Bringing Wasilla to life and life to Wasilla

wasillaOf all the stories I’ve seen about Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, one stood out as particularly good. TIME‘s Nathan Thornburgh reported on the story from Wasilla, Alaska, and the trip there seemed to have affected him — in a good way.

So his name is Levi.

That’s about the only thing that I didn’t know about Bristol Palin’s pregnancy. The rest of the details I picked up almost without trying, while talking about other things with townsfolk — some who know the governor and her family well, some who don’t. It was, more or less, an open secret. And everyone was saying the same thing: the governor’s 17-year-old daughter is pregnant, the father is her boyfriend, and it’s really nobody’s business beyond that.

I happen to agree.

This tiny town wedged in between the Chugach and Talkeetna mountain ranges has intrigued the whole country since John McCain’s surprise Friday announcement that Wasilla’s favorite daughter, Sarah Palin, would be his running mate. Sure, some of the interest was a prelude to attacks on Palin’s readiness for national office. But Wasilla also offered a welcome chance to get specific about the geography of a politician. It’s one of our most cherished myths, that a leader can come from somewhere and you can guess at their qualities not just by what they say, but where they live.

Well, here’s the deal: small towns have their own value systems, and in this situation those values are more a lot more valid than the dispassionate, pushy inquisitiveness that political journalism encourages.

With all the drama from this story in the regular press, this account actually makes you want to read more. It adds insight and context and real people — not inside-the-beltway pundits — in a way that actually engages the reader.

He quotes the various residents as a way of exploring Palin’s values and considering that the hook is her daughter’s pregnancy, it comes off very even-handed — and, in light of what’s being spewed elsewhere, decent:

People in Wasilla are Alaskan tough, so not only does a thing like teen pregnancy not seem like anyone’s damn business, but it’s also not seen as the calamity so many people in the lower 48 might think it is. This is dangerous country — it’s not just the roughneck jobs on cable reality shows. It’s real life here. I listened to the absolutely heartbreaking story of how the godfather of Track Palin, Sarah’s oldest son, died in small plane crash just minutes after having dropped off four kids. Another family invited me into their home and told their incredible story; with one son in Iraq, their other son was working on a conveyor line in Anchorage, got caught in the belt and had his head partially crushed. He lived to stand across the kitchen table from me and his parents, looking fully healed just three months later, grinning at his dumb luck and wondering what comes next in life. “It makes you realize that a thing like a little teenage pregnancy isn’t such a big deal,” his mom said. “Bristol—and lots of other girl like her out there — are going to be just fine.”

Amazing how much more interesting stories are when there are real people in them. Anyway, there was one part that wasn’t so great:

The fact is, regardless of what you will hear over the next few days, Bristol’s pregnancy is not a legitimate political issue. Sarah Palin is a longterm member of a group called Feminists for Life, which is not opposed to birth control. So you probably can’t tag her for consigning young people to unwanted pregnancies.

Actually, it’s not correct to say that Feminists for Life isn’t opposed to birth control (sorry for all the negatives there). They actually don’t take a stand on the issue of birth control. Some members are opposed. Some aren’t. But to say that, because of this stance, we can’t “tag her for consigning young people to unwanted pregnancies” is just atrocious. If she was opposed to birth control, we could? If she supported abstinence, we could blame her for unwanted pregnancies? Are you kidding me? The reporter is free to have any opinions he wants about birth control, but he should keep them as his opinions.

But I don’t want to harp on it too much. I actually enjoyed this story — apart from the content, even — much more than any other political story I’ve read in a long time. And normally I hate stories where reporters go into the first person. Still, exploring how values shape a candidate can be very cold when it’s done from a distance. By traveling to Palin’s hometown, this story came alive.

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  • http://shaun.pressbin.com Shaun G

    Just a quibble, but I think it IS correct — although not the best way to put it — to say that FFL is “not opposed to birth control.” If FFL has no official position, then it can’t be opposed.

    In any case, it’s far more accurate than this other TIME piece by Claire Suddath, which Mark Stricherz mentioned in a Saturday GetReligion post.

    Suddath described FFL as “an anti-abortion, pro-contraception organization.”

    Studdath’s story has been up for days, and they still haven’t made a correction. How embarrassing.

  • Michael V

    I don’t read that as necessarily implying that if Palin opposed birth control you could blame her for this or that, just that some people would take that line if she did – and I bet some people will anyway.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    What in the heck is wrong with, “FFL is opposed to abortion while being intentionally neutral on contraception.”?

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  • Martha

    “Sarah Palin is a longterm member of a group called Feminists for Life, which is not opposed to birth control. So you probably can’t tag her for consigning young people to unwanted pregnancies.”

    I think Mr. Thornburg is actually being decent and fair-minded here. I’ve seen an actual comment to a post about can Catholics vote for a pro-choice candidate which dragged her in as an example: “Take Sarah Palin with her abstinence-only education agenda. She missed the point, because she forgot that her own child would have sexual feelings, despite her religion, and failed to prevent her own child’s pregnancy through acting smart.”

    In other words, vote for McCain/Palin and your teenage daughters will be “punished” with pregnancies. I believe this is (1) unfair (2) inappropriate to the topic (3) do we know that she does support abstinence-only education or is that only an assumption based on her being (a) Republican (b) evangelical Christian?

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  • Jeff Sharlet

    I’m just as fed up with the misrepresentations of Palin and the community she’s from rippling through the media, but why is being effected “in a good way” any better than the snobbish contempt that’s been the main response? I don’t believe in objectivity, but I also don’t believe in this banal thumbs up, thumbs down kind of reporting.


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