Did John Kerry make a mess over Mary?

By Tim Grieve
Published October 14, 2004 10:02PM (EDT)

Reasonable minds can differ about John Kerry's decision to remind the world that one of Dick Cheney's daughters is gay. Kerry didn't out Mary Cheney -- she has used her homosexuality publicly, to her own career advantage. And the Republicans -- who cynically pushed their gay marriage constitutional amendment when they knew it wasn't necessary and couldn't pass -- hardly have room to complain about anybody using homosexuality as a political issue.

Still, there's a lot to the argument that Kerry made a mistake -- and maybe a big one -- Wednesday night. Kerry has been so solid in these debates. He has demolished Bush's caricature of him, and he has shined the hard light of truth on Bush's failed policies. But in raising Mary Cheney's sexuality Wednesday night -- just as John Edwards did last week in Cleveland -- Kerry handed the Republicans something else to talk about today.

And talk about it they will. On CNN this morning, Bush-Cheney's Matthew Dowd said that Kerry's comment was the most outrageous thing he'd ever heard in politics, and he vowed that the campaign would be talking a lot about it in the days ahead. Lynne Cheney has expressed her pain, and Dick Cheney says he resents Kerry "bringing my daughter into it." When you give the Dark Lord the chance to look like a victim, you know you've done something wrong.

Salon asked Kerry advisor Tad Devine about the gratuitous comment right after the debate Wednesday. He said: "I would disagree it was gratuitous. I think it was relevant. I think it points out, it highlights, the difference the president and the vice president have on" on the issue of the constitutional amendment. Maybe that's right, but that's not how Kerry used it. He just said what he said, and he let it hang there. Reporters in the press hall winced, and one Kerry aide expressed -- privately, of course -- both befuddlement and a little PC embarrassment.

Yes, gay rights activists will surely give Kerry a pass on this -- better to have a president who occasionally blunders than one who regularly transforms your life into a political wedge. But it's not the gay vote that Kerry should be most concerned about. It's the moms, all those women who are married to the men who voted for Bush in 2000 because they thought they'd like to have a beer with him. We know some of those moms -- we all do -- and we're guessing that they won't be happy with a candidate who uses somebody's kid as a political tool. Yes, we know that it's better than using a thousand kids as cannon fodder in pursuit of your misguided neo-con dream. But there are mothers out there who will never forgive certain Republicans for making fun of Chelsea Clinton's appearance. By stepping into Mary Cheney's life Wednesday night, John Kerry invited those voters to feel the same way about him. He didn't have to do that, and he shouldn't have.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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