Al was banging stuff around in the pantry and grumbling about "changing the rules" when I got to his coffee shop on a recent morning. "What's going on?" I asked him. "What rules have been changed?"
"Look at this," Al said, indicating the front page of the newspaper. I glanced at several items dealing with Governor Sarah Palin, John McCain's pick for vice-presidential candidate on the GOP ticket. Some of the articles dealt with the revelation that Mrs. Palin's unmarried 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, is five months pregnant. (She plans to keep the child and marry the father.) The news emerged soon after Mrs. Palin's selection, prompting a tabloid convulsion.
"So what's the problem? I asked. "All this looks legit - unless the National Enquirer is claiming that the baby's father is an alien." (An allegation that would be - based on prior experience with the Enquirer - entirely possible.) I put down the paper and stirred my extra-robust mocha-blend coffee, whose beans had been (so I understood) first ingested by some jungle animal.
"Da problemo is that the children of candidates for national office are supposed to be off-limits to the media," said Al. It's verboten to snoop into their lives - especially when they're not adults. Even then, reporters aren't supposed to follow them around like paparazzi. By long-standing agreement, their privacy is supposed to be respected."
Al cited the kid-gloves treatment given to Amy Carter and Chelsea Clinton. The Bush twins were generally left alone, too - except when one of them quaffed too many ales and acted like a typical college kid. (I didn't mention that Big Media left the Bushes alone because any human-interest reporting might have made Mr. Bush a more sympathetic figure and enhanced his popularity.)
I agreed that the media had indeed kept clear of those presidential offspring, but I pointed out that this was different in two respects. First, Mrs. Palin was just a candidate, not yet an elected official, so it wasn't clear if the rules applied in the same way.
Second, she was a Republican. "The rules," I told Al, "apply mainly to the children of Democrats. By unwritten agreement, children of most Republicans running for office are fair game - especially when they do something tabloid-worthy."
I explained that a GOP candidate with a big family is a particularly attractive media-target. You can always count on kids doing something stupid or outrageous that the tabloids can obsess on.
Al was sputtering with outrage by this time. "What kind of rules are those?!" he practically shouted. "It's like a football game where penalties can be called on only one of the teams!"
I agreed that this didn't seem fair to us, but that Democrats see no problem. Things have been done that way for decades. I pointed out that families and family values are very important to Democrats, so the media are sensitive about them on Democrats' behalf. It's fair to say that unless a GOP public figure's family is doing something Democrats approve of - like drug rehab or getting an abortion, for instance - they are certain to come in for media disapproval.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is a good example. When Mr. Roberts' wife and two young children stood up with him at the small ceremony in which President Bush announced his nomination to the Court, in July 2005, the fam was well turned out in colorful outfits appropriate to the season of the year.
Subsequently, Washington Post Fashion Editor Robin Givhan wrote a vicious, demeaning article in which she said, "...It was hard not to marvel at the 1950s-style tableau vivant that was John Roberts and his family... His wife and children... [were] groomed and glossy in pastel hues - like a trio of Easter eggs, a handful of Jelly Bellies, three little Necco wafers."
The Internet column Darleen's Place responded: "Fashion Editor Robin Givhan certainly has taken up the cue from those editorial board meetings. Can't attack the nominee on his education, or work or even experience as a appellate judge ... so let's go after his wife and his kids..."
I doubt if Miss Givhan's fashion critique traveled much beyond the Beltway. (Presumably, she would have been happier if the Roberts boy had been wearing baggy pants with his drawers showing.) But it shows where we are in our politics - at least, where (in Rush Limbaugh's term) the Drive-by Media seem to be. In less than a week, her family has been dragged through the mud with unprecedented venom.
Mrs. Palin has served as mayor of a small town and governor of Alaska - a state with a lot of land, a lot of caribou, and a whole lot of oil. The Obama camp has pooh-poohed her experience, as contrasted with Mr. Obama's vast experience as a "community organizer", a state senator, and an absentee U. S. senator (while he mostly ran for president).
