Let me make something very clear: I like, admire and respect Andrew Sullivan and his writing. I can’t remember when I first started reading his blog, but I think it must have been in early 2001. Certainly before 9/11. Since then I suspect I must have read more words written by Andrew than by any other journalist or blogger. Before his blog moved to Time and, subsequently, The Atlantic, I regularly contributed to his bi-annual pledge drives. I’d recommend his book, The Conservative Soul to anyone interested in the subject.
Heck, he’s often been kind enough to link to this blog and, indeed, I once helped fill-in for him while he took a well-deserved break. In other words, I owe Andrew rather more than the nothing he owes me. That goes for most bloggers, mind you, even those to whom he hasn’t sent his readers. Any history of blogging - and its interaction with “traditional” journalism - that fails to include a lengthy passage on Andrew’s career is unlikely to worth reading. He’s done more for blogging than almost anyone else. I mean this.
From this you will surmise that there must be a rather hefty “but” on the way. And you would, alas, be correct. Nevertheless, the existence of this "but" does not in any way invalidate anything I've written here.
There are plenty of long-term Sullivan fans disappointed and even, in some cases, infuriated by his reaction to John McCain's decision to put Sarah Palin on the Republican ticket. That's everyone's prerogative of course and, equally obviously, Andrew can and should write whatever he damn well pleases. (Equally, I'm sure there are thousands and thousands of people who admire his recent writing and consider it the best stuff he's ever produced.)
And let it be put on record - to use a pompous phrase sadly redolent of Andrew's recent writing - that I actually agree with him that Sarah Palin is, in many respects, under-qualified for the post she aspires to hold. I agree that it was, in some respects, a reckless gamble by the McCain campaign and that, again in some, even many, respects, it does not necessarily increase one's confidence in a McCain presidency.I'm not as completely in the tank for Obama as Andrew, but I think he's likely to be the better choice in this election.
I'm not alone in finding Andrew's Palinphobia wearisome. As a British conservative friend put it the other day, "It's the sheer ferocity and repetitive abuse that's bizarre. He comes across a bit like these UKIPers who insist that Brussels will destroy our way of life; I agree with them that the EU is rotten, undemocratic and wasteful, but I don't feel the need to spend every waking hour running down the street shouting about it, because it's worse than our domestic politics only in scale, not in kind."
Indeed so. Most more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger posts are often nothing of the sort, of course, being but an elaborate form of concern-trolling. And perhaps this post will also end up in that category. I hope not. But I know I'm not the only Sullivan fan to have been depressed by his recent writing. That's on me, you may say, not on him and of course you'd have a point. Nonetheless...
A spot of background first: Andrew did more than any other mainstream or respectable blogger or news source to spread the rumours that Sarah Palin was never in fact pregnant this year and that her four month old baby, Trig, who has Downs Syndrome, was in fact Sarah Palin's grand-son. Andrew repeatedly insinuated that her daughter Bristol (now pregnant herself of course) was the real mother and that nothing else could explain the strange pregnancy that led to Trig's birth.
As the man put it himself: "There must be plenty of medical records and obstetricians and medical eye-witnesses prepared to testify to Sarah Palin's giving birth to Trig. There must be a record of Bristol's high school attendance for the past year. And surely, surely, the McCain camp did due diligence on this. The noise around this story is now deafening, and the weirdness of the chronology sufficient to rise to the level of good faith questions. So please give us these answers - and provide medical records for Sarah Palin's pregnancy - and put this to rest."
Later - and creditably, or so it seemed - he admitted, that "Here's a photo that looks like it confirms
Palin's pregnancy, uploaded today, on what was the last day of the
Alaska Legislature's Session, on April 13, 2008, five days before Trig
Palin was born. More here.
This seems to put the kibbosh on this, although it would still be good
to have official confirmation from the McCain campaign, which should be
easy enough to do. Just a simple confirmation from the doctor who was
present at the birth."
