The rumor started circulating on political blogs just hours after Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's veep candidacy had been announced: that her four-month-old with Down Syndrome, Trig, was actually the child of her 17-year-old daughter Bristol. Partisans and gossip mavens emailed each other the "clues": a supposed “baby bump” in photographs, Bristol's holding baby Trig at her mother's first appearance with John McCain and a supposed five-month absence from Wasilla High School (her parents told school administrators that it was a case of mononucleosis). The rumor had apparently circulated among Alaskans for months but picked up speed Friday when a contributor to the Daily Kos, a heavily-trafficked liberal-leaning blog, posted an entry on the subject, asking whether the blog should be investigating the rumors of Bristol being Trig's parent.
When Sarah Palin and the McCain campaign came out with a statement Monday morning refuting the rumors, they broke some startling news of their own: that Bristol is currently five months pregnant. "Our beautiful daughter Bristol came to us with news that as parents we knew would make her grow up faster than we had ever planned. We are proud of if Bristol's decision to have her baby, and even prouder to become grandparents," wrote Palin and her husband, Todd. The McCain campaign claims to have been aware of the pregnancy when Palin was selected as a running mate. Obama declined to comment on the issue, telling reporters at a campaign stop in Michigan that "people's families are off limits and people's children are especially off limits." But the blogosphere lit up again; Kos himself (a NEWSWEEK contributor) used the news as an opportunity to inveigh against abstinence education; Washington, D.C.-based Wonkette drew comparisons to the John Edwards affair, while a handful of blogs on motherhood hashed out how much Palin's approach to parenting might have figured in her daughter's pregnancy.
"A pregnant 17-year-old daughter definitely pushes the bounds of how a candidate's life as a parent becomes public," says Barbara Kellerman, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who studies in women and politics. "I don't think it'll play very kindly with the constituency that would seem most obvious for her to appeal to, the relatively religious, conservative voters." Kellerman says that it's too soon to judge how this will effect Palin's political positions--whether, for example, she'll still be able to advocate for abstinence-only education, as she did while running for Alaska governor in 2006. But the news does open the door to a new and challenging conversation: what do we expect of a female vice president as a parent? Shortly after the pregnancy news broke Monday morning, NEWSWEEK's Sarah Kliff spoke with Kellerman about how this will play out with voters, what questions it raises about mothers in politics and how female candidates balance politics and parenting. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: How do you think the news of Palin's pregnant teenage daughter is going to play with voters?
Kellerman: It's a double bind for Palin and how she's judged as a parent. On one hand, she's standing by her pro-life beliefs and encouraging her daughter to keep the baby. But on the other hand, there's the question of why her daughter is pregnant in the first place? It really depends on how it's handled. If she says she supports her daughter, is very open and honest, and the daughter marries the father, she could say it's a triumph. But if there's a more surreptitious, unwholesome aura about it, like the rumors about John Edwards fathering a child, then that's a different situation. It's not only the deed but also how she handles it as a mother that is going to be judged.
Palin has, in the past, been a supporter of abstinence education. Do you think her daughter's pregnancy makes it more difficult for her to support that position?
We know so little about this woman that we're certainly not prepared to say where her stance on sex education is going to go, or how McCain's policy will be affected. It's hard to make a judgment right now. But what I do think will happen is that we're going to be tested about what we're willing to say out loud as Americans about things like this. Just as Obama's candidacy challenged what we could and couldn't say about race, Palin [and this pregnancy] are going to do that for what we can and can't say about women.
How much did Hilary's campaign do that already? What's different about Palin?
For her this is going to be much more of a challenge. By the time Hillary ran, Chelsea was already all grown up. When Bill ran, it wasn't really a question. There's no comparison in terms of what Palin is doing, running in her mid-40s, with young children, at this level of visibility. This is a first, a definite mommy first.
Many candidates for presidents have run as fathers. What's different about being a mother?
Well first, most of them aren't running as fathers. It's never touted as a selling point. So it's absolutely different for a woman. The standards for what it takes to be a good mother are very different than being a good father. So when you see women running for high-level office, they tend to be past childbearing age, don't have a bunch of little toddlers. So Sarah Palin is a very unusual circumstance--she's still in childbearing age, has a handful of young kids, one that has Down syndrome, so that's not something you really see. The question of what constitutes being a good-enough mother is going to come up more than it ever has.
There have been some questions about whether Palin should be running for office in the first place, given that she has such young children. Do you think her daughter's pregnancy is going to raise more of those questions, about Palin putting her career before her parenting responsibilities?
The standards are definitely not the same for men and women. Running for office is a subset of culture and, by a wide margin, women are still the primary caretakers of children. Joe Biden is going to have to be very careful about how he deals with this. I think it's going to be women who are by and large going to be more judgmental. People will be quiet about criticizing a woman who makes this kind of choice, but I think that women will judge the decisions she's made in her career and how that relates to her children.
How do you think a male candidate would be judged in a similar situation to this?
One past president you can look at is Ronald Reagan. His children, including Patti Davis, misbehaved in pretty extreme ways [such as posing in Playboy]. But it seemed that he was the Teflon president, that somehow he was able to detach himself from that. I would suggest that it would be far more difficult for a female candidate to detach herself from it [if her offspring misbehave]. When [former New York City Mayor Rudy] Giuliani was running for president, it was quite well known that his two children weren't speaking to him [after his messy divorce from their mother, Donna Hanover]. I would dare say if a woman was running for vice president or president and had two children who didn't speak to her, it would be a much more significant hindrance. She couldn't just detach herself from that kind of situation.
Where will Americans place the blame for the pregnancy? Does it go to Palin and her parenting skills?
If Sarah Palin turns out to be more complicated than the attractive Alaska governor, the person who is likely to get most of the blame is…McCain. There will be the charge that the campaign didn't vet her properly. They will leap to blame the candidate for president more than they will focus on Palin.
Also, if things really unravel, she's a tough customer. I've warned friends and colleagues. She's very articulate and very tough and obliviously prepared to take the slings and arrows. I'd be slow to underestimate her. If something does go wrong, if she does seem less appetizing, then it will be McCain and his campaign staff that are ultimately going to be judged the most.