Archive for August, 2008

We here at Kittywampus typically think it’s far more fun to debunk rumors and conspiracy theories than to spread them. But I’ve been sick for the past few days with something flu-ish, and while sprawled on the sofa feeling sorry for myself, I’ve had too much time to read about Sarah Palin. And since I’m a historian of childbirth, the oddities in her pregnancy story set me wondering.

For one, no one on her staff suspected she was pregnant until she announced it at seven months. For another, Palin flew back to Alaska from Texas after her water broke; her son Trig was born a few hours after she reached the hospital. Let’s say that again: Palin chose to get on an airplane and travel for at least eight hours after her water broke, risking a preterm birth while in the air.

These improbable details come from Alaskan news reports last spring; they’re the closest I’ll come to hard facts in this post. But as soon as I started Googling for more information, I learned they’ve spawned an even weirder rumor: that baby Trig is actually the son of Palin’s oldest daughter, Bristol.

I’m only going to touch briefly on the rumor. I think the alleged facts as presented by Palin may actually be more damning. I also have qualms about digging into the private life of a minor child. The issue here is Palin’s conduct, not her daughter’s. And even Palin’s behavior in this regard might be off the table – except she wants to make my uterus part of the public domain, so why should hers be private? Especially when her conduct was downright reckless by just about any standard?

Here’s the main evidence for the rumor: Bristol was allegedly out of school due to mono for at least four months – a point that is unconfirmed – in order to hide her pregnancy. If the baby were Bristol’s, it would explain why her mother had to hurry back from Texas to Alaska. There are pictures of Bristol that show what could be a baby bump, but might also simply be a belly, as well as photos of an incredibly svelte Sarah two months before her supposed due date. (For more details, see the diary at Daily Kos and a post at Menstrual Poetry, which lay out the most persuasive version of the case.)

The most compelling visual evidence is this photo taken when Palin claimed to be seven months pregnant:

(See the Daily Kos for more photos.)

I don’t see even the shadow of a baby bump – and by seven months, you should. During my second pregnancy, my students started speculating was-I-fat-or-pregnant when I was just shy of five months, days before I told them. By seven months, strangers were predicting my baby’s sex from the shape of my belly.

Granted, a few women don’t show until very late in pregnancy. Most of them are fat to start with. Governor Palin is quite trim. She also had four previous pregnancies, and very few women show less with successive babies. It is possible to be petite and hide a pregnancy until the seventh month; my father’s second wife did this in the early 1960s, basically by starving herself. So we’ll give Palin the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say she restricted her calories and has tremendous abs.

Assuming for just a moment that the rumor is true: As an advocate of abstinence-only education and a foe of abortion, Palin would’ve had ample reason to insist her daughter carry out the pregnancy – but in secret. This isn’t just a plot line from Desperate Housewives. It’s a time-honored way for highly religious parents to deal with the personal shame and public embarrassment of a pregnant, unwed teenager. Palin’s public position would only have amplified the crisis. Perhaps they’d arranged for an adoption but the Down’s diagnosis scuttled the deal – which might explain why Palin announced she was expecting so late in the game. (While the incidence of Down syndrome is exponentially higher in 44-year-olds than in 17-year-olds, it can occur with very young mothers, too. A routine ultrasound could have triggered suspicion if the nuchal fold – a fold in the neck – were unusually thick; so could routine blood testing.)

On the other hand, assuming the rumor is false: Perhaps Palin’s fitness routine kept her unusually trim. She might well have kept mum about her pregnancy because she’s the sort of high-achieving woman who thinks she has to prove she’s ten times tougher than a man. We know she went back to work right after her daughter Piper was born, and we know she likes macho sports like hunting, so this would be in character for her.

But either way – whether the rumor is true or false – Palin’s judgment looks pretty poor. If it’s true, she’s shown herself capable of lying on a grand scale. Yes, this is a family matter, but she has allowed baby Trig to become a political statement – a public symbol of her pro-life views. And do we really need another vice president with a Cheneyesque propensity for cover-ups?

But let’s assume the rumor is false – as one must, for Bristol Palin’s sake, until some enterprising reporter manages to locate a birth certificate and medical records. (Actually, Palin herself should release all these records and put the rumor to rest. I’ve found one response to the Daily Kos material with pictures purporting to debunk the rumor, but the appearance of a belly in one photo doesn’t explain its absence in others.)

