Right Hook

Safire and Novak spin themselves silly over Kerry's Mary Cheney comment; Buchanan equates gays with alcoholics and pedophiles. Plus: Freepers trade blows over Jon Stewart's takedown of Tucker Carlson.

Published October 20, 2004 10:29PM (EDT)

Much has been said about John Kerry's reference to Mary Cheney during the final presidential debate. But with the rights of same-sex couples and gay clergy under attack at the climax of election season, it's worth looking at just how disingenuous and downright nasty some conservatives have gotten over the issue.

Salon's Scott Rosenberg has already pointed out the absurdity of New York Times columnist William Safire claiming that "only political junkies knew that a member of the Cheney family serving on the campaign staff was homosexual," and labeling Kerry's comment the "lowest blow," as if Kerry had maliciously outed the proudly and publicly gay Mary Cheney.

In the very same column, Safire himself acknowledged that Cheney's sexual orientation was "no secret" -- even if one wants to believe, as Safire argued, that a uniformly virtuous press had respectfully kept it quiet.

"The vice president, to show it was no secret or anything his family was ashamed of, had referred to it briefly twice this year, but the press -- respecting family privacy -- had properly not made it a big deal. The percentage of voters aware of Mary Cheney's sexual orientation was tiny."

Safire, who decried Kerry's comment as part of an orchestrated attack by the Dems, might want to check his analysis with fellow columnist Robert Novak, who points out just how widely known the information already was.

"Kerry campaign sources say there was no plan for Kerry to talk about Ms. Cheney last Wednesday, and it never came up in the debate prep," Novak wrote on Monday. "The senator's intimates say he was trying to compliment the Cheneys, but there is absolutely nothing complimentary in what he said. Many Republicans see a calculated plot to depress Bush's social conservative base by revealing the vice president's daughter as a lesbian. But her sexual orientation is such common knowledge on the right that the alleged Democratic plot would be foolish to undertake."

Instead, Novak saw an offhand maliciousness on Kerry's part.

"Kerry's comments appear to be spontaneous -- and unpleasant. Faced with President Bush's answer in the debate that he did not know whether he believed 'homosexuality is a choice,' Kerry blurted out they should go ask Mary Cheney, who 'would tell you that she's being who she was, she's being who she was born as.' This sounded like an effort to impute hypocrisy on the part of an opponent seeking to ban gay marriage."

The National Review's William Buckley was more attuned to the nuances of the issue.

"It is not in question that Mary Cheney's gayness had already become a part of the cast of characters in the political play. Senator Kerry was in no sense 'outing' someone who had hidden her sexual impulses. So that the question narrowed to whether what was said was an expression of magnanimity and inclusiveness, or whether it was a bid for votes from the bigoted.

"This last interpretation of it was taken by an evangelical Christian politician, Gary Bauer, who ran for the presidency four years ago. He reasoned as follows: that traditional-values voters would react to the public reference as to an animadversion against the Bush ticket, and that by saying what he had said, Kerry could reasonably hope 'to knock l or 2 percent off in some rural areas by causing people to turn on the president.' This view holds that Kerry was in fact trading on bigotry. That position is of course irreconcilable with the position that Mr. Cheney has profited politically from publicizing his daughter's gayness -- that he has, in effect, said to the gay community: 'Look, my own beloved daughter is a member of the Cheney family, and a member also of the gay community. You can hardly suspect in the GOP ticket prejudice against gays, when you see that we have one in the family, whom we cherish?'"

And while Robert Novak and others brushed straight past Bush's "I don't know" if "homosexuality is a choice," former Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan characterized Bush's non-answer as "honest." Then he offered his own honest appraisal of the issue.

"To some of us, homosexuality is an affliction, like alcoholism, and hellishly difficult to control. Why some folks can take or leave alcohol -- while others can enjoy it in moderation, and others cannot stop drinking without help and must swear off it for life or it will kill them -- remains a mystery of nature. Homosexuality seems to be like that."

Buchanan, apparently able to control his own afflictions, went on to lament men who can't control theirs. He also added pedophilia to the same list.

"A contemporary of this writer and rising conservative star in the House, with a wonderful family, lost it all when caught trolling D.C.'s tenderloin district for teenage boys. Catholic priests have dishonored the church to which they have dedicated entire lives and disgraced themselves by abusing altar boys. In such cases, the behavior seems almost suicidal. Clearly, there is a compulsion here that is, at times, terribly difficult to resist, a sexual compulsion that seems far more rare among normal men."

The folly of dirty campaigning
New York Times columnist David Brooks weighed in Tuesday on down-and-dirty campaign rhetoric:

"The truth is that voters are not idiots. They are capable of independent thought. If you attack your opponent wildly, ruthlessly, they will come to their own conclusions."

