How sensitive is Sen. John McCain's campaign about his presumptive running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin?
Well, there's the fact that they appear unwilling to let her be alone with the media. God forbid anyone should ask about her views on, say, global warming -- she doesn't believe that human activity has anything to do with it. Perhaps they don't want anyone to hear her explain why she opposes hate-crime laws?
When CNN's Campbell Brown asked McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds mildly aggressive questions about Palin's pregnant teenage daughter, and about the governor's lack of experience with national security issues, the campaign's response was to angrily cancel the senator's scheduled appearance on Larry King's show on Tuesday.
That'll show them. (It had the ancillary benefit of sparing McCain the awkward experience of answering direct questions, albeit it avuncular King-like ones, about Palin.)
The McCain campaign's major defensive effort on Palin's behalf, however, has been the categorical insistence that any discussion of her 17-year-old daughter's pregnancy is out of bounds, an unacceptable invasion of the family's privacy. It's a sentiment that's been seconded not only by the religious right, which believes that it has found a champion in the Alaskan governor, but also by McCain's Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama. On Monday, he told a group of reporters: "People's families are off-limits, and people's children are especially off-limits. This shouldn't be part of our politics. It has no relevance to Gov. Palin's performance as a governor or her potential performance as a vice president."
Both the McCain campaign and Obama are partly right.
Palin's daughter and her unborn child's father are entitled to privacy as children -- and that's what they are -- and as individuals. They ought not to be pursued by reporters, nor should their friends and teachers be grilled for details about their private lives. Nobody asked them whether they wanted to be made symbolic caricatures in a national debate over the fulfillment of two strangers' political ambitions, and they shouldn't be treated as if they had.
That said, the fact of Bristol Palin's situation and the way in which she and her family have chosen to deal with it are legitimate issues, because they involve public policy issues on which Sarah Palin, candidate for vice president, has taken political positions. Palin, for example, opposes sex education in schools, including all access to contraceptive information for adolescents. Similarly, she believes that abortion should be illegal.
But Palin and her family dealt with two personal situations in just the way all Americans are entitled to meet them. When Sarah Palin and her husband discovered that their unborn son would be born with Down syndrome, they were free to make the decision that she would carry their boy to term. When they found that their 17-year-old daughter was pregnant by her high school boyfriend, they were free to reach a decision that the daughter, too, would keep her child and that she and the boy would marry. (They were free to do that even though many, perhaps most, Americans no longer regard teenage marriages as particularly desirable. Most people long ago put away the notion of a boy "making an honest woman" of the girl.)
The point is that the Palins were able to make all these decisions according to the dictates of their own consciences, formed by their own religious convictions, within the privacy of their own family and according to its values and traditions. What they decided is nobody's business but theirs; the fact that they were free to arrive at their own decision is everybody's business.
The particular brand of social conservatism in which Sarah Palin quite evidently believes deeply would deny other American families and other American women the freedom to make these same intimate decisions according to the dictates of their own consciences, religious convictions and traditions.
The McCain campaign would like to cut off discussion of Palin's views as quickly and as completely as possible. That's because McCain's desire to find a female running mate whose views on abortion wouldn't further alienate the religious right led him into a reckless and ill-considered decision. He picked a vice president he hardly knew -- and now, his campaign would like to buffalo the electorate into doing the same.
That's unlikely. Reporters are beginning to work their way across Alaska, reconstructing Palin's personal history. ABC-TV first reported -- though the McCain campaign denies -- that she flirted with a secessionist, state's rights political party. On Tuesday, an online piece by Time magazine reported that, as newly elected mayor of Wasilla, Palin tried to fire a librarian who refused to cooperate in banning books from the public library.
If McCain and his people think they can obscure this sort of record behind an appeal to privacy, they're kidding themselves even more than they're trying to kid the voters. Palin is beginning to look less like Dan Quayle and more like Tom Eagleton, whose abrupt departure from the 1972 Democratic ticket remains a watchword for unpleasant political surprise.