The thinness of this comparison notwithstanding, it is entirely fair politics. A candidate's experience and preparation for the job he/she is running for are legitimate issues. One may dispute the cogency of the claims by one side or the other, but not the examination itself. No one is claiming that close study of a candidate's record is out of bounds.
Close examination of a candidate's personal life and affairs are also legitimate fields of inquiry. Democrats subject their opponents to it with relish, but are unaccustomed to such scrutiny, themselves. When they receive it, their reaction tends to be outrage. Mr. Obama has already complained about this - imputing racism to the examiners - although the inquiries into his life have been relatively tame. In some cases, his campaign has tried to intimidate radio and TV stations that carried ads about his past association with ex-bomber Bill Ayers.
Even under the "rules" that I cited (tongue in cheek) to Al, however, the attacks on Sarah Palin's family have been completely over the top. First, a bogus story was picked up by the Mainstream Media, claiming that Mrs. Palin's five-month-old Downs Syndrome child is actually the child of her daughter, Bristol. The reason cited was a two-year-old photo of Bristol, showing a slight bulge in her midsection. (Do the math. It doesn't compute.)
To refute this spurious charge, the Palin family disclosed that Bristol's pregnancy. A crazed wave of salacious media hysteria has followed, accusing Mrs. Palin and her daughter, essentially, of being "trailer trash". Other articles have denounced her temerity in aspiring to national office while she has a Downs Syndrome child at home. In ways that no writer would dare question a Democratic female, pundits have questioned her ability to juggle family and national office. Snot-nosed reporters totally out of their depth have suggested that Mrs. Palin's advocacy of teen sexual-abstinence and her work with unwed mothers are hypocritical, in light of her daughter's condition. (One has no doubt that an army of media green-eyeshade types are hard at work calculating how long Mrs. Palin was married before she had her first child, or how many relationships she had before she met her husband.)
To his credit, Mr. Obama has denounced the attacks on Mrs. Palin's family, threatening to fire any member of his staff who engages in them. But the unaccountable Mainstream Media roars on, convinced that they can smother Mrs. Palin's candidacy in the cradle (so to speak). Articles appeared today, speculating on whether (in fact, when) Mr. McCain might jettison Mrs. Palin and choose a less "controversial" person for the ticket.
To this observer, however, all this has indicated panicked Obama-partisans who realize that Mr. McCain has performed a masterstroke by selecting this bright, articulate, well-turned-out woman for his ticket. The media storm opposing her has confirmed - as little else could - the brilliance of Mr. McCain's choice.
More than that, I believe the trashing of Mrs. Palin's family will boomerang. Millions of families who have faced the complexity of a teen pregnancy or a special-needs child are going to sit up and say, "Now just a darned minute..." as reports trashing a young girl who simply made a mistake spew out of the media's vicious maw. Women will, I predict, rally to a ticket shared by a mother tough enough to be both governor of a state and a mother of five. (Which one is the greater challenge?)
As I finished this article, I saw Mr. McCain's judgment vindicated when Mrs. Palin made a well crafted speech that allayed her party's fears about her candidacy. Completely poised and at ease under the klieg lights, she delivered strong, incisive, often funny lines that belittled her opponents and energized the cheering delegates with a promise to fight entrenched interests for the good of the country. She was going to Washington, she said, not to court reporters' and commentators' good opinion, but to "serve the people of this country". She was clearly in her element. Commentator Fred Barnes called her a "natural politician". Even outspoken critics of her selection called the speech "brilliant".
At the evening's close, Mrs. Palin's beautiful family stood with her on the platform, as cheers washed over them. Suddenly, all those "trailer trash" stories seemed tawdry and cheap. Mrs. Palin has hit the big time, and the GOP has found the young star-power it needed.
In one week, Mrs. Palin and Mr. McCain have upstaged Obama's Greek god show and knocked his camp into complete disarray. Real "hope for change" may now rest on the shoulders of a smashing young mother with a real family (and real family problems), whom the country likes and relates to. Politics mirrors life again. The unexpected is always around the corner.