THE FIRESTORM OVER JOHN KERRY’S COMMENTS ABOUT MARY CHENEY, which are raging on all the spin shows and even on the public comments on this blog and in about 200 emails I have received about this, signifies that the question of society’s stance towards homosexuality is burning strong among the passions of many Americans.
The emails I have received go both ways (no pun intended) — some are outraged by Kerry’s comments, and others outraged by the outrage.
I want to rethink this and consider whether my own views that I held last night right after the debate were on target or not, and not be one of these sorts of referees who can’t adjust a call after a review shows that the call was in error.
Let’s consider what I wrote last night — and what I believe after some reflection.
First of all, I watched this debate with a group of people who were mostly Republican students. This matters only in the sense that I was trying to surround myself by those who would balance my built-in pro-Kerry bias. They groaned very loudly and instantly when the Mary Cheney line surfaced. They groaned when Bush talked about education as a response to offshoring. They groaned when Bush talked about no litmus test for the Supreme Court. Though Bush got more groans, it was a night of equal opportunity groaning.
When I scribbled my reactions, real time, and assembled them for my UPI article, I wrote this:
John Kerry’s own low moment was when he gratuitously dragged Mary Cheney’s lesbianism into his response on whether being gay is a choice or not; he’ll take some deserved hits on that. To Bush’s credit, he avoided raising the fact that Kerry’s first marriage ended in divorce.
Here is what John Kerry said in the debate:
SEN. KERRY: We’re all God’s children, Bob. And I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney’s daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she’s being who she was, she’s being who she was born as.
I think if you talked to anybody, it’s not choice. I’ve met people who struggled with this for years, people who were in a marriage, because they were living a sort of convention, and they struggled with it. And I’ve met wives who are supportive of their husbands, or vice versa, when they finally sort of broke out and — and allowed themselves to live who they were, who they felt God had made them. I think we have to respect that.
The president and I share the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. I believe that. I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.
But I also believe that because we are the United States of America, we’re a country with a great, unbelievable Constitution with rights that we afford people, that you can’t discriminate in the workplace, you can’t discriminate in the rights that you afford people. You can’t disallow someone the right to visit their partner in — in a hospital. You have to allow people to transfer property, which is why I’m for partnership rights and so forth.
Now with respect to DOMA and the marriage laws, the states have always been able to manage those laws. And they’re proving today, every state, that they can manage them adequately.
Let me take the last line of what I wrote first, the one giving Bush credit for not attacking Kerry for the fact that his first marriage ended in divorce. I take that back. I’m pretty sure that had Kerry’s divorce stood in contrast to the family circumstances of most Americans, Bush would have used it. But to attack a divorcee running for President is to attack an awful lot of other divorcees out in the country.
Now, for the first part. I really do think that Kerry could have kept this debate from becoming one about him mentioning Mary Cheney inappropriately — and more about the question of Republican hostility towards gay people if he had had a greater preamble to what he said before mentioning Mary.
As I re-read what Kerry said, it wasn’t mean-spirited and was quite generous overall. The fact is that Bush is trying to have it both ways — have Dick Cheney and Laura Bush out being friendly to gays and PFLAG members, while on the other side Alan Keyes attacks Mary Cheney and lesbians and the RNC sends out disgusting anti-gay flyers to church parish members.
Kerry should have pointed to the hypocrisy of the Republican Party, and Mary Cheney was the best and most effective way to highlight the gay-friendly and homophobic faultlines in George Bush’s Republican Party. I wish Kerry had mentioned the mailer, or even asked Bush if he or Karl Rove endorsed the mailer.
I also slightly resent Kerry’s stand on gay marriage. I understand why he is parsing his words on marriage vs. partnerships and civil unions — but he is still with the primitives when it comes to opposing gay marriage. If David Brooks is for gay marriage. . .well, as George Bush mumbled last night, you know the rest.
So, here’s my bottom line. If Kerry was going to mention Mary Cheney — which I think he and John Edwards intended to do whether asked or not — then he should have couched her name in a broader comment on the subject. I think he was just too cavalier with her name, and to the DNC operative and many of my friends who are gay activits who said Mary is “fair game”…well, yes — she is. But while that is true, drop the recklessness.
I think Kerry should have invoked Mary Cheney’s name and the issues of her place inside the Republican world in a way that would make the real debate about scary strains of Republican intolerance.
Kerry could have mentioned David Catania, a Republican D.C. City Council Member and former staff member for Senator Kit Bond, who would not endorse George Bush and was barred from attending the Republican National Convention — or could have mentioned the fact that Log Cabin Republicans could not endorse Bush; or even more — could have mentioned a long-time personal friend of George and Laura Bush, Charles Francis — who is out and whose brother ran George Bush’s gubernatorial campaign in Texas.
Francis has been the founder and driver of the Republican Unity Coalition that formed after the death of Matthew Shepard and involved folks like former Senator Alan Simpson and even Mary Cheney to try and make homosexuality a ‘non-issue’ in the Republican Party.
Listen, we are all back-seat drivers in this process. I believe Kerry could have and should have done better than he did if he had intended to invoke Mary Cheney’s name. I should not have used the word “gratuitously” and probably should have gone lighter on the comment that Kerry was going to get some “well deserved hits” for his comments. But I was clearly right that he was going to take some heat and also right that he left too much room to the opposition to make the after-debate banter about him rather than about the issue of bigotry.
But I have high expectations of this man running for President against Bush — and I think that the Republicans have been dreadful on issues of social tolerance. I want to see Kerry do better.
So, for all of those taking me on — please know that I don’t have any aversion to Kerry having used Mary Cheney to make a point. I think Kerry’s comments about friends who struggle with being gay were heartfelt and real — but as one who does believe in gay marriage and doesn’t believe in shades of gray when it comes to people’s rights — I wish Kerry had been more compelling, and I’m not sure that the manner in which Mary Cheney was brought into this helped close the deal.
No doubt I will keep hearing from friends who think I’m really off base on this. But maybe some might agree. I look forward to your comments.
— Steve Clemons