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What Sarah Palin Shows

Sexism and racism alive and well in US politics.

Will McMartin 5 Sep

Tyee contributing editor Will McMartin is a veteran political analyst and consultant.

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Alaska Governor Palin: double standard.

Watching Sarah Palin rouse Republicans as she accepted their vice-presidential nomination last night, my mind went back a week to another moment, at another political convention.

There was nary a dry eye in Denver's cavernous Pepsi Center as Beau Biden introduced his father, Joe, and told the heart-wrenching story of how the Democratic Party candidate for vice president once had juggled the demands of being his kids' dad while serving as a newly-elected U.S. senator.

"In 1972... before he took the oath of office, my father went to Washington to look at his new office space. My mom took us to go buy a Christmas tree," Biden told thousands of misty-eyed Democratic Party delegates and hushed members of the news media. "On the way home, we were in an automobile accident. My mom, Neilia, and sister, Naomi, were killed."

Following the car crash, Beau, then three years old, and his younger brother, Hunter, spent many weeks in hospital. "Dad was always at our side. We, not the Senate, were all he cared about," Beau told the hushed crowd.

In fact, Biden explained, his father almost had quit the U.S. Senate to care for his broken family, but "great men like Ted Kennedy, Mike Mansfield, Hubert Humphrey... convinced him to serve."

Then just 30 years of age and the widowed father of two small boys, Joe Biden took his oath of office not at the U.S. Senate, but in his sons' hospital room. And for the next several years, until he re-married, Biden maintained his tireless devotion to his sons while simultaneously serving the Delaware* voters who had sent him to Washington, D.C.

"As a single parent, he decided to be there to put us to bed, to be there when we woke from a bad dream, to make us breakfast, so he'd travel to and from Washington, four hours a day," Beau Biden recalled.

Family values

It was an emotional narrative. And it accomplished its purpose: to successfully portray Joe Biden -- now a six-term Senate veteran, acknowledged foreign affairs expert and fierce partisan politician who will savage his Republican opponents in this fall's campaign -- as a compassionate man skilled enough to balance the personal needs of his family and the public interests of his Delaware* electorate.

Principled, devoted and accomplished... what a guy!

And yet compare the response of many Democrats and more than a few members of the news media -- and notably several prominent female journalists -- to the life-story of the GOP's newly-named vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska.

Forty-four years of age, Palin is the mother of five children, including a four-month-old son who has Down syndrome. Plus, her 17-year-old, unmarried daughter is pregnant.

Instead of being inspiring or admirable, however, Palin's family circumstances have caused howls of outrage from Democrats and female members of the news media, who scornfully question how she will balance the needs of her family with being vice president of the United States.

"Not only do we have a woman with five children, including an infant with special needs, but a woman whose 17-year-old child will need her even more in the coming months. Not to mention the grandchild," wrote Sally Quinn, a high-profile columnist at The Washington Post. "This would inevitably be an enormous distraction for a new vice president (or president) in a time of global turmoil."

Quinn concluded: "Is she prepared for the all-consuming nature of the job? She is the mother of five children, one of them a four-month-old with Down syndrome. Her first priority has to be her children. When the phone rings at three in the morning and one of her children is really sick, what choice will she make?"

A gender double standard

Is it even possible to imagine that anyone, political opponent or journalist, would suggest that a male politician's family was "a distraction" to his job? Or ask whether a male politician would choose to make his family a priority over some urgent political or governmental task?

It seems silly on its face. After all, as was demonstrated at the Democratic convention, Joe Biden's determination to combine a widowed father's responsibilities with service in the U.S. Senate won praise and admiration from the assembled delegates and news media.

Moreover, Sarah Palin is not a widow; she is raising her children with her husband. Consider what might be the Democratic Party and news media response were Todd Palin and not his wife the family politician and Republican candidate for vice president. Would his ability to juggle family obligations with the demands of public office be questioned or criticized?

The question is laughable; the answer clearly is, no, just as it isn't for any other male politician.

Indeed, it is inconceivable that either the Democrats or the news media would similarly question the values, capability or experience of two other state governors once considered as contenders for the GOP vice-presidential slot: Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, who has been in office just since last year and is the father of three, or Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty, first elected just over three years ago and the father of two.

How many is too many?

Sarah Palin's public service includes stints as a city councillor, as a mayor, as a commissioner on her state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and last year she won election as governor of Alaska. Which of these offices was she, is she, unsuitable or unworthy of holding because of her status as a mother?

Or was Palin a capable, competent public servant when her brood was composed of, say, just two children? Was she suddenly rendered incapable of combining motherhood and service with the addition of the third child? The fourth? Or was it the fifth, the special-needs newborn, that made her unfit for public office?

Moreover, are there any other elective or appointed offices from which she ought to be disqualified? Could she perform, say, as a congressman, but not as a senator; a White House staffer but not a cabinet secretary?

