Kerry Didn't Gay-Bait
He used Mary Cheney to shame Bush for gay-baiting.
Dick and Lynne Cheney claim to be outraged that John Kerry mentioned their daughter Mary's sexual orientation (she's gay) in the Oct. 13 debate. Immediately after the debate, Lynne said it was a "cheap and tawdry political trick." Her outrage was spontaneous and therefore probably sincere. But the vice president, who spoke at the same press availability, glided past the subject and instead expostulated on the "whale of a job" the president had done and Kerry's poor record on defense. That suggests to me that Cheney wasn't outraged at all. (When John Edwards had mentioned Mary in the much nastier vice presidential debate, Cheney had thanked him "for the kind words he said about my family and our daughter.") The morning after the debate, Jodi Wilgoren reported in the New York Times that three undecided Iowans—all members of the same family—had thought it "unfair" for Kerry to mention that Mary Cheney was gay. Knowing now that outrage had tested well in a focus group, Cheney chimed in early that afternoon that he was "a pretty angry father," and said it showed that Kerry will "say and do anything in order to get elected."
Why should it be shameful for Kerry to mention that the vice president's daughter is a lesbian? Apparently the logic goes that Kerry (and perhaps Edwards, too), were trying to smear the Bush-Cheney ticket by association. It being doubtful that Kerry or Edwards (or even, for that matter, Bush or Cheney) consider homosexuality to be an abomination before the Creator, the purported aim was to suppress turnout among religious fundamentalists. An editorial in the Oct. 15 Wall Street Journal elaborated:
It's no secret that a large evangelical vote is key to a Bush victory, especially in swing states. Republicans are devoting considerable effort to getting more evangelicals to the polls this year. Many stayed home in 2000 for want of an inspiring issue, or perhaps because of the late reports of Mr. Bush's drunk-driving arrest as a young man.
The Journal, preposterously, accused Kerry of "outing" Mary Cheney, even though, when asked about gay marriage at an August campaign rally in Iowa, the vice president had said, "Lynne and I have a gay daughter, so it's an issue that our family is very familiar with." It was hardly the first time either Cheney had acknowledged Mary's sexual orientation in public. It's been common knowledge for years.
Were Democrats trying to provoke a bigoted response in Christian fundamentalists? I can't see why they would. If I were a fundamentalist who thought all homosexuals were evil Sodomites, I doubt I'd blame Dick Cheney for fathering one. Fundamentalists usually marry and bear offspring young, and are therefore as well acquainted as anyone with the wayward paths that children often take. Rather than blame Bush or Cheney, I'd probably blame the unwholesomeness of that permanent gov'mint in Washington. Fundamentalists resist the idea that homosexuality is genetic in origin.
As it happens, the genetic nature of homosexuality was the very subject Kerry was discussing when he brought up Mary Cheney. Both candidates had been asked, "Do you believe homosexuality is a choice?" Bush had said he didn't know, and then, after some vague words about tolerance and dignity, affirmed his support for a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Then Kerry spoke:
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 talk 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 allowed themselves to live who they were, who they felt God had made them.
I think we have to respect that.
I won't dispute that Kerry was using Mary Cheney to score a political point. But the political point was an entirely legitimate one, aimed, I believe, not at fundamentalists but at swing voters with libertarian leanings. Listen, Kerry was saying. This guy knows gay people, just like you and I do. So he mustknow that homosexuality isn't a "lifestyle choice." He must know that, and yet he pretends not to know it to score points with the religious right. How cynical can you get? And then he lends his support to a cockamamie Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage that even his right-wing-nut of a vice president can't stomach because his own daughter is gay. But even Cheney won't really speak out against this administration's exploitation of the gay-marriage issue to score cheap political points. Some father he is.
We can argue about whether Kerry's posture of moral superiority on this issue is entirely earned. After all, he, too, claims to oppose gay marriage (because "marriage is between a man and a woman," an argument whose essence is "because I say so"). But Kerry's record is more tolerant than his campaign rhetoric suggests, and even his campaign rhetoric is more tolerant than Bush's. Kerry wants to make that a reason for swing voters who deplore bigotry to vote for him. I think that's what made Lynne Cheney spitting mad—she resents the implication that the Bush-Cheney campaign sold out her own gay daughter. But you know what? It did. And you know what else? The evidence that Kerry would treat gays with greater tolerance than Bush is a pretty good reason to vote for Kerry.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Mary Cheney on Slate's Table of Contents courtesy Agence France Presse.