Saturday, October 23, 2004

My theory about the worth of presidential debates, I regret to say, has been confirmed by events.

John Kerry and George W. Bush squared off three times this season: Twice in debate, more or less, and once in a “town hall” meeting with questions from selected voters. They discussed foreign policy, health care, education, the economy and other topics. Sen. Kerry impressed the pundits by looking presidential, and President Bush pleased supporters by holding his own in a medium that scarcely speaks to his strengths.

And what, in the end, is being remembered? Mr. Kerry’s gratuitous reference, in the last debate, to “Dick Cheney’s daughter, who is a lesbian.”

I confess that Mr. Kerry’s remark surprised me — but, in retrospect, it should not have done so. This was clearly a deliberate gesture on the part of the Democratic presidential nominee. Two weeks earlier, in the vice presidential confab, Mr. Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards, had raised the topic (in the words of columnist William Safire) “to smarmily compliment the Cheneys for loving their openly gay daughter…. The vice president thanked him and yielded the remaining 80 seconds of his time: It was not a diversion he was willing to prolong.”

Mr. Cheney’s silence — or slow burn, depending on how you look at it — was taken as a signal, by Kerry strategists, to forge ahead. So when the question of homosexuality and gay marriage was raised in the last debate, Mr. Kerry saw fit to score points by intruding on the private life of the Cheney family.



Before the debate, Mary Cheney’s sexual orientation had been known to very few of her fellow citizens: Her father had mentioned it, publicly and parenthetically, twice in the past year; but the media had properly let the subject lapse. Now, of course, everybody knows about it, and polls reveal that most Americans strongly disapprove of Mr. Kerry’s tactic. Indeed, within days of the third debate, those same polls revealed that the Kerry surge of the past few weeks had been halted, and Mr. Bush had reclaimed his modest lead. Mary Cheney might cost John Kerry the presidency.

So what was he thinking? The strategy appears to have been twofold. Democrats are convinced that Mr. Bush’s support for a constitutional amendment barring homosexual marriage is a cynical ploy — a sop to fundamentalists who disapprove of gays — and, better yet, a means of dividing Mr. Bush from Mr. Cheney. The vice president has maintained, since the 2000 election, that the subject of homosexual marriage is an issue for the states, not the federal government, to decide. But he has also insisted that the policies of the Bush administration are determined finally by the president, not by himself.

The Democrats’ reasoning was simple: What better way to exploit a White House difference of opinion, and tip off fundamentalists that the Bush administration features a lesbian in the vice president’s household. That Mary Cheney has never disguised her sexual orientation, and that both her parents are devoted to their daughter, is irrelevant. Mr. Kerry could have cited any homosexual in his statement, or referred obliquely to gay people in prominent families. But he pointedly identified and characterized Mary Cheney.

That was strategy No. 1. Strategy No. 2 is the inconvenient fact that neither Mr. Kerry nor Mr. Edwards supports gay marriage, either; and instead of forthrightly explaining their position, they found it easier to draw attention to Dick Cheney’s gay daughter. It is obvious that the Kerry campaign had been wrestling with this conundrum for some time: Fearful of exposure as hypocrites on a tender issue, they prepared themselves to accuse the White House of equal hypocrisy. This was evident in the cool reaction of Kerry staffers to the anger of the Cheneys, and Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill’s assertion that the private life of Mary Cheney is “fair game” in her father’s campaign for re-election.

Most telling of all, however, was the quick accusation, from Mr. Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, that Lynne Cheney’s indignation “indicates a certain degree of shame with respect to her daughter’s sexual preferences.”

On the contrary. The evidence is that the Cheneys — think of them what you will — are proud of their “daughter, who is a lesbian,” and accept her orientation with love and equanimity. There is no shame in defending the privacy of one’s offspring, especially when her “sexual preference” is exploited for political gain.

Philip Terzian is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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