If Palin actually flew from Texas to Alaska after her water broke – and medically, there’s no difference between a “leak” and a “break” – it was incredibly irresponsible. Alaska Airlines doesn’t bar flying in late pregnancy, so it was entirely Palin’s judgment call. Here’s how the Anchorage Daily News reported it at the time:

Palin was in Texas last week for an energy conference of the National Governors Association when she experienced signs of early labor. She wasn’t due for another month.

Early Thursday — she thinks it was around 4 a.m. Texas time — she consulted with her doctor, family physician Cathy Baldwin-Johnson, who is based in the Valley and has delivered lots of babies, including Piper, Palin’s 7-year-old.

Palin said she felt fine but had leaked amniotic fluid and also felt some contractions that seemed different from the false labor she had been having for months.

“I said I am going to stay for the day. I have a speech I was determined to give,” Palin said. She gave the luncheon keynote address for the energy conference.

Palin kept in close contact with Baldwin-Johnson. The contractions slowed to one or two an hour, “which is not active labor,” the doctor said.

“Things were already settling down when she talked to me,” Baldwin-Johnson said. Palin did not ask for a medical OK to fly, the doctor said.

“I don’t think it was unreasonable for her to continue to travel back,” Baldwin-Johnson said.

So the Palins flew on Alaska Airlines from Dallas to Anchorage, stopping in Seattle and checking with the doctor along the way.

“I am not a glutton for pain and punishment. I would have never wanted to travel had I been fully engaged in labor,” Palin said. After four kids, the governor said, she knew what labor felt like, and she wasn’t in labor. …

They landed in Anchorage around 10:30 p.m. Thursday and an hour later were at the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in Wasilla.

Baldwin-Johnson said she had to induce labor, and the baby didn’t come until 6:30 a.m. Friday.

“It was smooth. It was relatively easy,” Palin said. “In fact it was the easiest of all,” probably because Trig was small, at 6 pounds, 2 ounces.

Palin said she wanted him born in Alaska but wouldn’t have risked anyone’s health to make that happen.

“You can’t have a fish picker from Texas,” said Todd.

(Source: Anchorage Daily News. See also the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.)

It doesn’t matter if Palin was not in labor upon boarding the plane. She could very easily have gone into active labor in transit. Between the time her water broke until she arrived in the hospital, nearly 16 hours passed.

Palin’s version of the story raises a host of questions:

  • Why would you deliver your speech as scheduled instead of getting checked out by a doctor?
  • Why would you then board a plane without at least being examined by an obstetrician for any signs of fetal distress?
  • Why would you simply inform your physician, rather than asking whether it was advisable to fly?
  • Given that the drop in air pressure can bring on contractions, why would you take a very significant chance on your baby being born on an airplane?
  • Why would you do this knowing he was a month early?
  • Why would you risk it knowing he had Down syndrome, which can affect the heart and other organs in ways that aren’t obvious prior to birth?
  • And why would you take the extra time to drive to Wasilla’s little hospital, rather than proceeding directly to a major medical center in Anchorage, equipped to handle prematurity and other complications?

You don’t have to take my word that Palin was taking a massive risk. At TPM Cafe, a doctor writing under the name of Steevo calls it “incredibly poor judgment.” (Steevo’s whole post is very informative.)

Regular readers know that I’m not terribly quick to judge or blame mothers. But this incident is not just a parenting issue; it’s a matter of basic sense and judgment. If we accept Palin’s version of events, she was highly irresponsible. This was batshit crazy.

And quite apart from Palin’s position on the issues – which are awful enough – this is not the kind of judgment I want to see in the White House. Eight years of recklessness have been – as Obama said in his great speech – ENOUGH.

Update, 8/31/08, 9:15 p.m.: Reader Molly pointed me to this post by Andrew Sullivan, which suggests the story is moving up the food chain. I highly recommend this excellent, very reasonable analysis by Skeptic Dad. And man, I can’t believe the traffic this post is generating. Maybe I ought to cover gossip more often?!

