GOP Deals With the Storm -- and the Stork

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 1 Hurricane Gustav made landfall on the Louisiana coast about 10:30 a.m. Monday. Hurricane Bristol made landfall in Minnesota at 11:43 a.m.

"Palin says daughter, 17, pregnant," announced the article by Steve Holland on the Reuters news wire. Sarah Palin, John McCain's running mate, disclosed this bombshell about her daughter Bristol "to knock down rumors by liberal bloggers that Palin faked her own pregnancy to cover up for her child."

Upward of 10,000 reporters in and around the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, idled by McCain's decision to truncate the Republican convention because of Gustav, suddenly discovered that their plans for the day had been knocked up. Scores of them surrounded Steve Schmidt, McCain's senior adviser, as he walked through the media area outside the convention hall.

"Was it good judgment to select Sarah Palin, given her daughter's situation? . . . Why didn't you just say it, Steve, at the time when you picked her? . . . Did this question of how she will handle and balance her own personal responsibilities with the responsibilities of running the country come up?"

Schmidt sparred ("Your question is offensive"), parried ("I'm not a psychic") and fled. "I've got to run," he told the mob. "Not like this isn't fun."

And the storm surge was just beginning. As the waves of Hurricane Bristol crashed over the arena, another tropical depression was forming on the Christian Broadcasting Network, which reported that Palin's husband, Todd, was charged with drunken driving two decades ago. Meteorologists were also watching the rotation on Tropical Storm Trooper -- the flap over the attempt to fire an Alaska officer who is divorced from Palin's sister.

To Democrats, this all added evidence to their thesis that the Republicans are suffering divine retribution. On Friday night, filmmaker Michael Moore told MSNBC that "Gustav is proof that there is a God in heaven." Former Democratic National Committee chairman Don Fowler had also said that Gustav "just demonstrates that God is on our side." He apologized.

Then again, in sending the deluge to the Gulf Coast, God may have merely misunderstood the request of Republicans, who had sought meteorological interference of their own. A group associated with Focus on the Family's James Dobson had posted a video asking people to pray for "rain of biblical proportions" to wash out Democrat Barack Obama's open-air speech in Denver last week.

Republicans have a history of such practices. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell blamed 9/11 on "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays." The Rev. John Hagee said Hurricane Katrina was "the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans." And the Rev. Pat Robertson threatened Orlando with "earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor" for displaying gay-pride flags.

McCain, however, sought the help of a less vengeful God when he said, as Gustav approached, that "we pray to God that it will spare" Gulf Coast residents. As for the convention, he said, "some of that is frankly in the hands of God."

His fellow Republicans tried to force the hand of God just a bit. They had promised to engage in only the necessary parliamentary aspects of the convention Monday, but they snuck in some partisanship. Party official Kevin McCarthy used his introduction of the platform to give a political speech: "There are those who never met a tax they didn't like! . . . Some people believe Washington has all the answers; we disagree!"

First lady Laura Bush reminded the conventioneers that "we're all Americans" -- then showed a video about how GOP governors are responding to the storm. "You're seeing Republican governors in Republican states doing a terrific job," testified Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Off the floor, the talk was all about the day's man-made storm, Hurricane Bristol -- or, as some were unkindly calling Palin's daughter, the Juno of Juneau.

As the news spread across the arena, the Republicans canceled their daily news briefing. Spokesman Tucker Bounds, in a laudable bit of spin, explained how Palin now "may be the most qualified expert on any campaign on family issues."

Schmidt, ambushed as he strolled through the media area, got progressively angrier as the mob around him grew. Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times asked about the feasibility of Palin being a vice president with "a new baby herself, and now she's about to be a new grandmother trying to support a daughter giving birth to her own child."

Schmidt replied: "Frankly, I can't imagine that question being asked of a man. A lot of women will find it offensive."

Jackie Calmes, also of the Times, asked Schmidt whether he worried about "turning off some of the women you wanted to appeal to, who will question the judgment of Senator McCain and Governor Palin that they would subject a 17-year-old's pregnancy out of wedlock to international attention."

"They have asked for privacy," said Schmidt, whose colleagues had just sent out the news release announcing the pregnancy.

On another day, Hurricane Bristol could have swamped McCain. But as reporters laid siege to Schmidt on Monday, the storm barely registered on cable news. "BREAKING NEWS: HURRICANE HITS LOUISIANA," a nearby CNN screen shouted.

So Hurricane Gustav overtopped the pregnancy story. And it further helped McCain by washing away Monday night's planned speeches by the unpopular President Bush and the more unpopular Vice President Cheney.

Maybe God is a Republican, after all.

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