PHOTOGRAPH FROM NASA
The analogy is imperfect, but will suffice: The Sympathizer, the remarkable debut novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, is a terrific bookend to Fire In the Lake, the Frances FitzGerald classic. While one book is fiction and the other nonfiction, both tell the story of the Vietnam War, its aftermath and legacy from a Vietnamese point of view. And both, in their genre different but similarly powerful ways, are reminders to believers of the cocked-hat notion the U.S. could have "won" the war if the politicians had only butted out, that it was a fool's errand from start to ignominious finish. And while there was a surplus of fools on all sides, the biggest were the brass at the American Central Command in Saigon.
The Sympathizer opens on the eve of the fall of Saigon in April 1975, an anniversary which incidentally passed this year with nary a peep from an American news media usually fixated on such milestones. The city is in chaos as the trusted Captain, the story's narrator and as engaging and unlikely a literary hero I have encountered in quite a while, is sipping American post exchange whiskey with the General as they draw up a list of people who will be given visas obtained via a CIA agent from a bribed bureaucrat for passage aboard one of the last flights out of the country.
The Captain, whose real name is never revealed, had been raised by a dirt-poor Vietnamese mother. His father was an absentee French priest who despite his own amorality infuses in him a sense of morality. While the Captain suffers the slings and arrows of being considered a cultural mutt, his mother tells him as they squat in their hovel, "Remember, you're not half of anything, you're twice of everything."
With this advice as his polestar, the Captain goes on to university in the U.S. and becomes fluent in its language and ways before returning to his homeland ostensibly to fight the Communist cause. The General, head of the South Vietnamese National Police, his family, the Captain and other compatriots are evacuated and eventually start a new life in Los Angeles after enduring a succession of refugee camps, but the Captain has a secret: he is a Communist sympathizer and spy who secretly observes and reports on the exile group to Man, a higher-up in the Viet Cong, a childhood friend with whom he deeply bonded as a blood brother after Man defended his honor in a schoolyard brawl started by bullies who taunted him for being a half-caste.
Among the greatest lessons imparted in The Sympathizer, which is part spy novel, love story and geopolitical chess game, is that the Vietnam War was not the American struggle we, our authors and filmmakers have taken it to be. (Same with Fire in the Lake, of course.) It was a war fought by a people forced to choose between East and West. The Americans merely supplied bodies and napalm.
It is having to choose between East and West that drives the Captain's odyssey. Between aiding or betraying the General, between helping or abandoning Bon, who along with Man was a childhood blood brother, when Bon is determined to return to Southeast Asia on a suicide mission to overthrow the Communist regime.
Although The Sympathizer is overwritten in parts, the powerful and often darkly comic messages underlying the Captain's narrative, presented in the form of a confession written in a reeducation camp where the torturer becomes the tortured, more than make up for that. Near the end of the book, the Captain -- his mind now split like East and West -- asks:
We find ourselves facing more questions, universal and timeless ones that never get tired. What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?The Sympathizer is magisterial, and hugely mind expanding in laying bare a core reality of war -- that nothing is as it seems -- which was so adroitly explored by Tim O'Brien in Going After Cacciato, until now the greatest Vietnam War novel by my lights.
The Sympathizer is sure to become a classic of war fiction alongside Cacciato, Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Joseph Heller's Catch 22, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, and Mark Helprin's A Soldier in the Great War, among others.
Read this marvelous book, but please read it with care. You will be rewarded.
Rumors, innuendo and inconclusive photographs do not a true story make, but the fact of the matter is that seven years after the birth of Trig Paxson Van Palin, there is no proof that right-wing sweetheart Sarah Palin is his biological mother and evidence he may be her grandson.
If you believe that I -- or anyone else -- has no business pursuing the question of whether John McCain's 2008 running mate put over an enormous hoax on the American public because the whole idea is so . . . well, yucky, then you need read no further. Besides which, a kid with disabilities having a home with a family that has plenty of dough is enough for many people who are averse to questioning Palin's serial evasions.
