Baby Talk

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 24, 2008 10:10 AM

Is it fair, at this stage of the game, to raise questions about Sarah Palin's baby?

Blogger Andrew Sullivan has been drawing flak in the online world for expressing skepticism about the circumstances surrounding the governor's pregnancy. He first weighed in on the question back on Aug. 31, when Internet rumors were swirling that 4-month-old Trig Palin may have been born not to the veep nominee, but to her 17-year-old daughter Bristol. A day later, the McCain campaign announced that Bristol Palin was five months pregnant, seemingly diffusing any controversy about Trig's birth.

Here's part of Sullivan's original Atlantic post on the topic: "The circumstantial evidence for weirdness around this pregnancy is so great that legitimate questions arise -- questions anyone with common sense would ask. The answers to those questions can easily be provided. . .

"Why would a 43-year-old woman, on her fifth pregnancy, with a Down Syndrome child, after her amniotic fluid has started to leak, not go to the nearest hospital immediately, even if she was in Texas for a speech? . . . Why did the flight attendants on the trip home say she bore no signs of being pregnant?"

Last week, Sullivan, a British conservative who became disgusted with the Bush administration and is a passionate advocate for Barack Obama, sent an e-mail query to the McCain campaign:

"I'm very sorry to say, it's come to this: can you confirm on the record that Trig Palin is Sarah Palin's biological son? . . . Since this is a crazy idea, it should be easy for you or someone to let me know, the most popular one-man political blog site in the world, what the truth is."

A day later, he followed up with a second note: "I asked a simple question akin to asking whether you can confirm that the sky is blue. Here's the question in case it got lost: can you confirm on the record that Trig Palin is Sarah Palin's biological son? Can I please get a response of some sort, even if it is that you will not respond?" The McCain camp, which provided the messages to The Washington Post, did not reply.

Why ask that question, with no supporting evidence? "Like any human being," Sullivan told me by e-mail, "I assume that this baby is hers. Of course I do. But as a journalist, my job is also to ask for confirmation or for evidence. And that is all I have done. By e-mail. Not on my blog. I would be remiss if I did not ask them to confirm it. At least that's my view of my responsibility. And I have published every single piece of evidence we have that he is. What else can I do?" He added that McCain aides "won't respond" but "seek to target the blogger asking the question."

Sullivan did post photos of a pregnant-looking Palin when the pictures surfaced.

Is this a case of the McCain folks trying to marginalize a critic, as in Monday's blast at the New York Times as being in the tank for Obama?

"These e-mails show two things," McCain spokesman Michael Goldfarb told me. "One, Andrew Sullivan has the biggest one-man ego on the planet. And two, the insanity that this campaign has had to put up with for the last month."

Why not release the hospital records and put this matter to rest?

"Governor Palin has no history of health problems," Goldfarb says. "We believe that a candidate should be able to preserve some privacy in this process, and we're confident the American people will validate that judgment come election day."

Sullivan, one of the earliest bloggers, has been on a tear about Palin lately, calling her "a compulsive, repetitive, demonstrable liar." But it is the Trig question that has his critics, especially on the right, up in arms. For instance, the Weekly Standard's Jonathan Last, on his Galley Slaves blog, says: "Andrew Sullivan is once again openly using The Atlantic as a platform to demand that Sarah Palin 'prove' that she is mother of her youngest child. It is a disgrace for the magazine and everyone associated with it. One hundred and fifty years of storied history set ablaze in fortnight by a single writer."

There's a difference, obviously, between the fact-checked copy that goes into the magazine and the free-wheeling platform that Atlantic gives its bloggers. But Sullivan's Trig postings have troubled some of his colleagues, and he has been in a veiled debate with fellow Atlantic writer Ross Douthat, who wrote:

"If you think that many of the same people who bleat the loudest about the evils of 'Rove-style' politics aren't happy to similarly dirty their hands for the sake of their own causes and candidates -- well, you need only look at some of the coverage of Sarah Palin's family to see how quickly principle gives way to expedience when power is at stake."

