From the hard right to the mushy right–within minutes you can experience both in New York, as each extreme fights for a piece of a tent that’s not so big. While religious right fanatics confronted anti-Bush demonstrators on the city’s avenues, GOPers pushing for gay rights sipped cocktails at a lovely reception off Bryant Park. In language, in look, in priorities, the two bands had little in common. But both are disappointed by Bush. And Bush probably has each in his pocket.
As hundreds of thousands of progressives marched past an empty Madison Square Garden on Sunday, a hundred or so counter-protesters screamed at them: “Kerry loves communists, Kerry loves terrorists.” And they held up signs decrying abortion. Leading this brigade was Randall Terry, the longtime abortion foe famous for having led the so-called Operation Rescue years ago (and for being tossed out of his church for infidelity). An unabashed Christian fundamentalist who used to advocate stoning as punishment for unruly children, Terry once tried to deliver a fetus in a jar to Bill Clinton. He ran for Congress in upstate New York in the mid-1990s as a Republican and lost. In recent years, he has devoted much time to battling gay marriage and gay rights. Not long ago, his adopted son came out of the closet and denounced Terry. (Terry’s adopted daughter also blasted him publicly.)
As Terry’s troops tussled with the marchers, Terry spared me a few minutes. He noted that Bush has been “disappointing” for doing little to criminalize abortion. “If he gets to appoint a Supreme Court justice, he better not make his dad’s mistake. His dad gave us [Justice David] Souter.” Souter, of course, has supported abortion rights. Why do you think it is, I asked Terry, that people who tend to oppose abortion rights support the war in Iraq? ‘”There’s an ethical connection,” he replied. “Either you believe in fixed principles of justice or you are swayed by the emotional arguments of the moment. Truth and justice are eternal. Saddam Hussein needed to be killed.” But wasn’t Bush’s talk about weapons of mass destruction the “emotional argument of the moment?” No, said Terry: “I think they had WMDs and just moved them.” And, he added, “if we pull out of Iraq, the terrorists will be running the country in six months.” He had a final point to make: “All you need to know is that Islam has never once converted a country peacefully.” (I missed the part where Saddam Hussein’s regime was an Islamic government.) “Jesus died to start Christianity,” Terry continued. “Mohammed killed to start Islam.”
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As Terry returned his attention to the ongoing shoutfest between his comrades and the demonstrators, I asked about his family troubles. “It’s still painful, and it has gotten worse,” he said and offered no details. And why was his group not brandishing graphic pictures of aborted fetuses? Where was the fetus in the jar? “Oh,” he answered, “this is not a day for that, and I’ve mellowed a bit.”
While Terry was yelling at the protesters, ten blocks away in a toney restaurant off Bryant Park, the Log Cabin Republicans (that is, the gay and lesbian Republicans) were listening to Senator Arlen Specter declare that supporting gay rights–whether or not it wins a candidate any votes–is the right thing to do. In an April primary election, Specter, who was endorsed by the Log Cabinites, had beaten back a conservative GOP challenger who had tried to cash in on Republican anger over Specter’s support for gay rights and abortion rights. “There’s a lot of muscle…behind the gay and lesbian community,” Specter told the assembled. He noted that several years ago he had been the only Republican senator to support hate crimes legislation but that recently seventeen GOP senators voted for such a bill. The crowd of several hundred well-dressed people–mostly men–applauded. Some were wearing buttons proclaiming, “Inclusion Wins!” Many in the room backed abortion rights.
The audience cheered louder when William Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts, took credit for the advent of gay marriage in the Bay State. Judges he had appointed had supported the court decision that led to gay weddings. Weld then explained his opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage: “I’ve been invited to oppose it on states’ rights. I prefer to oppose it on substantive grounds.” The Loggers shouted out their approval, and Weld went on: “The recognition of gay marriage…is the conservative point of view….I’m surprised this is not a more broadly held position….You’re not going to repeal biology in the US Senate or the House, no matter what you do.” He added, “I’m glad the Log Cabin has decided to stay in the Republican Party. The Republic Party is grounded in the notion of liberty.”
