Christine O’Donnell’s real roots


It’s true that Christine O’Donnell, Delaware’s surprise senatorial candidate, bears some resemblance to Sarah Palin. Both are attractive brunettes who’ve staked their political careers on extreme social conservatism. Both emerged on the national stage seemingly out of nowhere and proceeded to make liberals and even a lot of Republicans slap their collective foreheads in disbelief. Perhaps most important, both are catnip for a media that loves to search for skeletons in closets that also happen to contain several pairs of designer pumps.

Admittedly, we don’t yet have enough information to know whether the abstinence-only, anti-gay, anti-porn, anti- masturbation platform on which she’s built her reputation has worked out as well for her in practice as in preachability. But O’Donnell is no Palin clone. For one thing, we know for sure that O’Donnell, who was born in New Jersey in 1969, is a bona fide member of Generation X. Even if she continues to come across like a wacky, sanctimonious wingnut, it could be in a distinctly Gen X way. And that may be one more way we’ll begin to see that the “tea party” isn’t as monolithic as it appears.

Palin, who’s just five years older than O’Donnell, is technically part of the same cohort. But those five years make a big difference. If anything, Palin’s air of self-congratulation and loyalty to the edict of “having it all” epitomize stereotypical boomerdom.

O’Donnell, on the other hand, who’s childless, never married and was highly focused on professional goals right out of the gate, betrays a somehow more sober sensibility, or at least an awareness of life’s inherent limitations (perhaps not in the realm of finance, but that’s another matter).

She’s also on the leading edge of the generational shift in dirt digging. O’Donnell is too old to have left a self-made trail of cringe-worthy breadcrumbs on the social networks, but her career as an advocate for conservative issues was largely dependent on becoming a provocative media personality. She filled the role gamely on shows like “Politically Incorrect” and MTV’s “Sex in the 90s.”

Clips from these broadcasts are now all over the place. This week’s main attraction is 40 seconds from a 1999 “Politically Incorrect” segment in which she knee-slappingly recalls a high school date with “a witch on a satanic altar.” Despite the media’s insistence that it’s a real issue, her brush with witchcraft amounts to little more than a bad talk-show anecdote.

O’Donnell’s public crusade against premarital sex, however, is more revealing, in that it sounds like it’s coming from a place of real fear and distress. In a 1997 interview in the Washington Times, she said that after her antiabortion views got her booed at Harvard, she detected not anger but hurt in the crowd and “cried out to God to use me to touch that generation.”

Another O’Donnell trope has been her outsized distrust of condoms. On “Politically Incorrect,” she suggested they didn’t do much in the way of preventing pregnancy. There’s also a quote from a 2002 interview with Phil Donahue in which she asserted “condoms will not protect you from AIDS.”

On the one hand, it’s hard to believe that any Gen Xer, regardless of political stripe or religious principle, would think such a thing. If you were in your teens or 20s in the late 1980s and early 1990s, you had condoms shoved in your face as vigorously as the fear of HIV transmission was drilled into your brain.

On the other hand, in those pre-AIDS cocktail days, the standard message was that there was no such thing as totally safe sex, protected or not, and that it was only a matter of time before the disease ravaged the non-IV-drug-using heterosexual population. The free-for-all that baby boomers had enjoyed was over; the sex-positive, “Girls Gone Wild” sensibility of the millennials was years away. People were still getting it on, of course. But somehow it didn’t quite feel like a “getting it on” kind of culture.

Amid that gloom and apprehension, O’Donnell carved out the belief system that is now perplexing so much of the nation. Halfway through college, she’s told reporters, she quit drinking and having sex, left the Roman Catholic Church for evangelical Christianity and became a vocal opponent of pornography, homosexuality and, for good measure, masturbation. The not-so-hidden message is that she’s indulged in none of these things in two decades and is a better person for it.

Most Gen Xers, of course, have recovered just fine from the sexual disquiet of the peak years of the AIDS crisis. O’Donnell, obviously, is an outlier who could well have developed these views no matter what year she was born. But before we chalk her up as a Palin redux, or as interchangeable with other members of the “tea party,” we’d do well to consider the ways in which her membership in another relatively small, occasionally misunderstood cohort might make her ever so slightly more interesting than the cartoon-character “right-wing babe” that many are now assuming her to be.