Update 9/4/08, 9:30 p.m.: This post has now eclipsed my all-time greatest hits: the Duggars’ 18 kids, the health benefits of ejaculation, and the finger length-testosterone link. If you’ve made it this far through this post (written fuzzy-headed while I fought a mild flu), you might want to read my somewhat less rambling followups exploring the medical reasons why hopping that flight was foolhardy, and what such macho behavior suggests about Palin’s flavor of feminism.

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I never thought I’d feel wistful about Mike Huckabee not getting the VP nod. I didn’t really think he’d have a chance. He’s too extreme in his religious beliefs. He’s too retrograde on women’s rights.

Ha! After just a day, such troubling questions have arisen about Sarah Palin that I’m wallowing in nostalgia for Huckabee.

Let’s run the comparison. First, Palin and Huckabee are both strikingly good-looking. Let’s call that a wash even though Huckabee has never been profiled in Vogue. (Neither has ever been on the cover, though a convincing photoshopped fake of Palin as a cover girl made the rounds yesterday.) And yeah, I realize appearance shouldn’t even be an issue, but as figleaf points out, John McCain saw Dan Quayle’s looks as a great source of electoral appeal, so maybe McCain thinks Palin’s beauty will draw some votes.

Now, Quayle was so dumb that he squandered any potential sex appeal as soon as he opened his trap. My first impression of Sarah Palin is that she’s brighter than Quayle – although I cringed all the way down to my toenails when she said “nucular” in her first big speech yesterday. My guess is that behind the pretty facade, Palin – much like Huckabee – is reasonably smart and very politically savvy. After all, she mounted a bloodless coup within Alaska’s political establishment and defeated a sitting Republican governor in the 2006 primary.

Palin was surely more palatable than Huckabee to the Grover Norquist types because she doesn’t seem to share his concern for social justice – the quality that I liked best in Huckabee, along with his sideline as a rock musician. Her plan for lifting Alaskans economically seems to be further exploitation of the state’s natural resources. Kinda hard to generalize that to the whole country. (On energy policy, she most closely resembles Dick Cheney – minus the evil scowl.)

When it comes to religious extremism, Palin may just top Huckabee. Especially on the grassroots level, the religious right would have been happy with Huckabee as the VP candidate. But Palin put James Dobson over the moon, according to an AP story:

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who initially said he could not vote for McCain but has since opened the door to an endorsement, called Palin “an outstanding choice that should be extremely reassuring to the conservative base” of the GOP. Dobson added that the ticket “gives us confidence he will keep his pledges to voters regarding the kinds of justices he would nominate to the Supreme Court.”

Now, the AP is also reporting that while Palin’s office says she does not identify herself as a Pentecostal, she has attended more than one church affliated with the Assemblies of God. Last I checked, the Assemblies of God were at the very heart of Pentecostalism. Why might Palin play this connection down in favor of saying she attends a nondenominational church? In a very even-handed assessment, Professor John Fea, a historian of religion in America at Messiah College, notes that public figures sympathetic to Pentecostalism tend to fly under the radar with the more radical elements of their faith, lest they alienate even other committed evangelicals. He expects Palin will likely do the same.

And that’s where it gets scary. Maybe Palin herself does not believe that the Rapture is imminent. Maybe she doesn’t believe in demonic possession or exorcism. Maybe she has never spoken in tongues. Maybe she’s as skeptical as I about faith-healing. I realize there’s a fair amount of variety within Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity, and maybe Palin doesn’t buy the whole package.

But given her church-going history, Palin needs to clarify her beliefs. While I generally think faith is a private, personal matter best kept out of the public arena, her beliefs becomes our business if she thinks demons are at work in our lives. Or if she believes the Apocalypse is nigh and that we ought to be hurrying it along. Or if she embraces dominion theology – which basically calls for theocracy – as blogger Dogemperor thinks is possible. (My understanding of Pentecostalism isn’t deep enough to evaluate Dogemperor’s arguments, but I’m inclined to be convinced because his/her analysis of Feminists for Life is spot on.)

Even if Palin only believes in the warmer, fuzzier elements of Pentecostalism, like faith healing, I’m still, well, skeptical. We’ve already had one president who was completely divorced from the reality-based community. We sure don’t need another. And on the whole, Pentecostalism is more loosely tethered to reality than Huckabee’s Southern Baptist church.