Left unexplained, of course, was why Andrew felt he needed any such "confirmation from the doctor who was present at the birth." Beyond satisfying Andrew's unusually insatiable curiosity, what would be the point of this? Why would anyone need this confirmation? What would it prove? Given that you seem to accept that Sarah is indeed Trig's mother, what else do you need?
Quite a bit more, it turned out. "Why not kill this rumor with Palin's medical records? A 43 year old woman's pregnancy with a Downs Syndrome child would have been intensely monitored, and the records must be a mile long. Just release them, ok? If necessary in a closed room for reporters, just as with McCain. And we can all breathe a sigh of relief and move on."
That was two weeks ago. For a spell, matters calmed down a little. At least they did with regard to the pregnancy issue. Alas, the hope this might be an end to then nonsense proved premature and it turns out that we have not been able to move on. At least, not all of us have been able to. Andrew returned to the pregnancy issue on Tuesday, devoting no fewer than five posts to the vital matter of Sarah Palin's decision to have an amniocentesis test while she was pregnant with Trig.
Let's go to the blog. At 10.45am Andrew suggested that Palin's decision to have the test, even though it posed a small, but measurable, risk to her unborn child, was "one of many mystifying weirdnesses in Palin's own account of her pregnancy." He quoted the relevant Wikipedia page which suggests that the risk of amniocentesis-related miscarriage is no greater than 0.5% and perhaps as little as 0.0625%.
One may differ as to whether or not this was a risk worth taking. For what little it may be worth, I know a couple who, in their mid-thirties, were at long last and happily expecting their first child. They are both pro-life catholics and would have had their child no matter what. Nevertheless, they had, I believe, the amnio test which confirmed that their son would be born with Downs Syndrome. I wouldn't for a moment presume to consider them bad parents or hypocrites for having all the available tests performed. And actually, I believe that the confirmation that their child had DS did permit them to prepare themselves for the reality of dealing with that situation. I know that it never crossed their minds to abort the infant, nor do I think they were hypocrites in wanting to have as much information about their son as they could learn. As John Schwenkler suggests, doctors also put enormous pressure upon pregnant women to have every possible test performed. One may, as John says, think Palin could or should have said no to it, but you have a harder time persuading me that it's any of my - or your - business.
But we move on, wearily perhaps but necessarily nonetheless. To give Andrew credit, he was happy to post correspondence from readers, not all of which dovetailed with his own odd concerns. Still at 1.31pm he was wondering why a pro-life woman would risk her child's life and suggesting that, contra my example above, "Palin's decision was atypical for a pro-life mother."
But even if this is true, so what? Everyone's life is atypical to one degree or another. And why, again, does any of this matter? Then there was this: "But if you're preparing for a possibly difficult labor and birth, why would you then wing it for a speech and airplane flights from Texas to Wasilla after your water has broken or your amniotic fluid is already leaking and you are having contractions? If the point of the amniocentesis was to take every precaution to avoid a dangerous birth, then the decision to fly from Alaska to Texas and back, after contractions and leakage of amniotic fluid, is bizarre."
It's hard to understand the complaint here, beyond the suggestion that Sarah Palin is a bad mother, despite there being, as best I can tell, no substantive grounds for this insinuation. There is no evidence - or certainly none that Andrew has cited - that suggests Palin recklessly endangered her child's life. Indeed, she consulted doctors before returning to Alaska. Equally, having given birth on four previous occasions it is not unreasonable to suppose that she might have an idea of what her body was up to. Certainly she would seem better placed to understand these things than I am, or for that matter, than any other blogger is.
At 3.15pm Andrew quotes more reader email (to his credit) and delivers a verdict: "As I suspected, the Palin decision remains befuddling and contradicts her resolutely pro-life stance." Sadly, the evidence of this contradiction still remains elusive.
