Sarah Palin's media blitz this week has mostly reacquainted us with the same ol' hockey mom we got to know during the 2008 presidential campaign. But "Good Morning America's" preview Tuesday of the ex-governor's interview with "20/20" delivered a real surprise -- and I'm not talking about the fact that she said "bullcrap" to Barbara Walters' face. When asked about her response to finding out that her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant, she answered: "There was that feeling of 'Bristol, why? Didn't you know there are things you could do to prevent this -- or not do it at all?'"
Come again? I thought: Did Palin really just promote the use of contraceptives -- ahead of abstinence, no less? Why yes, yes she did. What's more, Walters followed up by asking whether she had taught Bristol about abstinence or birth control. "Yeah and, you know, it was just that assumption that, well, pfft, good, I'm glad you're not doing it, Bristol," she said, "because it's a very dangerous thing to be doing at age 17 -- you could get pregnant or worse." (We're left to guess at what she means by "worse.") Walters, determined to run this play into the end zone, continued: "You're not against birth control?" And you know what the Thrilla from Wasilla did? She rolled her eyes and said: "Nooo, not at all!"
A similarly mind-boggling thing took place on Monday during Palin's appearance on "Oprah." When Bristol's pregnancy was brought up, Palin explained that her daughter's "only public mission is to remind her sisters and other girls, her peers, that there are consequences to unprotected sex." This from the same woman who framed her teenage daughter's accidental pregnancy as a lesson in the importance of abstinence (as opposed to a teaching moment about safe sex, comprehensive sex education or the availability of contraceptives). In response, a friend wrote to me in an e-mail: "DID SHE JUST SAY 'UNPROTECTED SEX'? LIKE, SHE BELIEVES IN PROTECTED SEX?" Well, Palin did continue on to say that Bristol's message is, "'Girls, wait, your entire future will change if you become pregnant.'" Still, taken as a whole, the message was shockingly rational: Wait to have sex -- but if you don't, use protection.
Perhaps it's unfair to be so surprised. After all, we already knew that Palin takes a less extreme position on the issue of sex education than some of her conservative compadres: She supports abstinence education, but not abstinence-only legislation. But it's been hard to forget the way she burst into Bristol's interview with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren -- after her daughter called abstinence "not at all realistic" -- to defend the "ideal" of abstinence and argue that when it fails you just gotta "make the most" of it and "get beyond" it. Then there was the amazingly tone-deaf statement delivered by her spokesperson in response to Levi Johnston's claim that he didn't always use protection with her daughter: "Bristol’s focus will remain on raising Tripp, completing her education, and advocating abstinence." In such a worldview, Bristol didn't fail to use protection, she failed to abstain from sex. And, as promised, Bristol became an "abstinence ambassador" and hit the talk show circuit to promote the very thing she had not so long ago called unrealistic.
Make no mistake, Palin isn't changing her position on abstinence, but, rhetorically, she is allowing some gray to seep into her black-and-white rhetoric -- and we could all use more of that when talking about teen sex.