When it comes to reproductive rights, Palin is about as reactionary as Huckabee, who said he would sign a bill like the one in South Dakota that would have permitted abortion only to save a woman’s life. During her gubernatorial campaign, a staffer said Palin would ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest. However, he also said she’d allow a health exception, which is a loophole that nearly every hardcore anti-abortion activisit wants closed. I have a feeling Palin will be forced to back away from the health exception. Interestingly, she told the press back in 2006 that she favors contraception – which despite being the obvious way to reduce abortions won’t sit well with much of the “pro-life” establishment. I’m curious whether she’ll stick to her guns.

As I mentioned yesterday, Palin has been lionized by pro-lifers for knowingly giving birth to a baby with Down syndrome. In comments, Heather rightly pointed out that I’d parroted their way of framing her decision (she chose to have the baby “anyway”), which offends many within the disability community. But that is fairly consistently how the pro-lifers view it – as a noble sacrifice:

Palin has been held up by many evangelicals as a model for her decision to give birth to her fifth child in April after learning that he has Down syndrome.

“I think that’s a plus in her favor with conservatives,” said the Rev. Don Argue, a past president of the National Association of Evangelicals and chancellor of Northwest University in Seattle. …

[Dobson] called her refusal to abort her fifth child “bravery and integrity in action.”

(Source: Yet another AP article.)

Of course, if – like Dobson – you believe there’s only one moral response, why single Palin out for unusual bravery?

And why celebrate her “choice”? If McCain and Palin (and Huckabee) have their way, there will be no choice. Period.

Ugh. I think my Huckabee nostalgia has been cured. But I don’t feel one bit better.

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Wow. John McCain has picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Sarah Palin? WTF??? That’s pretty much what the media is saying, too. Palin is so obscure that the reporters on MSNBC admit they’re reduced to consulting the Wikipedia’s article on Palin, just like me. I was slightly shocked to see that Palin is a few months younger than me – talk about feeling old! – and amused to read that she’s a former runner-up for Miss Alaska.

But I actually had heard of her once before this. What jogged my memory was the story of her giving birth to a baby with Down syndrome earlier this year. It was her fifth child. She knew the diagnosis in mid-pregnancy and chose to carry on anyway.

And this, I’m thinking cynically, is her main qualification. She has served as governor for just two years. We all know that lots of social conservatives dislike McCain. Palin is not just red meat for them, she’s prime rib. She’s a member of Feminists for Life, which mixes a little feminism with lots of “life.” As a mother, she has lived her anti-abortion beliefs. (Gotta give her some grudging credit for not being hypocritical.) Oh, and she’s a hunter who enjoys mooseburgers (the TV reporters are grooving on that tidbit).

I’m sure McCain is hoping Palin’s XX chromosome will help him pick off some votes among centrist women – and maybe even bait a few of those near-mythical PUMAs into voting for a woman candidate. If so, they’d have to be just about delusional to think that Palin – a radical social conservative – is at all fungible with Hillary Clinton. As Debbie Wasserman Schultz just said on MSNBC: “I know Hillary Clinton, and Sarah Palin is no Hillary Clinton.”

Palin may be a new, fresh face who made her name as a reformer, but her actual positions on the issues are hard to distinguish from the same old paleo-wingnuttery.

And my goodness, don’t the Republicans have better-qualified women? Kay Bailey Hutchison? Christine Todd Whitman? Olympia Snowe? Debra Pryce? Even (shudder) Condi Rice? Oh, whoops! These gals have actual records that might get dragged into the election.

I would have had the same beef if Obama had picked, say, Evan Bayh. Sure, the vice presidential candidate should help corral votes, but they should also be prepared to lead should the president die or become seriously disabled – which in purely actuarial terms is not irrelevant when the president is 72 years old and counting.

The choice of Palin reminds me a little of Mondale selecting Geraldine Ferraro – mere tokenism. We all know how that turned out.