And do these restrictions apply to all women, whether or not they are mothers, and regardless of how many children they have? Is this an argument that pertains only to Sarah Palin?

Questionable questions

We won't get answers to those questions, and nor should we. They are insulting and -- it seems unnecessary to add -- sexist.

But that doesn't stop female columnists, like The New York Times' Maureen Dowd, from complaining that Palin's appointment was "ineptly vetted" by Republican party officials.

One has to wonder what was the question, or questions, that GOP staffers failed to ask of the Alaska governor. Or better yet, what response might have kept Palin off the Republican ticket? ("Oh, you have a baby with Down syndrome? Sorry, we can't accept you." Or, "Geez, your unmarried daughter is pregnant? Nope, you can't be allowed near the White House.")

Maybe we haven't come so far after all, baby.

Why Palin got the call

There are four major reasons Republican presidential candidate John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.

The first three are obvious, the other, less so.

One is that Palin, a staunch pro-life Christian, inoculates McCain from the constant hectoring of his party's Christian base. Since his selection of Palin to join him on the GOP ticket, former McCain critics such as right-wing pundits Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and religious leaders like Gary Bauer and Ralph Reed, have switched from being noisily antagonistic to loudly enthusiastic.

Then there is Palin's acknowledged record as a political reformer, a maverick who, like McCain, is not afraid to buck her own party while advocating change. Seldom is a Republican candidate hurt by bashing Washington, D.C. and big, wasteful government.

The third is similar to the second: Palin, a woman, signals "change." In a U.S. election season that saw Barack Obama, an African-American whose very candidacy represented change, prevail in the Democratic party primaries over Hillary Clinton, who repeatedly emphasized her 'experience,' it is evident that American voters in 2008 are rejecting politics as usual.

Palin, like Obama, clearly represents change to the political status quo of "white men in suits."

Playing to blue-collar white voters

The fourth reason that John McCain tapped Sarah Palin is somewhat disquieting, and like the Democrats' and female journalists' criticism of Palin's family circumstances, reveals an unpleasant undercurrent of U.S. politics.

Recall that in May, as the Democratic primaries were drawing to a close, Hillary Clinton and some of her campaign officials made what many observers viewed as "race-baiting" comments.

"Senator Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again," Clinton told USA Today, citing an Associated Press story. [Emphasis added.]

She added, "Whites... who had not completed college were supporting me. There's a pattern emerging here."

More fuel was thrown on the fire by one of her top strategists, Geoff Garin, when he told the news media that, at the beginning of the primary campaign, "we were running exactly even with white voters in North Carolina... and ended up winning a very significant win of 24 points among those voters." [Emphasis added.]

The insinuation was clear: a sizeable number of white voters in the Democratic primaries refused to cast a ballot for Barack Obama for the simple reason that he is black. And, like Clinton, the Republicans know that some percentage of whites will do the same in the presidential contest in November.

Moreover, it's a well-defined substrata of the white population that might reject Obama on the basis of his race. As Clinton herself observed, those voters likely to be antipathetic to an African-American president are in the working-class, and especially those whose education stopped short of college. And they largely are to be found in the Appalachian states, the rural Midwest, the South, and mountain states in the West.

Obama and the Democrats know this as well, and it is one of the key reasons that Joe Biden was selected as the party's vice-presidential candidate. For Biden was born and raised in the coal-mining town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the heart of northern Appalachia.

(So, too, was Hillary Clinton's father, a point she emphasized repeatedly during the later primaries in an attempt to bond with white, blue-collar Democrats.)

Palin's not-so-coded message

A hunter and life-time member of the National Rifle Association, Sarah Palin also is a snowmobile racer and a self-described hockey mom, and with her husband once started a small business.

She is a woman, yes; but the important point about Palin is that she is white and hails from a blue-collar background. Like Biden, her mission in the presidential campaign will be to appeal to working-class whites in key battleground states.

In her speech to the Republican convention last night, Palin pointedly described her family as working-class, saying her husband was "a lifelong commercial fisherman... a production operator in the oil fields of Alaska's North Slope... a proud member of the United Steel Workers' Union."

She also extolled the virtues of small-town Americans: "I grew up with those people. They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America... who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars. They love their country, in good times and bad, and they're always proud of America. I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town."

And she launched the following barb at Barack Obama: "I might add that in small towns, we don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening. We tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco."

How much progress?

One might have hoped that in 2008, the United States had moved beyond the racist and sexist politics of an earlier age. Alas, as was demonstrated by Hillary Clinton's observation regarding white antipathy to an African-American candidate, and revealed again in the frenzy surrounding John McCain's selection of a female running mate, the nation perhaps has not made as much progress as was hoped.

Still, the mere presence of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin on their respective party's presidential and vice-presidential tickets is evidence that the U.S. is moving in the right direction. And one of them, either Obama or Palin, will make an historic breakthrough in November.

*Corrected on Sept. 7, 2008.

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