In Wasilla, Pregnancy Was No Secret

Monday, Sep. 01, 2008
In Wasilla, Pregnancy Was No Secret
By Nathan Thornburgh/WASILLA

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.

I just got off the phone with a longtime Wasilla resident. She had urged me to find time today to go up to Hatcher Pass—"the most beautiful place in the valley!"—when I mentioned that the story on Bristol's baby is now national news. Her voice slowed. "Oh," she said. "I'm so sorry. That's so unfair."

Wasilla seems at times to be utterly without guile. It's a large part of the town's charm, and it's exactly the quality that could make an unorthodox pick like Palin pay off. Don't get me wrong — she's a tough politician with sharp enough elbows on her own. But still, she appears to be more steeped in the values of her hometown than any politician I've ever come across.

Maybe that means Palin is a little too much Northern Exposure for America—after all, her father's good friend Curt Menard happily showed me a picture of the governor as a high schooler in 1981, in a root cellar with family and friends, helping skin and cube and cure a whole moose. It's enough to make you almost miss fake hunters like John Kerry and Mitt Romney.

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."

If you haven't guessed yet, the people here are genuinely friendly. Even those in Palin's inner sanctum who have been told since Friday not to talk to reporters by McCain's media team, are almost apologetic that they can't be neighborly and chat, since you came all this way to little Wasilla. And those who can talk, do. All weekend they had the decency not to pretend that they didn't know the governor's eldest daughter was pregnant. But they also expected decency in return, that I wouldn't be the kind of person to make sport out of a young girl's slip.

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.

You can argue that it was hamhanded of the McCain campaign—they had to have known, right? — to somehow let this drop just a few days after the announcement. Pregnancy does show, and it does have a ticking clock. The story was going to come out eventually.

As for the idea — sure to be floated—that the avowedly anti-abortion Palin may have pressured her poor daughter to ruin her life by carrying an unwanted baby to term, I wouldn't bet on it. The Palin family seems to share the same pro-life values going back at least as far back as anyone here can remember, and it wouldn't be at all surprising if Bristol wore those values, however imperfectly, as her own. At least, that's what the town thinks. And Wasilla, above all, is pretty sensible.

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