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Published on Saturday, April 8, 2000 in the New York Times
La Cage au George W.
by Frank Rich
Back in the 50's Carol Burnett made her name as a nightclub performer with a song called "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles." If the Al Gore campaign had a theme song for the past week it might well be "I Made a Fool of Myself Over Elián González." But even Mr. Gore's craven act of political child abuse may not match the marathon foolishness of George W. Bush's self-immolating grudge match with the gay Log Cabin Republicans.

"It's really comical, if not farcical, it's so ridiculous," says Robert Stears, the chairman of Log Cabin's board. It's not clear, though, that it'll end happily. While the cold war being re-fought by proxy in Miami is increasingly ancient history as far as most Americans are concerned, Mr. Bush has stumbled into a lingering culture war that, while waning in much of the country, could well rage in the Republican Party through the convention and Election Day.

This particular battle in that war began in November when Tim Russert, mindful of Bob Dole's mean-spirited rejection of a Log Cabin donation during the '96 campaign, asked Mr. Bush on "Meet the Press" if he'd meet with the gay group, and the governor replied "probably not," saying it might be a "huge political, you know, nightmare for people." A few weeks later, when the question failed to go away, the Bush campaign rebuffed Log Cabin again, explaining that its candidate "didn't see the point" of meeting with groups "he disagrees with." But then Mr. Bush appeared at Bob Jones University -- and justified that meeting by saying "it is important" to bring his message "to people . . . I don't agree with."

So if it's right to meet with racists and anti-Catholic bigots with whom he disagrees, why is it wrong to meet with gay Republicans? To answer that question, Mr. Bush and his emissaries have floated a series of other strategies, variously saying that the governor's initial statement on "Meet the Press" was "misinterpreted" and that his real beef against Log Cabin was that it had made a "commitment" to John McCain. In truth Log Cabin had made no such commitment at the time of the Russert interview -- it only raised money for the McCain campaign after being spurned by Mr. Bush -- but even if it had, does that mean Mr. Bush won't meet with heterosexual McCain supporters either? Somehow I doubt it.

At one point, on the eve of Super Tuesday in March, Mr. Bush even told The San Francisco Chronicle "yes, I would consider meeting with them" -- a statement widely publicized in other news media as a change of heart, though once the primaries had safely passed it was never acted upon. Next up is a some-of-my-best-sycophants-are-gay gambit: A covey of Bush supporters, among them some dissident Log Cabin members, is being rounded up for a meeting in Austin next week.

But this strategy, reminiscent of Mr. Bush's recruitment of fringe veteran activists to attack Mr. McCain during the South Carolina primary, is backfiring already, by opening up another rowdy front in the internal G.O.P. war over homosexuality: a noisy civil war among gay Republicans themselves. Mr. Stears draws the line clearly by saying that any Log Cabin meeting minus its leadership is "a sham" and speculates that the gay Republicans who turn up in Austin would be seeking jobs in a Bush administration and "a pat on the head." On Wednesday David Hanson, the head of Log Cabin California, wrote a letter to Mr. Bush spurning the meeting as "an effort to end the media story concerning Log Cabin Republicans" rather than a serious attempt to "deal forthrightly" with gay civil rights issues.

Who are these nightmarish Log Cabin leaders who instill such fear in the heart of George W. Bush? You'd think from all the noise they must be a G.O.P. auxiliary of Queer Nation. As it happens, Mr. Stears is the 45-year-old owner of a lobbying business in New Jersey, and Mr. Hanson is a 62-year-old retired pharmacist who's voted Republican "since the second term of Dwight Eisenhower." Richard Tafel, the executive director of Log Cabin, is an American Baptist minister who spent six years under the tutelage of the Harvard Divinity School eminence Peter Gomes, who preached the National Cathedral sermon for George Bush Sr. at his inaugural. We're not talking Rupert Everett here.

In his six years as Texas governor, George W. Bush has never met with the leaders of Texas Log Cabin either. Whatever fear is driving this aversion, it wasn't shared by his father, who invited a Log Cabin leader to a 1990 White House signing of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act. And as the Dole campaign's contortions over Log Cabin became a metaphor for its mishaps in '96, George W. Bush's nonstop battle with his own party's major gay organization makes a self-styled "compassionate conservative" and "uniter not a divider" increasingly look like a hypocrite.

What the growing tiff with Log Cabin also reveals is just how out of touch Mr. Bush is with mainstream America in the new century. The governor is fond of citing Ronald Reagan's visit to Bob Jones as a precedent for his own, and in 1980, it's true, no one looked askance at the Reagan visit -- just as there would have been widespread shock if Mr. Reagan had met with Log Cabin (which dates back to 1978). But we're not in 1980 anymore. In 2000, the Bob Jones visit was the shocker for most Americans; a gracious Log Cabin meeting would have been a routine one-paragraph news item (as Mr. McCain's meeting with the group was).

Mr. Bush seems clueless about how fast American attitudes about homosexuality are evolving. Fresh Newsweek polling last month shows that more than three-quarters of the country thinks gay Americans deserve job and housing protection against discrimination. The magazine also reported that a majority believes that gay spouses deserve some legal benefits of marriage (such as health insurance) and that, for the first time, fewer than half of Americans label homosexuality a sin. While homophobia is hardly extinct, voters tend to punish politicians who stoke it. Anyone who thinks the murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming wasn't a contributing factor to the surprise downfall of religious-right Republicans in the '98 election is kidding himself.

Gay-baiters want to believe that the culture has brainwashed Americans into accepting gay people -- whether in the form of TV's "Will & Grace" or Hollywood's latest Best Picture, "American Beauty," in which the only "normal" couple is all-male. But this is another delusion. Exit polls in '96 show that 5 percent of voters identify themselves as gay, a figure roughly equal to the total number of Hispanics and approaching double the number of Jews. As more gay people are out, more Americans realize they have a sibling, child or parent who is gay, and that it's far from a "nightmare." This is a huge constituency, more crucial in a national election than any homophobes the Texas governor has pandered to in and beyond South Carolina.

Mr. Bush doesn't seem to have heard the news. And even were he to declare a truce with Log Cabin tomorrow and invite its entire membership to the governor's mansion for a rodeo, such a meeting would still amount to empty symbolism and fail to quiet debate about the real substance of the issue -- his actual record.

His positions on gay civil rights range from nonexistent to fudged to hostile. He opposes gay adoptions. He has said that as "a symbolic gesture of traditional values" he would veto any attempt by the Texas legislature to repeal medieval statutes that criminalize gay people for practicing sex in their own bedrooms. As for job protection for gays, Cal Thomas reported in his column for The Los Angeles Times syndicate last fall that Mr. Bush told a group of Christian conservatives "he would not 'knowingly' appoint a practicing homosexual as an ambassador or department head, but neither would he dismiss anyone who was discovered to be a homosexual after being named to a position." Gee, how compassionate can you get?

So far in his campaign Mr. Bush has been dogged by queries about his drug history and his knowledge of foreign leaders. These questions seem to have faded away. But the questions that began five months ago with Log Cabin aren't about to let up; they're going to gather force and specificity, and become impossible to dodge. Far from concerning the candidate's nose or even his brain, they get to the crux of the very organ he has made the selling point of his campaign -- his heart.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company


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