Publisher's Note — September 17, 2008, 12:13 pm

Palin Using Her Child as Political Prop

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the September 17, 2008 Providence Journal.

Sarah Palin never had much hope of getting my vote, but when she told the Republican convention that special-needs children would have “a friend and advocate in the White House” in a McCain administration, I felt obliged to give her a hearing. God knows, kids with disabilities and their parents need powerful friends, so I even called my own special-needs daughter to the television to watch.

Unfortunately, the camera kept cutting to Palin’s snowmobiler “guy,” alternately cradling and brandishing the couple’s Down syndrome baby, who appeared to be fast asleep. At first I told myself that this might be a good thing–special education and physical therapy are scandalously underfunded in this country, and some TV images of a cute Down syndrome baby might help to raise consciousness about the problem.

But something about the aggressive theatrics sparked another, quite unpleasant image in my mind. When I visited Hanoi in 1994, beggars, sometimes men, would confront me on the street carrying limp babies that looked as though they were on the verge of death, if not actually dead. I later learned that the babies were drugged into listlessness and that many of them were “rented” by the beggars for their daily rounds. I confess that I was so horrified by this tactic that I recoiled instead of giving them any money. How could anyone, no matter how desperate, use a baby in that way to get sympathy?

I think we should pose the same question to Governor and Mr. Palin. While they certainly deserve consideration for the suffering they will endure as parents of a handicapped child, I don’t see how that earns Palin my vote. More to the point, why should I cast a ballot for a candidate who is so desperate for my support that she’s willing to exploit her unlucky offspring as a campaign prop?

Something ugly about the handsome Palins revealed itself in St. Paul. I’m not in politics, so I can’t fully appreciate the wild ambition that drives people like Sarah and Todd–that makes them do things that ordinary folks would never have the stomach for.

The writer Walter Karp summed it up this way: “Politicians are bolder than you and I.” Clearly, Sarah Palin is very bold. While her husband and two of her daughters passed around the baby for the cameras, she was reveling in the spotlight as only a politician can. Love me, admire me, her smiling face told the throng. I imagine it was the same thing at the high school basketball games and beauty pageants where she first experienced the drug of fame.

But the two mothers of Down syndrome kids whom I knew from my daughter’s old grammar school mostly had to smile through tears of frustration; they didn’t really have the time to grandstand, either about their virtue or their problems. And I’m pretty sure that neither one of them was a Republican, because nobody knows better than a special-needs parent how hostile the G.O.P. has become to the idea of spending public money on the helpless. The party of Reagan/Bush/Palin is famously the party of self-help (except when it’s the party of help-yourself-to-taxpayer-money).

Moreover, the “Special Schools” budget in Alaska isn’t very special. “We add 20 percent to the school districts’ funding to account for the extra costs of spec ed, voc ed, bilingual ed, and gifted ed,” a state spokesman, Eric Fry, told the group MOMocrats. “They can spend any part of their budget on spec ed, as needed.” Oh, “gifted and talented” kids are special ed, too. And as I read it, nothing is guaranteed for the neediest kids with the most severe learning disabilities. Meanwhile, their exhausted and demoralized parents have to compete for resources with the pushy parents of kids deemed too smart for regular education.

To be sure, things aren’t any better in supposedly liberal New York City, where there isn’t nearly enough to go around. The public schools can barely identify, much less educate, the special-ed kids who overwhelm the system. As with everything else in America, the class system comes into play in special ed. Such wealthy white suburbs as Westport, Connecticut, with its extensive public-school inclusion program, put other underfunded districts with big minority enrollments to shame.

My wife and I are lucky we can afford to pay the exorbitant tuition for private special-education schools. But the great majority of parents in our situation have to sue the city Department of Education for tuition reimbursement. Higher-functioning special-needs kids, including ones with Down syndrome, usually get some money; lower-functioning kids often have difficulty finding a school that will take them under any circumstances.

Of course, the Palin baby show was mostly just an advertisement against legal abortion, so why not just come out and say it instead of pretending to support government social spending? But inauthenticity was the order of the day, and advertising, as Daniel Boorstin writes, is “the characteristic rhetoric of American democracy.”

I was finally so sickened by the Palins’ (and the TV networks’) grotesque play for ratings that I abruptly turned off the set. And I told my special-ed daughter, who is smart enough to know better, not to believe a word that Sarah Palin says.

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