But if you, like me, remain curious about the evasions concerning her alleged pregnancy and Trig's birth, as well as her unwillingness to provide any proof to tamp down rumors that she faked the birth of the Down syndrome child, then stick around. Palin still will not even release a copy of Trig's birth certificate although she hectored Barack Obama to release his.
This story deserves to have legs because the former half-term Alaska governor turned author and reality show princess and most recently Tea Party carnival sideshow freak not only has not gone away.
She continues to inject herself into national politics, having campaigned early on for the 2012 Republican president nomination until even she realized that her brand was tarnished despite a small but hard-core conservative constituency that continues to cling to her every statement as if they were Biblical missives.
These statements have included appallingly outrageous and tone deaf comments in the wake of the 2011 assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and attacks on Hillary Rodham Clinton, the likely 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, whom she infers is brain damaged and should release her medical records. And come to think of it, what has Palin accomplished over the last decade beyond running her mouth?
The events leading up to and after Trig's alleged birth -- and, yes, it is alleged -- seven years ago today on April 18, 2008 are copiously documented in an academic paper and lengthy commentary by Bradford W. Scharlott, a former reporter and professor at Northern Kentucky University who believes there may have been a conspiracy hoax and like me is deeply disturbed about the disinterest of a mainstream media that at the same time has been unable leave alone far-fetched Obama birther conspiracy theories for years.
"There was insufficient evidence for the press to conclude that Palin was telling the truth about Trig," Scharlott concludes in something of an understatement in the academic paper. "If journalists had serious questions about whether the fake birth rumor might be true – and they should have – then the press was under no obligation to accept unproven claims as established fact. But that is exactly what happened."
* * * * *In late February 2008, Palin's bodyguard, Alaska State Trooper Gary Wheeler, had accompanied her to Washington, D.C. for a Republican Governors Association conference where she met McCain and his campaign manager Rick Davis, who was to be in charge of the selection process for the vice-presidential nominee. Palin had been mentioned as a potential nominee, albeit a long-shot, for several months in conservative publications.
Wheeler recalls that when Palin changed into jeans upon her arrival in the capital, there was no apparent sign that she was pregnant.
On March 5, 2008, McCain all but clinched the Republican nomination.
On March 6, the Anchorage Daily News reported that Palin had announced she was expecting her fifth child and already was seven months along. "That the pregnancy is so advanced astonished all who heard the news," wrote reporter Wesley Loy. "The governor . . . simply does not look pregnant. Even close members of her staff said they only learned this week their boss was expecting."
On April 15, Palin and her husband Todd flew to Dallas where she was to give the keynote speech at a Republican governor's conference on energy issues. Trooper Wheeler, a 26-year veteran who had provided security for several other Alaska governors, was told at the last minute that he was not needed. He says that no explanation was given, and the Palins rejected his offer to arrange for a security detail to meet them in Texas.
On April 17, the Palins cut out early from the governor's conference after Palin gave the keynote speech. Shortly after the speech, Todd Palin emailed friends, writing that her speech "kicked ass," but said nothing about the status of her pregnancy or hurriedly arranged return trip. Meanwhile, Palin herself also did not allude to being in labor in a flurry of emails, although she later stated publicly that she was "overwhelmed [with] desperation" about her condition.
In Going Rogue, a 2009 bestselling autobiography chockablock with lies and fabrications, Palin claimed she had been awakened shortly before 4 a.m. on the morning of the speech by a strange sensation in her lower belly. She wrote that she was leaking amniotic fluid and claimed she called her personal physician, Dr. Cathy Baldwin-Johnson, who apparently did not insist that she seek immediate medical intention.
After laying over in Seattle, the Palins landed in Anchorage about 10:30 p.m. local time and drove to the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in Palmer, which is close to the Palin's home in Wasilla. The trip took a total of 10 hours. Airline personnel on the return flight said they did not notice that Palin was pregnant, let alone was showing signs that she might be about to give birth.
Meanwhile, investigative author Geoffrey Dunn writes in The Lies of Sarah Palin: The Untold Story Behind Her Relentless Quest for Power, that a woman said to be a close friend of the then-governor also expressed skepticism.
