Did Sarah Palin really give birth to Trig Paxson Van Palin – and should we care?
The case for Trig’s birth being a hoax has been revived in a scholarly paper penned by a Northern Kentucky University professor, Brad Scharlott. Luckily for him, Kentucky is very far from Alaska – and he’s tenured – so he’s unlikely to lose his job over this. If he were a trash collector or librarian in Wasilla, he’d surely be toast. But in my opinion, he’s also unlikely to find a journal willing to publish his article, even though his main scholarly point – that the mainstream media failed to even investigate the rumors about Trig’s parentage, shutting it down in a “spiral of silence” – accurately describes the media response. If you write about rumor, you own work gets tinged with its stigma, especially if you make the case, as Scharlott does, that a rumor is probably true. In a series of interviews with journalist-novelist-blogger Laura Novak, Scharlott comes off as a credible, intelligent, non-flaky guy. In my estimation, he deserves to be taken seriously.
But still – does the story matter at this late date? The most prominent blogger demanding answers, Andrew Sullivan, has argued repeatedly it does because he sees Palin as a viable Republican candidate whose entire political persona is based upon lies. I agree that she’s a pathological liar. I fear she’s running in 2012.
I’m not sure how much the truth matters politically, though.
Let’s say some enterprising reporter were to uncover proof that Palin is not Trig’s mother. Would that really sway her hardcore political base? I suspect not. They’ve embraced her despite Troopergate and a passel of other ethics violations in Alaska. They tolerated her quitting in the midst of her gubernatorial term, whether to damp down ethics allegations or simply to make truckloads of money as a Fox commentator. They don’t seem to mind her millenarian Pentecostal beliefs that suggest she might not be opposed to Armageddon in our time. They tuned in to her reality show, for god’s sake! Given all they’ve swallowed, why should her loyalists mind if she’d fabricated her fifth pregnancy from whole cloth? (Or from fake bumps and scarves?) She has already shown her contempt for the reality-based community. Why would one more lie – however spectacular – affect Palin’s political future? (It might sway some independents, but we have to hope they’ll be repelled by her overall deceptiveness. If they aren’t, then we really are in deep shit.)
For those of us on the left, there’s little political gain in pursuing this story at this late date. If we do, we risk being lumped in with the Obama Birthers. Plenty of lefty bloggers are already doing just that: Melissa McEwan at Shakesville, Jill at Feministe, and Atrios, just for a sampling. (There are also specifically feminist objections to demanding the truth about Trig’s birth; my next post deals with them.) Through some bizarre political calculus, it seems that the right can only win when it promotes Birtherism (see: Trump, Donald), while we on the left are marginalized by our own kind as soon as we question the oddities surrounding Trig’s birth.
And yet, I want to know the truth, despite the lack of political upside. Blame it on déformation professionnelle from my training as a historian. Maybe I just read too many Nancy Drew books as a girl. But I want to know. And since Sarah Palin remains a powerful politician even out of office (!) it’s in the public interest to know whether she’s a pathological liar or just a reckless narcissist. If she did lie about Trig’s birth, it’s surely not the most important lie she has told (Sully has catalogued dozens in his series “The Odd Lies of Sarah Palin”), but it’s a pretty spectacular one.
The truth matters, especially when it concerns someone who was a candidate for high office – and may be again. It matters even if it’s not politically expedient to pursue it. In fact, if we’re not just political hacks and shills, the truth matters especially when it’s politically inconvenient.
Litbrit has made one of the best cases I’ve seen for Palin having faked the whole thing. She argues that it’s improbable Palin would have risked going into labor on one of those long flights from Texas back to Alaska. She exposes the hypocrisy and sexism of giving Palin a pass on a story that’s a key part of her political persona and appeal just as military heroism is for John McCain.
I’m on record as saying that the more likely scenario is that Palin exercised awesomely bad judgment in traveling in traveling from Dallas all the way to Wasilla after her water broke (by her own account). A recent article by investigative reporter Geoffrey Dunn concurs. (He’s got a forthcoming book titled all-t00-appropriately The Lies of Sarah Palin.) Palingates has a handy compendium of the facts (such as they can be known) about Palin’s Wild Ride. Politicalgates offers a set of questions that would help ferret out the truth, assuming that reporters dared to pose them and the principals answered truthfully (unlikely in Sarah Palin’s case). Early on, before we had other examples of Palin’s recklessness, the Wild Ride placed Palin’s acceptance of the VP nomination – for which she was utterly unprepared and unqualified – into a context. It suggested that delusions of grandeur and invulnerability might be hard-wired traits.
But even though I lean toward believing Palin is narcisstic and unbalanced enough to have risked delivery at 35,000 feet, I’m not at all persuaded by the debunkers that have sprung up like mushrooms in response to Scharlott’s paper. At Slate, Rachael Larimore suggests Occam’s Razor undermines any scenario except Palin being Trig’s birth mother. That argument would be more convincing if Palin’s life weren’t already chockfull of elaborate plots and ruses (see: Troopergate) and erratic behavior (her early resignation). Her life is literally a reality show. Why should we leap to the conclusion that the simplest explanation – while prima facie more likely – is thus bound to be true?
