Sarah Palin's milk joke goes sour

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin speaks at a dinner in Santa Barbara, California February 4, 2011.
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin speaks at a dinner in Santa Barbara, California February 4, 2011. (Afp/getty Images)

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By Jena McGregor
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 10:51 AM

Sarah Palin spoke Thursday at the Long Island Association, a business group in New York. The event was notable for the fact that Palin invited the press--something she does rarely. And it was newsworthy in that she gave another sign she might actually run for president: News reports say she hinted with a smile that someone who is good at multitasking ("a woman, a mom"), as well as someone who's already run for something ("a vice-presidential candidate?") would be most qualified for the job.

During the event, in which Palin was interviewed by the Long Island Association's president, she sounded off about presidential things--the deficit, whether or not to raise the nation's debt ceiling and President Obama's health-care reform law. And she weighed in on the debate over Obama's citizenship, reportedly saying it is "distracting. It gets annoying. Let's stick to what really matters."

But if that's what she really wants people to do, why did she crack a joke about Michelle Obama's campaign to make it easier for women to breastfeed? When the conversation turned to the escalating price of gas and groceries, Palin reportedly said, "It's no wonder Michelle Obama is telling everybody you better breastfeed your baby--yeah, you better--because the price of milk is so high right now!"

It may have just been an attempt to draw a laugh from the crowd over issues--childhood obesity and the medically proven benefits of breastfeeding--that are no laughing matter. But even though she followed up by saying "and may that not be the takeaway, please, of this speech," it has become one of them. Headlines saying that Palin was mocking Michelle Obama's attempt to make it easier for women to breastfeed have lead stories following the speech.

Who knows whether or not Palin will run for the nation's highest office. But if she does, comments like this one do little to make her sound presidential. For one, even if it was a joke, Palin was making light of something that has to do with the future of this country--the health and well-being of its children. And even if Palin spent most of the talk discussing deficits, health-care reform and foreign affairs, it's unnecessary side comments like these that will--whether she likes it or not--lead the news.

Just consider the contrast in the coverage following Palin's talk with the coverage following New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's speech at the American Enterprise Institute Wednesday. While political experts lauded Christie--who has repeatedly said he won't run for president--with praise for his straight talk and focus on the meaning of leadership during the speech, Palin's unusually open event found her the subject of much less flattering headlines.

Leaders are judged as much on what they do take the time to weigh in on as on what they don't say at all. Jumping into the debate about Michelle Obama's campaign to fight childhood obesity, and make breastfeeding easier for those women who choose to do it, may have been like throwing candy to certain elements of her base. But if she wants to sound presidential, then sticking to what really matters (as Palin puts it) without throwing in little cracks about a universally agreed-upon problem would be a lot less, in a word, distracting.

For more news on Palin, Obama and the leaders shaping our world, visit The Washington Post's On Leadership page by clicking here.


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