He writes that the friend told him that "Palin did not look like she was pregnant. Ever. Even when she had the bulging belly, I never felt that the rest of her body, her face especially, looked like she was pregnant." When the woman asked Palin point-blank if she was certain the baby was hers, she says that Palin said, "No. I don't know what to believe."
According to a later story in the Anchorage Daily News, Palin gave birth at 6:30 a.m. on April 18 after Cathy Baldwin-Johnson induced labor.
This means that if Palin's water had broken prior to her giving the keynote speech, she chose to not check herself into any of the five world-class Dallas hospitals with neo-natal intensive-care units or similarly equipped Seattle hospitals, and waited some 20 hours before going to a hospital that did not have a neo-natal ICU after having passed several large Alaska hospitals with such units despite her history of miscarriages (two), to give birth to a one-month premature baby with Down syndrome and, as it later turned out, a heart condition.
Later that morning, a crew from KTUU-TV in Anchorage showed up at Mat-Su in pursuit of a tip that Palin had given birth. The crew taped Chuck and Sallie Heath, Palin's parents, in a hallway holding an infant that Chuck Heath said was their new grandchild, Trig. Sarah Palin did not appear. The source of the tip is believed to be KTUU reporter Bill McAllister, who became Palin's director of communications three months later.
It was obvious to a number of people who saw the baby that day that it was not a newborn preemie. Some of them wrote that at the Anchorage Daily News web site. The comments were quickly taken down, but the Palins realized that for the next month or two, they needed a younger stand-in for Trig for photo ops they would orchestrate.
Scharlott has done a detailed analysis of screenshots of the baby showed off at Mat-Su and the baby that Palin and her husband later appeared with at the Republican National Convention. He concludes that they are the same child. He further notes that the baby in the hospital lacked common characteristics of a newborn preemie such as a plethoric (red-faced) complexion.
Some people who are convinced there is indeed a birth hoax conspiracy believe that there are two Trigs -- the infant shown off in the hospital hallway and the "real" Trig, the baby shown in the photograph atop this post being shown off at the convention.
"I personally am convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that only one baby has been shown as Trig," Sharlott has written. "Even if you don't agree that graphics [of seeming differences in the ears of the Mat-Su infant and convention infant] overcome reasonable doubt, surely you must agree that it's now impossible to seriously maintain the opposite: That it is beyond a reasonable doubt that more than one baby has been displayed."
How does Sarah Palin view the Two Trigs Theory?"I imagine she thinks it's a great boon for her and hopes it will continue to be embraced by many in the Trig Truther community," Sharlott adds. "One reason for this is that she can easily prove that the theory is false whenever she likes. She surely has plenty of pictures showing the development of the ears over time, and if a medical procedure was done, she could produce records for it. "
Meanwhile, a press release issued by the governor's office announced the birth of the Palins' "fifth child this morning. The Palins were thankful that the Governor's labor began yesterday while she was in Texas . . . but let up enough for her to travel on Alaska Airlines in time to deliver her second son . . . " The press release did not say where the birth took place, Mat-Su did not list Trig among the babies born there that day, nor has any hospital official ever confirmed that Trig was born there, let alone when, or said anything publicly about the birth.
(A writer for Slate magazine reported in April 2011 that a clerk in Mat-Su's family birthing center told him that Trig was born there, but provided no documentation to support that claim. That same month, Salon magazine reported that after an "exhaustive review of available evidence," it concluded that Palin did give birth to Trig and did so at Mat-Su.)
Baldwin-Johnson has never publicly said a word about the birth, while birth certificates are not public records in Alaska.
Later that day, KTUU newscaster Lori Tipton reported that "An unnamed source that is close to the family said that early testing revealed Trig Palin has Down syndrome." The source is again believed to be McAllister.
Although preemies typically need to stay in neo-natal ICUs for days or weeks, on April 21, Palin returned to work and held a press conference with "Trig" at hand. When a reporter asked if her water had broken in Texas, she balked at the question but later indicated that it had.
In a surprise announcement on August 28, McCain announced that he had selected Palin as his running mate.