Undaunted, we press on. By 6.27pm (all times EST obviously) Andrew has reached a state of middling-to-high dudgeon. "As a public figure, and perhaps a president of the US next January, she could always, you know, explain. The baby was a major prop at the convention and is constantly used to appeal to pro-life voters. The pregnancy has been in the New York Times, People, and the Anchorage Daily News. It's not like this is a secret, or that the pro-life debate isn't one Palin is eager to have. So why won't she tell us more." Note, again, the suggestion, veiled though it may be, that Palin come clean about what, absent plausible evidence - heck, any evidence! - to the contrary seems to be a non-existent controversy, let alone a non-existent conspiracy...
Oddly, Andrew, who is I think, in the personally pro-life but reluctantly pro-choice camp (as indeed am I) has reduced poor Trig to the status of a mere "prop". Now it is true that that Palin's decision to have a DS baby gives her enormous credibility as far as the pro-life movement is concerned. And, for sure, that was doubtless reinforced by Trig's presence at the GOP convention. But one may recognise this without imputing any devious motives behind Trig's presence in St Paul. Would Andrew really have wanted the infant to be hidden away, out of sight? All four candidates paraded their children at the respective conventions, but it's only Trig whose presence is somehow unseemly? What should Palin have done? Locked him away?
Perhaps that would indeed have been, in one respect, more seemly but it would also have been, I hazard, somewhat grotesque. Furthermore, if Trig had not been on display at the convention one can easily imagine how some folk - but not Andrew! - would have used this as grounds to restart whispering campaigns about the child's provenance and so on...
If only it could all end there. But at 7.20pm Andrew posted another item on the controversial subject of Sarah Palin's pregnancy. "As for blog "rumors" about a Down Syndrome pregnancy, 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."
Readers can decide for themselves the extent to which these rumours exist - in the press and mainstream blogosphere - outside Andrew's imagination.Who knows, perhaps it's fake baby after all? I mean, I'm only asking questions, right? That's my job!
Apparently so! "If a story does not makes sense or raises serious questions about the sincerity of a candidate's embrace of a core political message, it is not rumor-mongering to ask about it. It is journalism. And in the absence of any information from the Palin campaign, I have aired every possible view trying to explain it. What else am I supposed to do? Pretend these questions don't exist? Pretend her story makes sense to me? I owe my readers my honest opinion. That's not rumor-mongering, it's fulfilling my core commitment to my readers."
Never mind the gawd-help-us Bob Herbertism of this "core commitment" guff, look at how - in just a few hours! - Andrew has reached, it seems, the seemingly puzzling conclusion that Todd and Sarah Palin's decision to have the amnio test undermines the "sincerity" of the Palins' pro-life opinions. Puzzling, I say, because an innocent could look at this and conclude that Andrew is saying that they had Trig because they suspected it would be politically convenient to have a DS infant...
Harsh, you say! And perhaps you would be correct. Yet how else is one supposed to interpret this passage? Andrew casts aspersions upon their pro-life bona fides while ignoring the seemingly more salient fact that they actually brought the pregnancy to term and, lo, Trig was born. I can see how one could argue that Palin was a hypocrite - as Andrew suggests she is when he questions the "sincerity" of her "embrace" of the anti-abortion position - if she had the amnio test and then had an abortion. But she didn't, did she? She had the test - for reasons that quite properly remain as private as any woman's decision to have an abortion should - carried the child to term. Most people would not have, but in Andrew's world that raises more questions about Palin than it does about our attitudes to abortion.
Funny old world, eh?
One other thing: of course the rancid elements of the right would have made hay with any suggestion that Obama's wife or daughters (were they a few years older) been in any comparable situation. All sensible folk know how ugly that would have been. No decent person, I hope, would have endorsed the attendant rubbish this would have produced. That doesn't mean one has to be in favour of such mendacity when it is produced by folk one admires in the service of a candidate that, absent a Bob Barr landslide, one would rather see win than lose.
To repeat: every blogger and many journalists owe a lot to Andrew. And he can and should write whatever he fucking likes. I'll still read him, for sure. Which is to say that, unlike some of my friends, I'm not going to give up on Andrew Sullivan just yet. I despair of his recent turn, but I hope this will pass.
Fast forward to December, anyone?
UPDATE: Andrew responds here.