Tuned In

The Personal Is Political

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Watching Sarah Palin’s speech, for a while you might have thought that Trig Palin was John McCain’s running mate. The governor of Alaska, of course, was the one being introduced to a curious nation, whose quips, attacks and asides would be parsed by the pundits, but before the speech began, and as it continued, the camera followed Palin’s four-month-old baby, handed off to Cindy McCain, then husband Todd, then her daughter Piper, who at one point, winningly, licked her hand and used it to smooth down her baby brother’s hair.

Analysts will talk about the speech, the tone, Palin’s confidence in her first big national appearance, or the fact that she repeated her claim to have “said no thank you” to the Bridge to Nowhere when in fact she campaigned on supporting the project. At the watercoolers today, though, people will be talking about Trig too.

It was fitting—and undoubtedly intentional as stagecraft—given that Palin’s rollout as a candidate was dominated by talk about her family, after the family announced that her teenage daughter Bristol was pregnant. After several days of agonizing over whether political families deserve to be in the spotlight, Palin’s—including Bristol and her young fiance—strode right into it.

As a political image—and, yes, I know it’s creepy to talk about a baby this way, but let’s be honest—Trig served several functions. A child with Down syndrome, he reinforced a point that Palin herself has cited him from the get-go to make: that she lives her pro-life beliefs. He was an implicit rejoinder to the questions about whether Palin could handle raising a special-needs child and being Vice President. (In this sense, the round-robin of baby-holding was like a demonstration performance.)

And by generating several awwww moments and connecting with viewers’ parental instincts, he moderated (or conflicted with) the combative, sarcastic, class-warrior “pit bull” stance she took for much of the speech. Subliminally, he may have even served to rationalize her attacks as a kind of self-defense: early headlines said her speech was “hitting back” against critics (after a week of criticism largely involving her personal life), although her main target, Barack Obama, early and categorically said Palin’s family should be off-limits.

Of course Obama himself—like countless other politicians—brought his own family onstage at his convention, to charming but undeniably calculated effect, too. In politics, there’s off-limits and then there’s off-limits. Palin’s own talk about her family, which took a sizable chunk of the beginning of her speech, helped serve the goals of her introduction: to let the audience get to know her (or feel that way, anyway) and prove that she was capable of standing up to the national spotlight.

I’ll let the pundits go over the content of her speech, but let’s face it: in this media age, the spotlight itself—the ability to be confident and assertive on TV—is a leadership test itself, and not an irrelevant one. Palin hasn’t passed it definitively: at some point, for instance, she’s going to need to start taking press questions. But she met it well her first time out—with a little backup in the crowd.