By Ben Smith
In the months since she returned to the public spotlight, Sarah Palin’s continually evolving political identity has undergone a subtle change as her public persona centers increasingly on her disabled son, Trig.
Palin began her political career as a reformer breaking up Alaska’s corrupt boys club and shifted seamlessly into last fall’s campaign trail culture warrior. But her decision to carry to term her Down syndrome child established a special relationship with anti-abortion activists, and now Palin has transformed herself from a politician who was anti-abortion into the leading figure of the anti-abortion movement.
Since she resigned the Alaska governorship. many of her public appearances have been on the anti-abortion circuit — her first speech outside of Alaska this year was at the Vanderburgh County Right to Life fundraising dinner in Evansville, Ind., and in November she headlined a Milwaukee fundraiser for Wisconsin Right to Live. She has fought President Barack Obama’s health care reform in large part on anti-abortion grounds: It would, she’s claimed, expand coverage for abortion and steer the elderly toward euthanasia.
But the most striking evidence of her son’s impact has been Palin’s book tour promoting her memoir, “Going Rogue.” As she descends from her tour bus or private jet to meet her fans, 19-month-old Trig has been a conspicuous presence — and generated a huge response. “There’s a lot of people who come through the line to see Trig instead of to see her,” says Jason Recher, a campaign aide who remained close to Palin and is now accompanying her on her book tour.
And those people, says Greg Mueller, a veteran anti-abortion political operative and former spokesman for Pat Buchanan, are getting a powerful message. “She’s going out there as a pro-life woman to say that there’s great joy in special-needs kids — and that we shouldn’t be aborting them.”
Though the anti-abortion movement remains strong and deeply rooted on the right, the recent conservative resurgence has been driven by anti-government sentiment — not by the abortion battle. Palin’s own ability to infuriate and delight often has more to do with her notions of patriotism and her views of the White House than with her place in the abortion wars. But Trig is part of what makes Palin so singular among conservative leaders.
“You just can’t escape it — she really is cut from a completely different cloth than most men, but also women, in politics,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports anti-abortion candidates. “She had the audacity in the eyes of the abortion rights world to actually have this child and then has the audacity to bring him along with her and feature him as a centrally valued person in their family.”
Palin’s increased focus on abortion rights, an aide said, was driven by the passionate response to Trig during the final days of John McCain's presidential campaign.
“It was something we were all surprised by — the reaction to Trig and the reaction to the special-needs portfolio that McCain had given her during the campaign,” said Recher.
Palin, like most politicians, has sought to capitalize on her family’s story without subjecting her children to unpleasant scrutiny, but with decidedly mixed results. Her daughter Bristol’s unmarried pregnancy took center stage at the 2008 Republican National Convention, and Bristol's breakup with Levi Johnston, the baby’s father, continues to generate headlines.
But if Palin had any ambivalence about exposing her older children to the spotlight, there’s none for Trig. He enjoys the crowds, said Recher, and at every stop, there are admirers who have come specifically to meet him.
“It’s always a special moment when he meets somebody else who has Down's,” said Recher. “I get emotional, the security people get emotional, the parents get emotional.”
The first day of Palin’s tour, in Grand Rapids, Mich., she stepped off her bus with Trig in her left arm and carried him during quick remarks before handing him off so she could sign books. Three hours later, she returned to the bus — but not before pausing to wave the hand of the nonplussed baby to the crowd. In Asheville, N.C., she stopped at the door of her small plane to hand Trig to her host — the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham. (Recher, the aide, held the baby for the press conference.) She was still carrying him to meet the throngs in Richland, Wash., on Sunday, where a “We Love Trig” sign was spotted in the crowd.
For Palin, Trig has proved both a powerful political rallying point and a kind of shield. In “Going Rogue,” and in interviews, she has lashed out at critics, such as Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan, who have raised questions about whether she is actually the mother of the child.
Palin’s allies have taken the argument a step further, suggesting that antipathy to her is based on the belief that she should have had an abortion rather than bearing her son.
“Mother and son have become objects of the left’s unrelenting scorn” and of hatred reflecting “a broader societal bias against disability,” wrote Christian conservatives Gary Bauer and Dan Allot.
Those people are, in fact, rather hard to find, with Bauer and Allot relying on obscure bloggers for evidence of vitriol.
For Dannenfelser, Palin is an unequaled spokeswoman not only because she’s perceived to be under assault but because her story can bring in women who are on the fence. In her book, Palin writes that twice she considered abortion, if only “for a split second.”
“It was a fleeting thought, a sudden understanding of why many women feel pressured to make the ‘problem’ go away,” Palin wrote. “I knew, though, what goes through a woman’s mind when she finds herself in a difficult situation. At that moment, I was thankful for right-to-life groups that affirm the value of the child.”