Sullivan responded to his detractors last week:

"All this blog has done is ask for facts and context about a subject that the Palin campaign has put at the center of its message, facts about a baby held up at a convention as a political symbol for the pro-life movement, and cited in Palin's acceptance speech. You do that, you invite questions about it. I make absolutely no apologies for doing my job. I find the account of her pregnancy and labor provided by Palin to be perplexing, to put it mildly, and I have every right to ask questions about it, especially since we have discovered that this woman lies more compulsively and less intelligently than the Clintons."

Palin found herself in a different kind of controversy yesterday. No presidential or vice presidential candidate in my lifetime has been so shielded from the press. We got a striking demonstration yesterday when Palin was to meet with some foreign leaders at the U.N. to burnish her nonexistent foreign-policy credentials. Here's the CBS account:

"John McCain's presidential campaign has shielded the first-term Alaska governor for weeks from spontaneous questions from voters and reporters, and went to striking lengths Tuesday to maintain that distance as Palin made her diplomatic debut. The GOP campaign, applying more restrictive rules on access than even President Bush uses in the White House, banned reporters from the start of the meetings, so as not to risk a question being asked of Palin. McCain aides relented after news organizations objected and CNN, which was supplying TV footage to a variety of networks, decided to pull its TV crew from Palin's meeting with Karzai. Overheard: small talk."

CNN has the crucial details:

"As the pool entered, the Afghan president appeared to be telling Palin about his young son, who was born in January 2007. . . .

"After 29 seconds observing the meeting, CNN and other photographers covering the meeting were escorted out of the room."

Washington Monthly's Steve Benen praises the media pushback:

"Good call. The McCain campaign's overbearing handlers are panicked at the notion of a candidate for national office hearing an unscripted question for which she has not been prepped. As a result, they want the benefit of the images, without the risk of embarrassment."

Obama has edged out to a 52-43 lead, says a new WP-ABC poll. Key reason: everyone is fed up with the economy.

I couldn't have gotten away with this sentence, but Maureen Dowd can:

"I don't agree with those muttering darkly that the picture of Gov. Sarah Palin with a perky smile and shapely gams posing with a pleased Henry Kissinger, famous for calling power the ultimate aphrodisiac, is a sign of the apocalypse."

Picking up on the McCain's camp's evisceration of the NYT on Monday, Jack Shafer writes in Slate:

"While I don't believe that the Times is pulling for Barack Obama, and I'd never judge an entire publication by one story, Steve Schmidt is right about the more general point he raises: The press corps does adore Barack Obama. They like his story. They like writing about him. They like the way he gives speeches. They like the way he makes them feel. And they don't mind cutting him slack whenever he acts like a regular politician -- which he is.

"This, of course, is the same press corps that adored John McCain during the 2000 race."

George Will is generating big-time buzz as the conservative commentator, never a fan of McCain, grows increasingly critical of the GOP nominee:

"Under the pressure of the financial crisis, one presidential candidate is behaving like a flustered rookie playing in a league too high. It is not Barack Obama.

"Channeling his inner Queen of Hearts, John McCain furiously, and apparently without even looking around at facts, said Chris Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, should be decapitated. This childish reflex provoked the Wall Street Journal to editorialize that 'McCain untethered' -- disconnected from knowledge and principle -- had made a 'false and deeply unfair' attack on Cox that was 'unpresidential' and demonstrated that McCain 'doesn't understand what's happening on Wall Street any better than Barack Obama does.' . . .

"In any case, McCain's smear -- that Cox 'betrayed the public's trust' -- is a harbinger of a McCain presidency. For McCain, politics is always operatic, pitting people who agree with him against those who are 'corrupt' or 'betray the public's trust,' two categories that seem to be exhaustive -- there are no other people . . .

"It is arguable that, because of his inexperience, Obama is not ready for the presidency. It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?"