Considering that Palin would be a heartbeat away from the presidency if McCain defeated Obama, the decision to choose a virtual unknown whose popularity already had tanked in Alaska because of a reputation for being a power abusing kook and liar has to rank as perhaps the most irresponsible in the modern history of presidential campaigns. As it turned out, McCain's man in charge of vetting potential running mates never met Palin face to face, while the campaign had contacted only one person in Alaska -- her personal attorney -- in vetting her. McCain himself spent less than two hours with Palin before inviting her to join the ticket.
Bloggers at Daily Kos and several other blogs quickly published posts claiming that Bristol Palin, the Palins' 17-year-old daughter, was Trig's mother, which would make Trig Palin's grandson. None of the posts had attribution, and several large blogs, including the Huffington Post, responded by writing that the Democrats would hurt themselves by pursuing birth conspiracy hoax rumors.
In a pattern of accepting unproven claims by Palin as established fact that was to become so familiar, the mainstream media showed no interest in the rumors, although the Anchorage Daily News reported on the Daily Kos post, saying it was "a version of a rumor -- long simmering in Alaska -- that Palin's unwed daughter Bristol was pregnant and the governor somehow covered it up by pretending to have the baby (Trig) herself."
On September 1, the McCain campaign announced -- at Sarah Palin's behest, it said -- that Bristol Palin was in her fifth month of pregnancy, the implication being that she therefore could not be Trig's mother and the birth hoax rumors were unfounded.
The announcement was curious insofar that if accurate the pregnancy had been a private matter for months and Bristol, who had dropped out of school and been out of the public eye, was being subjected to having it revealed to the national media at the Republican convention. More curious still, Palin's release of a birth certificate showing that Palin had given birth to Trig on April 18 would have settled the matter once and for all, but she still refused to do so.
Stories portraying Palin as a courageous woman for running for vice president despite Trig's disabilities appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post and other leading newspapers, further enhancing her credibility among Republican right-to-lifers. Only the Philadelphia Inquirer went off key in writing that "Palin's decision to chase the vice presidency even as she gave birth to a son with Down syndrome seems naive."
When media critic Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post was preparing a column on the birth hoax rumor, the only instance in which a major newspaper addressed it head on, the McCain campaign gleefully forwarded emails that Andrew Sullivan, then blogging for The Atlantic, had sent it in his pursuit of the rumor, telling Kurtz that the emails showed "the insanity that this campaign has had to put up with." Meanwhile, the Weekly Standard, edited by a sycophantic Palin supporter, called Sullivan's pursuit of the truth "a disgrace for [his] magazine and everyone associated with it."
Although the McCain campaign never allowed Palin to appear at a press conference where she might be asked about Trig, she repeatedly promised that she would release her medical records as had Obama and Joe Biden. When McCain finally did so on November 3, the day before Election Day, there was a page-and-a-half long letter annexed to the records signed by Dr. Baldwin-Johnson stating that Palin followed proper pre-natal procedures and follow-up evaluations and nothing had precluded delivery of Trig "at her home community hospital."
The wording of the letter is awkward in the extreme, and it raises many questions while answering none in a textbook example of being intentionally misleading while ostensibly clarifying.
Baldwin-Johnson avoids mentioning the hospital by name or even that she was the delivering physician, let alone present for the delivery. A nurse who contacted me after an earlier version of this story appeared said she was attending a birth with with Baldwin-Johnson at the time at another hospital miles away, but would not provide details or give her name because she feared being retaliated against. (The Palins, quick to anger, have done just that in numerous documented instances in which they believed that neighbors, one-time friends or others had crossed them.)
In any event, the timing of the letter insured that the news media would have no opportunity before America voted to ask follow-up questions, and Palin and Baldwin-Johnson later declined to answer questions because Palin was no longer a candidate, let alone vice president-elect and soon to be a proverbial "heartbeat away from the presidency."
The September 1 McCain campaign press release regarding Bristol's pregnancy becomes even more problematic given the circumstances surrounding the birth of baby Tripp to Bristol Palin.
