8194634 according to it, her water broke before she was supposed to give a speech in texas – she went ahead and gave her 30 minute speech – and then got on a plane to alaska because she wanted the child to be alaska born. how many airlines would let you do that? and esp when the baby had special needs they already knew??

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Gov. Sarah Palin gave birth to her fifth child at about 6:30 a.m. Friday morning. Trig Paxson Van Palin was born at Mat-Su Regional Hospital about one month before he was scheduled to arrive. Trig Palin weighs six pounds, two ounces. A press release from the governor’s office says Palin and her new son are both “doing well and resting comfortably.” The Palins released the following statement: “Trig is beautiful and already adored by us. We knew through early testing he would face special challenges, and we feel privileged that God would entrust us with this gift and allow us unspeakable joy as he entered our lives. We have faith that every baby is created for good purpose and has potential to make this world a better place. We are truly blessed.” Just yesterday, Palin was in Texas at a forum on energy with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and executives from four other states. Palin was asked at the forum whether or not she would accept an offer by Republican presidential candidate John McCain to share the national ticket as vice presidential nominee. She said she would accept, according to reports from a Texas newspaper. The governor’s water broke during the energy conference but she stayed and gave a 30-minute speech before boarding an Alaska Airlines plane home to deliver the baby. …..

Moira Whelan
Aug 30, 2008, 12:25pm

I agree it’s crazy and probably doesn’t do well for us to go after it, but a few things I can’t get over: 1) the pictures 2) the “mono” 3) eating shellfish??? 4) she delivered a speech after her water broke? http://www.ktuu.com/global/story.asp?s=8194634 also, as a woman over 40 she would have been under close watch by a doctor, and they probably would have known of the Downs Syndrome at 4-6 months with an amnio they’d have done because of her age. This could have resulted in them wanting to keep it quiet so they could come to terms with this as a family, but frankly also would have resulted in her resting up and taking it easy to make things run smoothly. another oddity…giving birth a month early? A woman running as fast as she does would have been under close watch of a doctor. The idea of getting on a plane at that point in a pregnancy is just a strange thing for a woman who’s done this 4 times to do. if the story were told I don’t think it would be that bad for us. I think it speaks to the idea that although this happens, most Americans don’t want to live in the past. Society can survive if teenage girls get pregnant and decide to have the child. We can be honest about that. A baby is nothing to be ashamed of. If her daughter did give birth, I think it would say a lot for her family to stand behind her. Hiding it is something completely different and…old fashioned. I agree with Addie though…the burdens she must be under to fulfill a conservative ideal of a woman are unreachable. I only hope her daughters learn from her example and realize they don’t have to be constrained to someone else’s idea of what is “right”.

Lamar Robertson
Aug 30, 2008, 12:36pm

all right. this is getting way fishy now. 1) getting onto the plane TO ALASKA after your water breaks? i’m sorry. that does not happen. i live 2 minutes from the hospital. my wife went to the hospital immediately after her water broke w/ my second child and it was almost too late to get the epidural. 2) the baby was 6 lbs, 2 oz? That’s a healthy sized baby for a preemie. it’s also incongruous w/ the notion that she — a thin person — wasn’t showing at 7 months.

Joe Klein
Aug 30, 2008, 11:52am

I’m with Katha and Harold on this one. Palin’s instinct, most likely, was to *protect* her daughter. And the brother/son situation in Chinatown was the consequence of incest…Now THAT might be something of an issue, but I don’t think this is.

Laura Rozen
Aug 30, 2008, 12:37pm

wouldn’t you be putting the health of the baby seriously in jeopardy by flying what five, six hours, after you’re already in labor? much less the health of the mom? Laura Rozen Aug 30, 2008, 12:38pm well, i don’t mean “much less” the health of the mom. “as well as” the health of the ….

Lindsay Beyerstein
Aug 30, 2008, 1:00pm

> 3. Lindsay, Palin would not be a liar or hypocrite even if this were
> true. Talmud instructs lies are sometimes permissable in difficult
> family circumstances. I would tell a public lie to keep an important
> family secret for my kid that is nobody else’s business.

I’m inclined to agree with the Talmud on the general principle, but much depends on the lie. Lying about an affair to spare your spouse the embarrassment may be morally permissible. I’d even agree that lying about an affair to save your political career is understandable, and probably permissible. Saying your daughter is doing a junior year abroad while she’s secretly putting he baby up for adoption might fall in the noble lie category, too.

However, I can’t see how the Talmud could condone a outlandish hoax by a public figure to spare her family a relatively minor embarrassment.

I know these types of arrangements used to be more common. People used to think life in the closet was an acceptable solution to homosexuality, too.

What has changed then and now? The stigma of unwed motherhood isn’t what it used to be, for the woman or her family. This isn’t Afghanistan, or Main Street USA in 1940. There was a time when admitting an out-of-wedlock birth could threaten a family’s housing, the mother’s education and livelihood, her future marriage prospects, and even her personal safety. Such dire circumstances would justify some pretty serious deceptions. In the age of Jamie Lynn Spears, lying merely to avoid a few days of embarrassing headlines doesn’t meet that standard.

If a “family values” politician went to extreme lengths to hide her daughter’s pregnancy, I’d suspect that the mother was acting more out of self-interest than compassion. I’d also call hypocrisy on any politician who champions traditional values and proceeds to go to elaborate lengths to hide their family’s dirty laundry. Maybe there are noble hypocrisies in the Talmudic sense, but lying about your family in order to seem to practice what you preach doesn’t cut it. Surely, it’s sometimes justified to act hypocritical in the service of a lie that’s noble for some other reason, but the hypocrisy is a moral demerit.

If a mother claims her minor daughter’s child, I’d also wonder whether the daughter had a free choice about whether to go along with the ruse. (Let’s assume she freely chose to carry her baby to term.) Once the baby was born, do you think a 16-year-old would suggest that her mother pretend to have borne her child? If the parents broached the subject, they’d be putting unforgivable pressure on their very vulnerable daughter who is depending on them for support. If it was the daughter’s idea, the fact that the parents went along with such a cockeyed scheme raises serious questions about their judgment.

The fact that the governor is a public figure cuts both ways, ethically. On the one hand, it’s more embarrassing to have your unplanned pregnancy make headlines in the Alaska papers. But the alternative seems far worse. By sparing her daughter the short-lived embarrassment of a scandal, the governor would be committing her to a
lifetime of complicity in a high stakes deception that, if revealed, could destroy her mother’s career and possibly much more besides. The stress of living that lie would be almost unthinkable–given how fragile any conspiracy of silence would have to be. Private citizens can abandon fictions when they are no longer necessary, or break the
silence to the people closest to them. Whereas, a public family would commit itself to lying to everyone indefinitely. Imagine the damage this could do to relationships. Suppose the daughter comes to regret giving up her child. She can’t tell the truth now without destroying her mother’s career.

Claiming your daughter’s baby as your own isn’t just a one-off verbal denial at a press conference. A maternity hoax would require various kinds of fraud which would probably include suborning medical misconduct, falsification of medical and legal records, etc. Teen pregnancy, however awkward, just isn’t a good enough excuse in this day and age.