There’s Something About Mary

I have to admit, first, to having been surprised at how much a stir John Kerry’s mention of Mary Cheney ended up creating.

When I heard the comment last Wednesday night during the debate, I immediately sensed that the reference was aimed at making a political point, but one that I thought was altogether legitimate.

Coming less than nine days after John Edwards mentioned Mary and congratulated Vice Pres. Dick Cheney and his wife for their loving support of a lesbian daughter, I understood Kerry’s comment to be a subtle reference to the tension within the Republican ticket between a vice president who opposes an anti-gay constitutional amendment, probably due to his family ties, and Pres. George W. Bush, who decided more than a year ago to make gay rights a major wedge issue in his re-election campaign. In more general terms, I assumed that Kerry was signaling to swing voters, especially undecided women, that attention needed to be paid to the gap between the rhetoric of compassionate conservatism and the harsh practices of a right-wing administration across a wide spectrum of issues.

The fiery response to Kerry from Lynne and later Dick Cheney, I believe, stunned the Democrats. When Edwards made his reference to Mary, admittedly in a more graceful and ingratiating style than Kerry, the vice president merely thanked him and surrendered the remainder of his one-minute response time.

Perhaps the Kerry folks didn’t pay sufficient attention to something I thought that I saw—just a hint in Cheney’s eyes and mouth that he was smothering aggravation in his courtly response to Edwards.

My bet is that the Republicans made use of focus group responses to discover something that eluded the rest of us. Americans are squeamish about hearing about the personal lives of family members of politicians, but are even more nervous hearing specific things about the lives of gay men and lesbians. The combination of the two makes for very volatile reactions, especially if a parent of that gay or lesbian family member can get themselves in front of a camera as soon as possible to hint darkly at an invasion of privacy.

Despite the absurd claims made by the Wall Street Journal editorial page and William Safire in The New York Times, Kerry did nothing even remotely approaching the “outing” of Mary. A gay market outreach professional for the Coors Beer Company up until her father was nominated for vice president in 2000, Mary has long been out of the closet and her lesbianism was widely discussed in the last presidential election. Mary has been identified as the director of her father’s re-election campaign and the vice president spoke about her sexual orientation at an Iowa campaign appearance in the late summer.

The big fear that some Republicans have about the Kerry comment is that mention of Mary being a lesbian will suppress Christian conservative turnout on November 2. Gary Bauer was the most explicit proponent of this theory, speaking up immediately last Thursday morning. Safire also mentioned this factor, as well as Kerry’s aim to fire up people on the left by his implicit attack on the hypocrisy and tensions inherent in the Republican posture on gay rights.

But, curiously, throughout a long weekend of sound bites from Republicans and conservative pundits on TV rapping Kerry, most were curiously vague about exactly what Kerry had done wrong. And that shouldn’t be surprising. What were they going to say? That the Democrats were trying to tamp down the G.O.P.’s natural homophobe base? That Kerry had hit a bull’s-eye with his attack on the president and vice president talking out of both sides of their mouths.

No, better instead to just rely on the non-specific discomfort of Americans with the whole topic. Make Kerry out to be someone who simply trashes people’s children, as though Mary were still in high school.

And in the process, of course, rob attention, for a couple of days at least, from the fact that the president of the United States was equaled or bested in three consecutive debates by a man the Republicans are desperately trying to paint as unqualified to be commander in chief. The reality of the continuing downward spiral of events in Iraq, however, still has plenty of time to catch up with George W. Bush.

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