At Salon, Steve Kornacki argues that the Trig rumors are irrelevant because McCain didn’t choose Palin on account of her motherhood, he picked Palin because she was an exciting young female unknown, and thus Palin had no reason to fake a pregnancy. I don’t think anyone has ever seriously argued that Palin’s choice to mother a child with Down syndrome swayed McCain’s choice. It is, however, a potent part of her appeal to her base. Her decision to continue the pregnancy remains a pivotal story in the speeches she delivers to her fans. Whatever else Palin may be, she’s opportunistic. If you postulate that her pregnancy was faked, she might have had completely apolitical motivations, yet seized on the chance to make political hay out of “choosing life.” (One of Sullivan’s readers lays out a scenario where a faked pregnancy would have evolved as an improvised solution – I’m not endorsing this theory, but I do think it has a certain logic .) Kornacki’s argument is thus beside the point. He assumes that any plot by Palin would have relied on rational calculation. She’s politically savvy, but we have plenty of reason to believe she’s not rational.
But the main debunker – who claims to have definitively laid the rumors to rest – is Justin Elliot, also at Salon. Elliot cites numerous eyewitnesses who claim they saw Palin’s pregnancy up close. Among them is Wesley Loy, a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News who questioned Palin on the authenticity of her pregnancy in February 2008, two months before Trig was reportedly born. In response, Loy says (also at Salon), Palin lifted up her outer garment to display her belly bump. Of course, if Palin really was aping the fake-pregnancy plot line from Desperate Housewives (which she referred to in her interview with Loy), a fabric-covered bump proves nothing. (And no, I’m not suggesting Palin had an obligation to bare her belly, just that this is far from conclusive evidence, especially when said witnesses were men.)
If Loy was so convinced, why didn’t he say so at the time (as Gryphen asks at the Immoral Minority)? (Scharlott tried contacting Loy in the course of his research but received no reply.) Joe McInnis points out the oddity of both Loy and another Alaska reporter, Steve Quinn (also cited in Salon), coming forward with nearly identical accounts three years later. McInnis, who is also soon to publish a tell-all Palinography, positions himself as a “Trignostic.” Still, he’s not convinced – and he reminds us that eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Gryphen further notes that Quinn may not be an impartial observer, as he was having an affair with a Palin staffer at the time.
Moreover, the eyewitness accounts cited in Salon do not stand alone. They’re contradicted – ta-dah! – by other eyewitnesses. Here’s what Geoffrey Dunn found:
One close friend of Palin’s–a widely respected woman who had given birth to several children as well and who had close contact with Palin in Juneau up until the time of Trig’s birth–told me that “Palin did not look like she was pregnant. Ever. Even when she had the bulging belly, I never felt that the rest of her body, her face especially, looked like she was pregnant.” When I asked her point-blank if she was certain the baby was Palin’s, she said, “No. I don’t know what to believe.”
The news of Palin’s pregnancy came as a complete surprise to Palin’s State Trooper security detail Gary Wheeler … Only two weeks earlier, in late February of 2008, Wheeler had accompanied Palin back to Washington, D.C. for a Republican Governors Association Conference … Wheeler remembers that Palin had changed into jeans upon her arrival in Washington, with no apparent revelation of pregnancy.
Wheeler also said that his wife, Corky, actually made fun of him when the news came out because he was supposed to be a “trained observer.” Wheeler simply shakes his head: “I had nary an idea she was packin’.”
As Wesley Loy of the Anchorage Daily News reported it at the time, Governor Palin “shocked and awed just about everybody around the Capitol” with her announcement.
This is at seven months.
Yup, that’s the same Wesley Loy who now says Palin showed him her clothed belly.
This issue could be laid to rest if Palin had disclosed her medical records while she was running for the vice presidency. This isn’t an extraordinary request. It’s simply what every other candidate has done in recent memory – including Obama, Biden, and McCain in 2008. Medical records would settle the case definitively. Palin claims she has provided a birth certificate, but that’s yet another lie. Instead, she merely released a letter from her family physician, Cathy Baldwin-Johnson (on election eve, no less). The letter was written mostly in passive voice, which is normal doctor-speak but allows for evasion and circumlocution. This letter included no documentary verification, and none has been provided to date.
In the absence of this data – which, again, is provided by EVERY other candidate for our highest office – rumors will continue to flourish. At Immoral Minority, a commenter from Wasilla states categorically that Palin announced getting a tubal ligation after the birth of Piper. If true, it would certainly explain why candidate Palin refused to release her medical records. If false, well, then why not release those records? Or do they conceal some other secret that could damage Palin’s pro-life cred?
We should ask: cui bono? As Laura Novak writes, “Forget follow the money. The question is: who benefits from this controversy continuing?” Does Palin gain something by allowing the rumor mill to churn – notoriety, sympathy, or some other intangible? Or is she trying to hide a secret – perhaps one only tangentially related to Trig’s birth? We really don’t know.
However this plays out, it confirms that Palin is a reckless egomaniac, a liar, or – most likely of all – both. And while I disagree with Amanda Marcotte’s contention that the Trig rumors have been wholly debunked, I think she’s right to say they resonate with many of us because we already know that Palin is a “phony.”
Update, 4/26/11, 10:50 p.m.: As this high-school girl demonstrated, it’s not too difficult to fake a pregnancy over six months with the help of just a few confederates. (“A few” is probably key, because if large numbers are in on the secret, it’s bound to spill.) Of course, it’s probably easier to pull off a faux pregnancy if people are predisposed to believe it due to your ethnicity.