By Benjamin Cole
Before a convention of thousands and a television audience of millions Sept. 3, GOP vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin was given a historic election debut that had most pundits awarding high marks for her performance.
Joining the Alaska governor on stage after the speech were her husband, her three daughters, her Iraq-bound soldier son, and the youngest addition to the Palin family — a 4 1/2-month-old boy born with Down syndrome.
And, clutching the hand of her 17-year-old daughter Bristol, was Levi Johnson, the girl’s fiance and, according to Palin, the father of her unborn child.
The teen-pregnancy revelation sent modest shockwaves throughout the Religious Right, which had previously been quite giddy over Palin’s surprise addition to the GOP ticket. If not for the threat of another tropical tempest breaching New Orleans’ levees on the same day, the nation might have experienced wall-to-wall coverage about another sex scandal in American politics.
The party that mustered enough votes to impeach President Bill Clinton ten years ago this December and the country that had to endure endless hearings about the then-commander-in-chief’s sexual indiscretions has reached a point where sex doesn’t matter as much as it once did. Within the last 20 years, Americans have gone through the grueling confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the Bob Packwood peccadilloes, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig’s Minneapolis restroom foot-tapping fetish, the marriage troubles of Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston, and Mark Foley’s inappropriate overtures to teenage congressional pages.
Eventually, America has come to recognize that leaders once hailed by the now defunct Moral Majority are about as moral, or perhaps as immoral, as everybody else.
If anything has been proven, it’s that almost all political figures can weather a sex scandal, especially when the weather is working in your favor. The attention-deficit disorder of the American electorate has grown more pronounced, and for a while it seemed that the only people who cared much about the moral failings of elected officials were a cadre of leaders from the far Religious Right.
Which is why the unwed pregnancy of 17 year-old Bristol Palin intrigues me. Rather than sounding the alarms of the moral watchdogs in the Religious Right, there has occurred something of a celebration. The teen’s decision to have the baby and marry the child’s father — commendable to be sure — is held aloft as “Exhibit A” of pro-life politics in action.
And in an odd twist of ideological irony, the Religious Right finds itself thankful that abortion is still legal in America. If every unwed teenage mother were required to carry her baby to full term, pro-life leaders would be hard-pressed to find the moral ground upon which to champion the young Bristol Palin. Sadly, she would be just another teenage girl who sacrificed her moral purity for a few sordid moments with a high school hockey jock. Instead of celebrating her “choice” of life over abortion, the arbiters of American sexual ethics would have nothing to talk about but her “sin.”
Of course, the Religious Right has also grown increasingly indifferent to the potential political risks posed by the private lives of candidates for the nation’s second-highest office. For example, either Christian grace or common decency kept Vice President Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter from being an “issue” for the vast majority of them during the 2000 and 2004 elections.
Yes, times are different in America. We are arriving at a place where legalized abortion gives some political wiggle room for those most opposed to it, where neither Republicans nor Democrats can reasonably claim a moral high ground from which to snipe at each other, and where the private lives of public officials and their children are given greater refuge from merciless media assaults.
I have a sense that America is realizing something basic to our form of government. A single unwed mother in Alaska isn’t as pressing as hundreds of thousands of people living in the path of a hurricane, and the national interest to protect the poor in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward is at least as pressing as the interest to protect the unborn child in the womb.
We’re also realizing that Bristol Palin’s pregnancy has as much to do with Sarah Palin’s qualification for high office as Jeremiah Wright’s sermons have to do with Barack Obama’s. Hopefully, neither distraction from the real issues of this campaign will surface to capture more headlines as America races toward the November election.