Neither Specter or Weld discussed what the Log Cabin gang should do about Bush. The president’s embrace of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage has presented queer Republicans with a challenge. How do you support a fellow who would deny your most basic aspirations? On this warmest of hot-button issues, Bush has sided with the Terryish fundamentalist wing over the cosmopolitans of the Log Cabin. But the Republicans in this restaurant want to be part of the GOP action. “I’m very upset with the president,” Scott Schmidt, the communications director of the California Log Cabins told me. “How he approached the gay marriage amendment was very divisive. It was not in the spirit of how he campaigned in 2000. It was very offensive to the gay community.” Well, Bush in 2000 did welcome the support of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in 2000, and used the religious right to squash Senator John McCain’s presidential effort. But history aside, it did seem that Schmidt was being generous to Bush by complaining about how Bush has supported the gay marriage amendment rather than Bush’s support for the anti-gay measure.
More importantly, Schmidt, like others in the room, was quick to point out that neither John Kerry nor John Edwards have endorsed gay marriage. This is the lifeline for gay Republicans. Since there’s no difference between the parties on this contentious issue, they argue, why shouldn’t we stick with the party that represents our views on tax cuts, the war in Iraq and other matters? “As far as gays and marriage are concerned, you’re screwed either way,” said Carla Halbrook, a national board member of the group and a self-professed heterosexual. “The country is not ready for gay marriage. So I’m going to vote for a president that keeps me safe.”
The Log Cabin reception was something of a denial zone. It is true that Kerry and Edwards–and Hillary Clinton and other leading Democrats–run screaming from gay marriage as political and policy matters. But it is also clear that the Democrats do not abuse the issue in demagogic fashion and are not explicitly fueling and exploiting the obsessions of gay-bashers to win elections. The folks in this fancy restaurant are smart enough to recognize such a difference. They choose not to acknowledge it.
There has been some speculation that the Log Cabin Republicans might withhold their endorsement of Bush. That would likely not be much of a blow to the Bush campaign. But the mood at the reception seemed to be one of resigned acceptance. The gay marriage amendment “has generated a lot of passion within the group,” Bill Browson, the chairman of the board of the Log Cabin Republicans, said. “We have people at both ends of the spectrum,” he said, “and [Bush’s support of the amendment] is a deal-killer for many.” Yet there was no discernible outrage in the room, and the safe bet appeared to be that these GOPers would hang on dearly to the no-difference-between-the-two excuse, swallow hard, and go with Bush. “We see there’s no distinction on the gay marriage issue,” Schmidt explained. “So I have to get over that….If we abandon the party, it will never come around on gay rights. ” [UPDATE: The day after the Log Cabin reception, the group unveiled a television ad that criticized the GOP’s support of the gay marriage amendment–but only implicitly. It asks, “Will we [the Republican Party] unite on the things that matter most ,like winning the war on terror? Or will we divide the American family with the politics of intolerance and fear that lead to hate?” The ad, it should be noted, was a question, not a declaration.]
Oh to put the Randall Terry squad and the Loggers in the same room. Each group feels let down by Bush (though Terry has less to complain about than Schmidt). Both claim they are going to triumph eventually. “There is no question in my mind we’re going to win,” Terry said, “because at the end of the day even you know it’s a human life that’s being killed.” Before the Log Cabin group, Specter said, “In the long sweep of history, those who favor gay rights are on the right side.” But each wing cannot be right in its prediction. Yet that does not matter at the moment. The fundamentalist can hope (and pray) for an end to abortion rights and gay rights. The liberal Republicans can patiently await a social reformation. In the meantime, the GOP’s tent holds for yet another election cycle, and Bush benefits.
Read about my adventures in partying with conservatives by clicking here.
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