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OPINION: Palin must tread carefully when it comes to Trig

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post.

A hurdle familiar to any mother is learning to view her baby as separate from herself. A profound sense of oneness evolves in part from pregnancy.

These thoughts surfaced during Sarah Palin's latest public scolding of someone who spoke disparagingly of the special-needs population. This time, Rahm Emanuel was singled out for using the word "retarded" to describe the behavior of certain out-of-favor Democrats.

Palin's defense of people with special needs is commendable. Her obvious love for and pride in her Down syndrome child, Trig, is touching. But each time she sallies forth as Mama Bear to America's special-needs citizenry, invoking Trig's name amid demands for her children's privacy, a tiny bit of uneasiness slithers between text and subtext.

At what point do Palin's noble intentions become Trig's unfair exploitation?

The genius of Palin's good-heartedness is that she can't easily be criticized. Her public images as Mother and Politician are so entwined that to question one is to impugn the other. Equally unprofitable is any effort to impose perspective on her condemnations, lest one appear to be defending the indefensible.

Palin herself has hardly been discreet regarding her youngest child. She has spoken and written about her misgivings upon learning that she carried a Down syndrome baby. She told a pro-life crowd that she considered abortion and wasn't sure she could care for a child with special needs. These were surely sincere and heartfelt remarks shared by others in the crowd.

Doubt always stalks conviction, but does it always demand expression? Might Trig someday read his mother's abortion thoughts and find them hurtful?

Clearly, Palin is trying to remain true to her 2008 vice presidential campaign promises - to be a friend and advocate of the nation's special-needs citizens. A year into Barack Obama's presidency, Palin has emerged as a moral reflex, playing Mother Superior to the Democrat's Chosen One.

The health care debate became a personal referendum on her child's right to life when Palin dispatched her "death panel" interpretation of proposed reforms. Last March, she came roaring out when Obama joked on late night TV that his bowling skills were like the Special Olympics.

Palin wasn't wrong about the inappropriateness of the remark. But were her objections primarily those of a wounded mother - or those of a heat-seeking politician? Will we be hearing from Palin every time someone uses the R-word or makes a lame joke?

Well, no, not every time. When Rush Limbaugh used "retard," suggesting a "retard summit" at the White House, it was "satirical," Palin recently explained. When Emanuel used it, it was name-calling. Palin obviously made an excuse for Limbaugh, whose stab at humor was nothing resembling satire, and that means her "teachable moment" via Emanuel was really using her child as a political tool.

Celebrities who embrace causes are valuable players in raising awareness and advancing policy. That said, the degree to which one uses another's circumstances to achieve those ends requires a studious self-awareness. Perhaps the erstwhile governor is still thinking in first person plural, viewing Trig as part of herself. But he is also a separate individual deserving of privacy.

Another political mother, Hillary Clinton, made good on her commitment to protect her child's privacy. Agree with her politics or not, most Americans would concede her wisdom in shielding Chelsea from media exposure until her daughter could fend for herself.

In the spirit of which, speaking in second person imperative - mother to mother - be careful, Sarah.


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