In 2008, a conspiracy theory about Sarah Palin — then a candidate for vice president — was born. The theory: Palin was not in fact the mother of her then-infant son, Trig — her daughter Bristol was. The blogger Andrew Sullivan fed into the theory, and it was resurrected in an academic paper by a Kentucky journalism professor in 2011. (Salon has since thoroughly debunked the Trig Palin conspiracy theory.)
Now, Hillary Clinton is on the receiving end of her own health-related cover-up conspiracy theory — and Palin is using the story to skewer the media and illustrate what she sees as a double standard for how Democratic and Republican female candidates get covered.
Some background: In December 2012, Clinton was treated for a blood clot on her brain after suffering a concussion. Clinton recovered and was given a clean bill of health, but Karl Rove remained skeptical.
“Thirty days in the hospital? And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that,” Rove allegedly said at a conference in Los Angeles.
After cries of “Sexism!” from media outlets, Rove walked back his statement, but he was not alone in his thinking. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, defended Rove’s comments and said the health question is “fair game.”
Like it or not, Clinton will have to deal with these kinds of questions for the next two years, at a minimum. And judging by Palin’s response, the pain doesn’t fade over time. In a highly sarcastic Facebook post Monday night, Palin pointed out media hypocrisy for defending Clinton against Rove’s comments.
“Democrats are right — scouring records of a female candidate is just politics of personal destruction, and for the media to engage in it would be unfair, unethical, and absolutely UNPRECEDENTED. You can’t probe a woman like that because, well, it’s a war on women!” Palin wrote.
“America, you deserve fair and consistent coverage of relevant issues before deciding a Presidential/Vice Presidential ticket, so have faith the agenda-less media will refuse to push whispers and wildly inaccurate information about a partisan politician’s body part,” she continued.
It’s less likely that Palin is defending Hillary Clinton against perceived sexist comments, and much more likely that she’s just taking another potshot at the Lamestream Media. Of course, some political journalists did rebuke the Trig theory — namely BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, who was at Politico at the time, along with Salon‘s Justin Elliott.
But unlike with the Trig Theory, nearly every reporter covering the 2008 campaign bought into another narrative — one about Palin’s mental faculties. Palin was portrayed, from Katie Couric to Saturday Night Live, as a clueless bimbo, and that image lives on in Julianne Moore’s (excellent) portrayal of Palin in HBO’s Game Change.
Was it fair to portray Palin as inexperienced and unfit for office? Yes. But that’s far different from the image the media cultivated. Covering Palin as a bimbo was an unquestioned given. One is a valid point, the other is a caricature.
Of course, Hillary Clinton has suffered her fair share of sexist coverage. After Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky came to light, pundits speculated that Hillary — that frigid harpy! — had driven her husband to infidelity. More recently, the idea that Chelsea Clinton became pregnant to boost her mother’s favorability was almost laughably sexist. Palin and Clinton can sympathize on that point.
The question Rove raised was a seemingly innocent one — does Hillary have the mental stamina to be president? Meanwhile, Sullivan’s theory about Trig Palin’s true parentage was more of a suggestion that Palin was willing to go to despicable lengths to maintain her public image as a wholesome folk leader. Rove was concern trolling; Sullivan was just plain trolling.
Now, in a daring feat of Narrative Reappropriation, Palin is calling Hillary Clinton dumb while admonishing the media for doing the same thing to her in 2008. “Apparently, Democrats demand their next chosen one’s brain must be absent,” she wrote in her Facebook post.
It’s the type of quick-change political maneuvering that takes a healthy sense of irony to understand.