Finally, at the risk of sounding totally judgmental and anti-feminist: I do not think any parent of a four-month-old baby should sign onto a nationwide campaign, even if said baby is totally healthy. A baby that small is so damn needy. I can totally see how the temptation was irresistible; Palin won’t be handed this chance again. I realize that if women are going to move up in politics, they can’t wait until they’re postmenopausal to launch their careers.

But caring for an infant can’t be totally outsourced. I’m sure the baby will travel with Palin. They’ll hire the best nannies. Even so, I think if you bring a child into the world, you need to be present for them when they’re little. A child with special needs will need more than that, as Dan Conley argues eloquently at Open Salon.

For me, feminism also means caring for the weakest among us, and one corollary to that is that both parents need to be willing to reshuffle their priorities to ensure their children’s needs are met. How can you do that with an infant while campaigning for the vice-presidency?

And how does that accord with anyone’s “family values”?

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Even Fox News is having a hard time spinning Obama’s acceptance speech against him. (I know. I watched five minutes of Faux News so you won’t have to. Don’t say I never did y’all a favor.)

Obama was smart, compassionate, moving – and tough. I wanted him to at least mention restoring the rule of law and eliminating torture. Yeah, I know these are downer topics. They would’ve bogged Obama down in the ugly morass of what to do about the war criminals who’ve eviscerated the Constitution. But still!

Otherwise, I thought Chris Matthews’ drooling response to Obama’s speech was about right (and I cannot believe I just wrote that).

So how can the Republicans counter this next week at their convention? They don’t have any alchemy of their own.

Since I’m all Fauxed out, I bring you the shorter GOP response :


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I’m back in my verdant garden, and I’m loving it. But goshdarnit, I do miss Berlin – warts, dog poop, and all.

Berlin contradicts lots of stereotypes about Germans. While there are pockets of stodginess, most of the city’s younger inhabitants (and by younger, I mean under age 60!) appreciate nonconformity and human variety. Berlin has an openly gay mayor and it’s just no big deal. You see punks and anarchists and eager young politicians and artists and students and little old ladies with ridiculous small dogs. You see lots of red, orange, and purple hair. (Call me sentimental, but I just dyed my hair red today; while I’m not quite Nicole Kidman, it looks pretty great.)

The city also puts to rest the idea that Germans are anal-retentively obsessive about cleanliness. Sure, in the south and in most villages, everything is shiny and well-groomed. I’ve seen people actually rake the gravel in front of their houses into neat, straight lines just to maintain order.

But when you arrive in Berlin, you’re liable to slip and fall in a pile of dog shit within your first 48 hours. (This happened to my own dear mom once.) I can’t say I love this trait of Berliners, who own some 150,000 dogs according to one estimate. According to my personal estimate, I’d say about 1 turd in 100 gets picked up.

Like any big city, Berlin also has human denizens who regard the world as their potty. Our subway station smelled particularly vile this summer. Apparently someone is trying to reassert order and sanitation on this one count (and I’m all for it), because this lovely sign was posted just outside the station:

Photo by me, Sungold. The sign says “entryway under video surveillance.”

What I adore about this sign is that it’s not homemade. Someone is mass producing these beauties.

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From I Can Has Cheezburger?

What’s with all the big-cat metaphors for women of a certain age? Unless you’ve been in an induced coma all this week, by now you’ve heard the acronym PUMA – “Party Unity My Ass” – for intransigent Hillary supporters, which as we all know, are all foaming-at-the-mouth, ferociously menopausal women.

Never mind that Katha Pollitt looked for these legendary beasts in Denver and couldn’t find any. They were all circling around Chris Matthews like a pride of lions around potential meat, I suppose. Here’s what Katha saw:

I thought I might find some PUMAs at the Equalitea– like every other journalist here, I want to track down those elusive felines. (Later I learn they have spent the day hanging with Chris Matthews, getting enormous amounts of exposure and making women look like lunatics.) In the powder room I run into Ellie Smeal and Mavis Leno. “What about those PUMAs?” I ask.

“There has to be some reality here,” Ellie says exasperatedly. “Personally I think a lot of these people were McCain supporters all along. I know plenty of women who gave heart and soul to Hillary who are with Obama now.”

(The Nation has the rest of Katha’s amusing PUMA hunt.)