People magazine quoted a great-aunt in Seattle as saying she got an email from Chuck Heath, Sarah Palin's father, saying that Tripp was born on December 28, which would put the date of conception at late March 2008 or thereabouts. Palmer, Alaska, was mentioned as the place of birth, but again no hospital was named and again Mat-Su Regional Medical Center had no comment. That quote from a great-aunt living hundreds of miles away is the only contemporaneous account of the birth of the child, which is strange because of Palin's well-known compulsion to stage manage all publicity involving her family, including coverage in celebrity-oriented magazines.
Palin's office initially declined to comment on the birth, explaining that it wanted the event to remain as private as possible although Palin and the McCain campaign had made a big deal of Bristol's pregnancy four months earlier. No photographs of baby Tripp were published, and no one outside the immediate family saw him until seven weeks after the birth.
When Bill McAllister, who had become Palin's director of communications, did issue a press release, he said that it was to correct erroneous information. The press release did not mention the hospital or place of birth.
Following the election, the Anchorage Daily News assigned reporter Lisa Demer to try to get to the bottom of the conspiracy hoax rumors, which had not gone away and continued to be pursued by a few journalists, notably blogger Andrew Sullivan, who as late as 2014 again weighed in on the possibility of a hoax after Palin's barbs about Hillary Clinton's health.
Demer too was unable to obtain proof that Sarah Palin was Trig's mother, although she did get an angry response from Palin after Demer's editor published an account of her efforts on his blog on January 12, 2009.
* * * * *I will preface my own take on this long-running story by noting that I was an investigative editor and reporter for many years. Series and stories that I supervised were nominated for four Pulitzer Prizes.
While that background does not make me omnipotent, I trust my instincts when wading through and weighing facts -- or in this case the absence of them -- which has taken me on a journey from being highly skeptical of there being a birth conspiracy hoax to the conclusion that there almost certainly was.
Weighing against the hoax is that large-scale conspiracies are virtually impossible to keep quiet, something noted by Palin hoax skeptics. This is why 9/11 terror attack conspiracy theorists will be treading water forever.
But this is not a large-scale conspiracy because beyond Palin's immediate family only the officials of a hospital, on whose board Palin served, and Baldwin-Johnson would have to remain silent, something made easier by the possibility that Trig was not born at Mat-Su, but had been born earlier, smuggled in by a family member, and the hospital was not directly involved and Baldwin-Johnson was not present. Note further that Palin's four previous successful pregnancies had gone to full term, and that Palin herself has changed and embellished on key elements of her original birth story in the years since, including once claiming that she delivered Trig in an Anchorage hospital.
Weighing for the hoax is an Alaska-sized array of circumstantial evidence: That attendants on the April 17 flight from Texas to Anchorage, along with Palin's own staff, Trooper Wheeler and almost everyone else with whom she came in contact in the weeks and days before the alleged birth, did not believe that she was pregnant. This perhaps not coincidentally was a period during which no one can account for daughter Bristol's whereabouts for reasons the typically publicity hungry Palins have chosen not to share. And Palin has refused to produce a copy of the document certifying Trig's birth to her because it does not exist.
The hoax may not be merely a conspiracy, but also the product of a dysfunctional family, something that the Palins sadly are.
Bristol was sent to live with an aunt in late 2007, halfway through her junior year, ostensibly to be home schooled, according to some reports. She may have had Trig under the care of Baldwin-Johnson, who is the founder of The Children's Place, which specializes in helping teenagers in trouble, but was unable to place Trig for adoption because he was a Down baby. (Bristol claimed in Not Afraid of Life, a memoir published in June 2011, that she was impregnated by Levi Johnston while drunk on wine coolers on a camping trip.)
Evidence based on photographs of Palin in the weeks and days before the alleged birth is not only inconclusive, it is contradictory because a seven-month pregnant woman simply cannot hide a fetus.
Yet Palin looks flat tummied in some of the photos such as the ones above taken on February 13 -- some eight weeks before Trig's alleged birth -- and pregnant although not pregnant in the right way in others. This leads Scharlott to suggest that Palin might have been wearing padding on some occasions, something that doesn't seem far-fetched. Indeed, Palin appears to be wearing a pad strapped around her midsection. Her lower belly, where a fetus would normally be, seems flat in a photograph taken at a photo op three weeks before Trig's alleged birth. (The image below has been Photoshopped so that the pad is clearly visible.)
