by Meredith O’Brien
Sarah Palin is, as Time Magazine’s Nancy Gibbs said, “a Technicolor Rorschach test.” What you think about her depends largely upon from which perspective you see the world.
If you’re a liberal Democrat, she’s an abomination, from her positions on public policies, to the perception that the only reason she was picked as John McCain’s “maverick” running mate was because she’s got mega sex appeal. If you’re a conservative Republican, you might like her small government approach, along with her gun-totin’-lipsticked-hockey-mom attitude and quirky, winking “you betcha” anti-elitist style. People who are of the mind that a mom with a young child (or children) should be at home with them, think she abdicated her role as mother by accepting McCain’s offer to crisscross the country campaigning. (It should be noted that the male candidates with small kids and/or a baby at home didn’t find their paternal competency questioned.) Journalists and political pundits remain appalled at how she flounders during interviews and how she rambles during public appearances, all of which were satirized with aplomb by Tina Fey.
So when this woman stunned everyone by calling it quits after two-and-a-half years as Alaska’s governor in order to pursue an ambiguous future, the reaction to her decision was all over the map depending on the prism through which people perceive her and why they think she’s leaving.
Palin defenders have been trying to make the case that this is a genius move which will enable her to rebuild her tarnished image and freely travel in the lower 48 states without sparking more ethics investigations and scrutiny. (Palin cited the distraction of the more than a dozen ethics investigations of her in Alaska -- which she said cost the state $2 million and her family $500,000 -- as the chief reason for her resignation.) One conservative commentator likened her resignation to a potentially savvy chess maneuver, the first one in the 2012 GOP presidential race.
Palin haters, however, don’t buy her I’m-sparing-the-state-from-more-ethics-investigations-and-distractions line, call her reasons bogus and add that she’s nuts if she thinks she can run for president after quitting halfway through her term. They emphasize the oddities in her July 3 speech, including the bit about how only dead fish “go with the flow.” Pragmatic Republican party folks, who now see her as a GOP-damaging loose cannon, have been secretly (or not so secretly) cheering her departure from the scene.
When it comes to Palin, I find her experiences as a high profile, controversial working mother intriguing and disheartening. Bursting onto the national scene last August, Palin was a fortysomething woman who, mere months earlier, had given birth to a baby with Down Syndrome, the youngest of her five children. Palin’s career ascension was unorthodox, one in which she made jokes about balancing her BlackBerry with her breast pump. I looked at her work life, then at mine and my three kids, and was awed. It’s not often that you see a mom with young children in such a powerful political role. (Different rules, apparently, apply to dads of young children.) Mothers – those who work outside the home and those who don’t – make myriad decisions about their lives and I can appreciate the choices Palin made during her extreme high wire act.
But by the time the presidential campaign wound down and Palin imploded while sustaining a torrent of media ridicule, she and her family had become a lightning rod for controversy and mockery. People snickered that Palin, who supported abstinence only sex education, had a teenage daughter who was unwed and pregnant, as if most teens act in accordance to their parents’ beliefs. The pregnancy was plastered all over the tabloids even after the McCain-Palin ticket went down in flames and the family returned to Alaska, so the Palins decided to take control over the story, turn it into a positive. Bristol Palin talked to People Magazine about how hard it is to be a teenage mother and said that if other girls understood the difficulties, they’d never have sex. This was portrayed as Palin again “exploiting” her daughter for her own political advantage.
With all of that in mind, after I watched Palin’s puzzling resignation speech and took in all the analysis as people tried to ascribe intent and meaning to an incomplete explanation, I continued to see Palin’s story as a meta-working mom story, about a woman who’s had hard work-life choices to make. I tried to imagine what it must’ve been like to be Palin, knowing that, as long as she was in office, there would be no end to the insults directed at her family. Months after she was no longer a VP candidate, her teenage daughter was the butt of David Letterman’s inappropriate, sexually-tinged jokes. I thought about Palin’s claims that it felt as though everything she and her family did became polarizing and triggered some kind of investigation. Sure, folks say that that’s the kind of thing you have to deal with when you’re on the national stage, but the scorn and derision heaped on Palin and her family was of a different intensity than other political families face. Hillary Clinton comes closest, but she elicited a great deal of sympathy -- as well as criticism – for being the victim of her husband’s illicit behavior.
On the day Palin resigned, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough , a former Florida GOP congressman, drew a comparison to his decision to walk away from a promising political career for the sake of his sons, a decision he never fully explained to the public at the time. He wrote: “It was actually the simple case of a father who was called home. My youngest boy had just been diagnosed with diabetes and Asperger’s. My oldest boy was feeling the strain of being without a father who had been gone for over 200 nights a year for almost seven years. Add to that the fact that his mother and I had separated four years earlier and he had simply had enough . . . After many meetings with a family counselor, I was told I had two options. My son could move in with me in my Washington apartment or I could come home and have him move in with me back home. Since Pensacola had been the boys’ home their entire life, a disruptive move away from their friends and mother was not an option.”
When Scarborough was criticized, he said that in addition to his political opponents who gave him a hard time, “some allies even piled on, demanding that I explain why I was quitting politics when they believed I had such a bright future . . . Leaving politics was the hardest decision I ever made professionally. But it was also the easier personally.”
Now I may be totally wrong about Palin, who said her family was enthusiastically behind her decision but didn’t list their well being as the reason for quitting. (Ending the non-stop and costly investigations was cited.) By leaving office in the way she is, Palin knowingly risked being branded a “quitter.” The trade-off for such a negative characterization is stepping away from the white hot political spotlight that has burned underaged members of her family and left the Palins with big legal bills, plus, once she’s out of office, Palin could make money and deep-six some of that debt.
Scarborough said he didn’t publicly go into great detail when he resigned from office, writing, “To friends and foes alike, I said the same. I spoke generally of needing to be home for my boys but didn’t feel it was anybody’s business to hear of my young boys’ adolescent trials.”
Only the Palins truly know if a similar “protect the family” dynamic is playing out in Wasilla. Wherever the truth lies, her experience as a political working mom with young kids has been an eye opener.