Yeah, it’s not that to-the-death Clinton loyalists don’t exist. They do. They have legitimate gripes against the media’s sexism during the primary; not so legitimate against Obama’s campaign. Those few who are still holding out on Obama are just playing straight into the Republicans’ paws. As Nora Ephron writes in today’s Huffington Post, preserving Roe v. Wade ought to be argument enough to sway every remaining Clintonista into the Obama camp.

But most of these alleged PUMAs are the product of Republican machinations. Amanda Marcotte has been exposing the thinness of the PUMA narrative for nearly two months now. At least some of them are this season’s version of the Roveian Swiftboaters or the Nixonian ratfuckers.

And then there are the even wackier PUMAs who’ve crept out of the LaRouche wilderness. Some followers Lyndon LaRouche showed up at Obama’s Berlin speech, as my friend Kevin at Rumproast reported a few weeks ago. LaRouchians in Berlin? Not exactly my idea of a broadbased American movement.

The PUMA appellation comes on top of “cougars,” those predatory over-the-hill gals on the hunt for tender young man-meat. And with two data points, I think we’ve got a budding metaphorical field – a new way of framing aggressive, powerful femininity.

I dunno. It’s no secret I love cats. I’m fascinated by the big ones, too. But there’s no shortage of condescension and misogyny in both of these terms. As Kate Harding acidly observes at Salon, by some definitions, a 40-year-old woman dating a 35-year-old cub already counts as a cougar. A PUMA is by definition shrill and irrational.

So there’s no question that pumas and cougars are yet another expression of backlash against feminism. These cats aren’t meant to evoke beauty or grace. They’re an expression of fear. My gut says it’s mostly male fear, but that may be unfair. Lots of women, too, fear powerful female politicians (who put their own powerless into relief or just get branded as bitches). Or they worry that overtly sexual women might steal their man.

The metaphors draw on the current of cultural ailurophobia that goes back at least to the witchhunts, and that has been wed to misogyny ever since. If a pussycat can be a witch’s familiar, how much worse these big kitties! In a world where insect bites account for far more disease, death, and misery, we still hold these shared fears of the great cats as – tellingly – “man eaters.”

And yet there’s an optimistic way to view these big she-cats, too. By definition, backlash only occurs when there’s something substantial to oppose. It’s no coincidence, I think, that this frame is appearing in parallel with Clinton’s candidacy and media reports of women have sex just because they want to.

And didn’t Helen Reddy sing it first? “I am woman, hear me ROAR!”

So we’ve got two options, as I see it, which aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. We can ironically appropriate these catticisms, much like feminists have taken back “bitch”; we can be tigresses and lionesses, or at least mama ocelots. Or we can mock them altogether. You’ve probably already seen this wonderful spoof that ran on the Daily Show last month, but if you haven’t, it’ll be your best-spent five minutes of the day.

more about “Cougars | The Daily Show | Comedy Cen…“, posted with vodpod

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Let’s face it: Eighty-eight is a weird number, unless you’re a piano player. And so the only reason we’re all hearing about today being the eighty-eighth anniversary of American women winning the vote is because the Democratic convention is shining a spotlight on it. And that’s only happening because Hillary Clinton became the first woman to be a serious, serious contender for the presidency.

But precisely because eighty-eight is such an artificial number to celebrate, it’s got me doing the math. I realized that my grandma – the one who fancied herself the queen bee of Republican politics in North Dakota – was already thirty when American women achieved suffrage. I was just shy of thirty when she died in 1993.

When you run the calculation that way, eighty-eight years sounds like nanoseconds on a geological scale. It’s a lot harder to take for granted our right to vote. And yeah, non-white men got the vote earlier, but if they lived in the South, Jim Crow kept them from actually exercising their vote even when I was a little girl.

And so it’s especially frustrating when CNN picks out a teary Hillary delegate from the crowd at the convention in Denver and gives her about five uninterrupted minutes to state that she won’t vote for McCain, but Obama has two months to convince her that she shouldn’t just stay home. This particular delegate was black, female, and about my age. I don’t begrudge her tearing up; heaven knows I got all wet-eyed watching Michelle Obama’s speech yesterday, and I did it again today at the thought that McCain could maybe possibly actually win.

But staying home to make a point? You might as well vote for Ralph Nader.

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