Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, hosted a getting-to-know-you meeting here with a group of 12 gay Republicans, and in a very brief press conference afterward, confirmed his campaign was working to establish better relations with the national Log Cabin Republican organization -- despite his feud with the group during the Republican primaries.
Though none among the 12 were leaders of the national organization, Bush told reporters, "I think the chairmen of the national Log Cabin Republicans were invited to the meeting." While national Log Cabin Republican spokesman Kevin Ivers took issue with that assertion saying, "There was no formal invitation issued," he added, "At this point it's irrelevant" because top aides from Bush's campaign and the LCR's national leadership "have been in communication since the weekend."
The meeting follows months of confusion over whether Bush would meet with the Log Cabin leadership, with which his campaign has had a rocky and complicated history. It also comes after Bush's remark last November that he would "probably not" meet with the group, the leading national organization of politically conservative gays. Now, Bush has apparently decided to go ahead -- or at least to have his people talk to their people. "They [the campaign] have continually expressed their desire during this week to continue discussions with the organization," said Ivers. "So there is dialogue, and I think all sides viewed this meeting today as a beginning."
"Dialogue" was the word of the day, as Bush welcomed the support of gay Republicans -- and reaffirmed his opposition to gay marriage and hate-crimes legislation. "I am a better person for the meeting. I enjoyed it. The life stories were very compelling," he said. "I want the conservative Republicans to understand that we judge people based upon their heart and soul, that's what the campaign's about. And while we disagree on gay marriage, for example, we agree on a lot of other issues." According to Bush, those agreed-upon issues include making sure that every child receives an education, tax relief and rebuilding the military.
Bush did indicate he would not shy away from appointing an openly gay person to a position in his administration -- an issue about which his campaign had previously been rather painstakingly vague. "It's not a factor," he said when asked about appointing a gay person. "The factor is: Can the person do the job, and do we share a philosophy?"
This follows a statement Bush made on a Christian radio station in Charleston, S.C., that "out" gays weren't welcome in a Bush administration, saying "an openly known homosexual is somebody who probably wouldn't share my philosophy."
For the most part, though, the Austin session was about breaking the ice, not policy. "I walked out of this meeting and thought: This is not a meeting about politics, this is about people," said former congressman Steve Gunderson. "The sincerity with which he [Bush] wanted to achieve this dialogue was unbelievably strong." Gunderson, who had earlier told the New York Times that "no candidate ought to expect support from gays and lesbians just from recognizing our existence," emerged from the meeting smiling, and praised Bush warmly. "He came in there with an open mind."
It remains to be seen how flexible that mind is when it comes to specifics. Before the meeting took place, several news sources reported that the campaign had contacted socially conservative supporters to warn them of the meeting and assure them that Bush's policy positions would not change because of it. (Bush spokesman Scott McClellan confirmed that "a handful" of supporters had been contacted and told of the meeting. As for changes on policy, McClellan said, "Bush is consistent in his positions.")
Meeting participant David Catania, a gay Washington city councilman, downplayed the significance of those calls. "There have been efforts on the parts of some folks in the media to take bits and pieces and weave together a story they want to believe about this man," Catania said. "I believe him to be a fair and honest man. When he talks about uniting the party, uniting the country, I believe it."
One proposal raised at the meeting, added Catania, was to have a gay speaker at the Republican Party Convention this summer -- an idea he said "intrigued" Bush. Reiterating that the meeting was "a beginning," Catania speculated that Bush would continue to warm to gays and lesbians in the future. In particular, he said, "I think we will see progress on employment discrimination issues" and added that Bush could help tone down the Republican Party's historically anti-gay image.
Even David Smith, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign (which has endorsed Al Gore and labeled Bush "anti-gay"), called today's meeting an important one. "[Bush] has not articulated one position that can be seen as gay-supportive," said Smith. "That said, it's an expression by George W. Bush that he's willing to listen to the concerns of a community in this country, and open to understanding their issues." Smith did call the fact that the Bush campaign had contacted social conservatives beforehand "a bad sign."