Had Palin, who is an extremely proud woman, been in the latter stages of a pregnancy, she presumably would have worn clothing that would not try to hide that. Instead, she took to wearing long scarves that covered her belly. The New York Times, in a chirpy, skepticism-free article, said that Palin played "an elaborate game of fashion-assisted camouflage" using scarves to hide her pregnancy although the scarves just as easily could have been used to disguise a lack of pregnancy.
Furthermore, a late February interview with Palin by a reporter with a film crew from an Alaska broadcast outlet shows a woman who does not appear to be pregnant who is walking on snow in high heels while holding a cup of coffee in one hand. And although the ankles of pregnant women typically swell in the last trimester, Palin's ankles did not.
Then there is the screen shot below which purports to show Trig, who is being held by Palin's mother-in-law, less than 24 hours after his birth. Does he look like a one-month premature baby? Of course he doesn't, which is the view of a neonatologist.
One question remains: If there was a hoax, why did Sarah Palin perpetrate it?
Dr. Jeffrey Parks, a Cleveland surgeon, later wrote of the journey that Palin took after she says her water broke:
"Digest that for just a second. A 43 year old woman carrying a child with known Down's Syndrome, in her eighth month of pregnancy voluntarily embarked upon a transcontinental adventure to give a speech. Then after noticing some cramps and the passage of amniotic fluid, she went ahead with her speech and, instead of proceeding directly to the nearest Dallas high risk pregnancy center, boarded a four hour flight to Seattle. Then she hung out in the Seattle airport lounge for a while and took a connecting flight to Alaska. Then she drives to Wasilla. Finally she decided to seek medical attention at a local Wasilla hospital, a facility lacking an NICU and other high risk specialists. That's her story . . . Palin willfully and wantonly placed herself and her unborn child in tremendous danger by flying cross country with amniotic fluid running down her legs . . . What kind of mother would take a risk like that with her child, let alone a high risk, premature one?"
While Palin used Trig as a stage prop during her vice presidential run and has used him similarly since then, she also has been fiercely protective of he and her family. Palin's post-vice presidential nomination popularity went through the roof in part because of the omnipresent Trig, and claiming that she was the mother of Bristol's baby may have been less an act of political opportunism than reckless personal expediency.
* * * * *
Seven years on, birth hoax investigator Brad Scharlott believes the hoax has held because powerful interests "were able to turn any mention of it into kryptonite" when it was first getting some attention in the national media and among bloggers.
"In 2008, if you brought up the possibility of a birth hoax, the conservative attack machine would go into overdrive and portray you as a nutcase," Scharlott told me in a recent conversation. "Even the most courageous of nationally prominent bloggers and journalists, such as Andrew Sullivan and Joe McGinniss, never actually came right out and said there had been a hoax. A 'spiral of silence' took hold -- meaning people who knew or suspected the truth stayed silent for fear of being treated like lunatics. The spiral of silence theory originally arose to help explain why so many Germans who considered the Nazis evil stayed silent as they took over the country: voices of reason became marginalized and were given good reason to fear speaking out."
To use late journalist McGinniss's term, I suppose I am "trignostic," meaning that I am skeptical about Palin's story. But I am not absolutely certain that it is not true in the absence of a proverbial "smoking gun," although an observation shared by many people who have known Palin since high school -- and know that she is a pathological liar of stunning dimensions -- weighs heavily in favor of a hoax: Even if Palin had not faked the story, she was more than capable of doing so.
So I do lean very strongly toward there having been a hoax.
In the end, it comes down to this for me: Sarah Palin is so narcissistic she believes that if something comes out of her mouth, it must be true. But if she was the mother of Trig, she would not have acted imprudently by bypassing hospitals in Texas, Seattle and Anchorage with neo-natal units capable of delivering premature babies. She simply would not have endangered Trig's life.