The latest in the ad wars draws this assessment from Time's Jay Carney:

"McCain has a new ad attacking Obama 'and his liberal allies' for failing to lead in the midst of the current financial markets crisis. . . . As I and others have said in criticizing some of the McCain campaign's false or distorted assaults on Obama, there are plenty of potential Obama weaknesses that McCain can fairly and legitimately try to exploit.

"First and foremost, of course, is experience. McCain has more, Obama has relatively little. Whether that matters to you as a voter, or whether you think McCain's experience has been good or bad for the country, the fact is that it's fair for McCain to criticize Obama's lack of it.

"Second, it is irrefutably true that Obama hails from the solidly liberal tradition within the Democratic Party. He speaks eloquently about transcending partisanship, but his record of doing so -- both in Illinois and in Washington -- is fairly limited. And most of his policy proposals can be described as liberal or progressive. And so it is certainly fair for McCain to say that if Obama wins, 'liberals' will be in charge of the House, Senate and the White House. I am not saying that would be bad or good for the country, or that such an attack would persuade swing voters in this cycle. But I am saying that it is entirely fair for McCain to attack Obama on this front -- i.e., to go back to the old GOP well and warn about scary liberals and big government."

My critique of the McCain ad is here and of the latest Obama ad here. And by the way, here's proof that most of these ads are fake.

I thought Joe Biden was being refreshingly honest when he told Katie Couric that he would have stopped that Obama ad mocking McCain for not using a computer or sending e-mail if he'd known about it. But then . . . Mary Katherine Ham picks up the tale at the Standard with the headline, "Biden Sent to Re-Education Camp Over Computer Ad":

"There he learned very quickly about the eminent reasonableness of all Obama ads, including the one that derided McCain for his alleged technological ineptitude, an ad which Biden declared 'terrible':

" I was asked about an ad I'd never seen, reacting merely to press reports. As I said right then, I knew there was nothing intentionally personal in the criticism of Senator McCain's views which look backwards not forwards and are out of touch with the new economic challenges we face today. Having now reviewed the ad, it is even more clear to me that given the disgraceful tenor of Senator McCain's ads and their persistent falsehoods, his campaign is in no position to criticize, especially when they continue to distort Barack's votes on an issue as personal as keeping kids safe from sexual predators."

So much for candor.

Glenn Reynolds: "They told me when John McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate that we'd be embarrassed by repeated gaffes from an unqualified vice-presidential candidate. And they were right!"

The first debate is just two days away. Is McCain catching a break because the topic is foreign policy?

"There is little doubt that a discussion on foreign policy is playing to McCain's strengths," says the New Republic's Nate Silver. "Even when Obama may be winning a foreign policy argument on points, it probably benefits McCain for foreign policy to be the subject of discussion, period, as it brings his experience, war heroism and purported readiness to the fore . . .

"The question is whether McCain benefits by having the foreign policy debate first. The first debate usually gets better ratings than the last debate. In the eight campaigns since 1960 in which there were multiple presidential debates, the first debate had 60.7 million viewers on average, and the last had 56.3. This year, however, the first debate is on a Friday, which is moderately unusual. There were also Friday debates in 2004 and 1976, and two out of the four debates in 1960 were on a Friday. In each case, these were the lowest-rated debates of the cycle. So I'd expect this to be a wash. Then there's the question of momentum versus expectations-setting . . .

"On the other hand, let's recall 2004, when George W. Bush was completely awful in the first debate (which did produce some momentum for John Kerry) but then only somewhat awful in the second and third debates -- which the press was happy to call comebacks and wins for him since the first debate had so lowered their expectations. If Obama does badly in the foreign policy debate, he'll get maybe 30 cents on the dollar back in terms of lowered expectations for the next two debates. On the other hand, if the foreign policy debate were the last debate, there would be no more debates left, and so Obama would have nowhere to cash in that change."

I think Friday debates make no sense, but I predict a huge audience for this one.

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