Reservists mutiny in Iraq, old people keel over standing in line for flu shots and all sorts of cats leap out of Bush’s bag of secrets: According to Ron Suskind’s revelatory New York Times Magazine cover story, the President himself recently told a closed Republican meeting that if elected he would “move quickly” to privatize Social Security, lavish funds on faith-based initiatives and more. The debates, which were supposed to seal Kerry’s doom as a garrulous dandy, actually showed that he’d make a pretty good President: confident, serious, knowledgeable, affable. Who cares about his windsurfing now? The President’s performance–sluggish and sullen in the first debate, prickly and evasive in the second and third–was so disgraceful that even on the National Review website there was wailing and gnashing of teeth. He couldn’t recall a single mistake he’d made in four years? Most people would have no problem thinking of a mistake they’d made that week.
Thank God for Mary Cheney. Without her, right-wing pundits would be stuck with David Brooks’s truly embarrassing “Bush is heart, Kerry is head” line–vote for Bush, he cares less about the facts! Defending the honor of Mary Cheney has to be more fun than that: How dare John Kerry, that cad, that lowlife, that poltroon, mention on national TV that the Vice President’s older daughter is a… lesbian? Writes Brooks, “He will say or do anything to further his career.” Was Kerry’s remark “spontaneous–and unpleasant” (Robert Novak) or “McCarthyite” and evidence of Kerry’s “cheap, cold, calculating cynicism” (William Kristol)? As I write, the phony scandal is in full swing: Pundits preen, shock jocks rant, closet Republican Ed Koch waxed so wroth he practically gave himself a heart attack on New York 1. We’re back in the world of soaps and scandal and sex: Maybe Zell Miller will challenge Kerry to a duel!
In the media spin world, it doesn’t matter that Dick Cheney has spoken publicly about his gay daughter or that she attended the Republican convention with her girlfriend and was even shown on TV. It doesn’t matter that Mary Cheney, currently managing her father’s campaign office, has not only been out of the closet for a decade, she’s a kind of professional gay conservative–faced with a national boycott during the 1990s due to its antigay policies, Coors hired her to spruce up its image among gay beer-drinkers. No one is asking why this grown-up woman is not speaking for herself: to reinforce the damsel-in-distress motif? to keep from screaming at her parents? (Mom! Dad! Stop looking so mournful!) All that matters is the instaquiz: Was Kerry “offensive”? Two-thirds of those polled say yes. Probably they’d be offended if he said Sappho herself was a lesbian, because being a lesbian is shameful and perverted and just…not…something you talk about.
Thus are positions reversed: Kerry, the gay-friendly candidate, becomes the victimizer of innocent daughters, and Bush, who supports a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and who relies on homophobia to excite his fundamentalist base, becomes the generous protector. But if there’s nothing immoral about being gay, and if Mary Cheney has herself made her sexual orientation public, what did Kerry do that was so monstrous?
Here’s what I find offensive: Kristol and William Safire comparing Kerry to Joseph McCarthy. Republicans, Safire writes, “have in mind a TV spot using an old film clip of a Boston lawyer named Welch at a Congressional hearing, saying ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?'” Who knew Safire, that old Nixonian, held McCarthy in such low esteem! Let’s see: McCarthy destroyed lives with dubious accusations of secret Communist affiliations, something he regarded as evil. Kerry mentioned Mary Cheney’s sexual orientation, which is a fact, is not a secret and is not a bad thing in Kerry’s eyes. The analogy only makes sense if Kristol and Safire think homosexuality is as bad as communism–or communism is not as bad as they thought.
The Mary Cheney gaffe is a bit like Paul Wellstone’s memorial service, or for that matter the “Dean scream”–a blip, a nothing, a wisp that the Republican wind machine wants to whip into a tornado of hysterical outrage. And because so much of the media are frivolous and lazy, it can. The tactic doesn’t work for long–don’t you feel silly now, Minnesotans, for voting Republican because of a eulogy? and does anyone today think Howard Dean is crazy?–but it doesn’t need to. It only needs to push the right buttons–propriety, prurience, politeness–for a few crucial days.
Every minute people are focusing on what John Kerry said about Mary Cheney is a minute they’re not talking about Iraq, or Guantánamo, that swamp of injustice and torture, or the plain basic fact that Bush, who lost the popular vote, has used his four years in the White House to turn the country over to lobbyists, ideologues and charlatans. It’s a minute they’re looking at Kerry’s character and not at Bush’s. It means they’re not demanding action on the mushrooming scandal of pro-Bush vote suppression and fraud, and not just in Florida either–the intimidation of black voters, the trashing of Democratic registration forms by GOP-contracted firms and their rejection by state authorities on flimsy pretexts, those paperless electronic voting machines. (Penny Venetis and Frank Askin of the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic just filed a magnificent brief challenging the use of such machines in New Jersey.)
Finally, as Richard Kim points out on www.thenation.com, defending Mary Cheney lets Republicans look concerned for a gay person while preserving their basic homophobic agenda. If they cared so much about gay women, they would rebuke Oklahoma senate candidate Tom Coburn for nuttily claiming that lesbianism is so rampant at some local schools that girls are only permitted to go to the bathroom one at a time. They would reject support from fundamentalist ministers who talk about “biblical” punishment for gays. Bush himself would scorn to win the White House if it meant defacing the Constitution with prejudice.
But then, as Brooks might put it, this is a man who will say or do anything to further his career.