His comments came one day after President Bush, in a "major speech" carried live on the Fox News Channel, fired off a litany of flagrant distortions about John Kerry. Bush claimed that Kerry will fight terrorists "only after America is hit," that Kerry "thinks we need permission from foreign capitals" when "we act to defend ourselves," and that in a Kerry administration, "America's overriding goal in Iraq would be to leave, even if the job is not done."

Oh, wait... Brooks was criticizing the rhetoric of the other presidential candidate in his column, "Kerry off the Leash."

The crossfire after "Crossfire"
Comedian Jon Stewart's beat down of the bow-tied Tucker Carlson on CNN's "Crossfire" last Friday touched off an intriguing mix of reactions among bloggers.

Gerard Van der Leun of American Digest doesn't think much of the dueling heads of "Crossfire," or of Stewart.

"I actually caught Jon Stewart's on-air evisceration of 'Crossfire' last week, and I have to admit I enjoyed the discomfort and confusion he brought to the dual tools of that broadcast. At the same time I also noted what a large, self-impressed tool Stewart has become."

It seems that the heart of the matter for Van der Leun is what he imagines to be Stewart's privileged lifestyle off the air.

"I don't know about you but my gorge rises when a TV personality who's made his bones with long ironic sighs and sideglances starts to speak phrase like 'We need you to be honest!' And that was only the center cut from Stewart's Tripe Store. I was especially taken by Stewart's reference to himself as one of the guys who is out 'mowing his lawn' while 'Crossfire' fails to protect the Republic. Hey, I need Stewart to be honest. The closest people like Stewart come to mowing their lawn is telling their personal assistant to drive to some Southern California crossroads and hire an illegal alien to work the Weedwhacker."

Bill Ardolino of InDC Journal offered a more substantive take on Stewart's allegations of full-tilt partisan hackdom in the mainstream media. Ardolino has no great love for Stewart, either, labeling much of his Daily Show material "a smirking, incredibly shallow read of the issues surrounding [the Iraq] war every bit as harmful as Michael Moore's hullabalooed love letter to Leni Riefenstahl." But Ardolino raises a valid point about Stewart's own influence and potential responsibility to the political dialogue.

"While Stewart's recent evisceration of the Crossfire hacks was great fun, it's also tainted by the fact that he was throwing stones from a glass mansion. Stewart likes to slide out of public responsibility for accuracy by citing the fact that the Daily Show is a comedic farce, but that defense is undermined by the fact that his show has a very large practical influence, his partisanship is overt and pointed, his analysis is frustratingly superficial, and if everything is such a silly joke ... he wouldn't become angry, serious or aggressively condescending during certain political interviews. You can't have it both ways, Stewart. It's fine for you to take sides, but you're drubbing of Begala and Carlson marks you as a hypocrite."

One wonders what Protein Wisdom's Jeff Goldstein thinks of the notion of "overt and pointed partisanship," "frustratingly superficial analysis," and "everything as such a silly joke." He aims for barbed political comedy himself and is sometimes quite entertaining, though he doesn't much like it when his team is on the receiving end. He responded to the crossfire by offering CNN's hapless bow-tie boy "9 snappy comebacks" to Stewart's comment, "You know what's interesting, though? You're as big a dick on your show as you are on any show."

"1. It's genetic, the big dick thing. My father was hung like a horse.
"2. You know who's funny? That Craig Kilborn. Now he's funny.
"3. Yeah, I'm a dick, blah blah blah. But tell me -- how is Janeane Garofalo in the sack? Wild?
"4. I really like the touch of gray you've got going on, by the way. Very Harry Reasoner.
"5. That Craig Kilborn. Christ, I'm still laughing...!
"6. So. Are you going to tell America about the time Bob Dole bitchslapped your shortperson's ass on the set, or should I?
"7. Incidentally, I spit in your complimentary beverage. Just so you know.
"8. Any truth to the rumor you and Lewis Black like to toss each others' salads?
"9. Well, it could be worse. I could be Jewish."

And the Stewart-Carlson dustup sparked a rare but colorful burst of cognitive dissonance inside the right-wing citadel, Free Republic.

clintonh8r: "[The Daily Show] is a big part of the trivialization and bitchiness of American politics that he's apparently (I'm not near a TV) talking about. I guess he doesn't really get it..."

glock rocks: "Stewart called Carlson a dick on the way to commercial."

staytrue: "CNN is probably reading stewart the riot act and threatening legal action as we speak."

get'email: "Tucker Carlson IS a dick."

RedBloodedAmerican: "We need people like John where he is. It's helps to remind us why we fight."

charles giteau: "If Jon Stewart is the reason we fight, we may need to reevaluate our goals. Stewart is the best talking head on TV. He points out the absurd on both sides. And so what if he's voting for Kerry? My mother is voting for Kerry, should I take the fight to her too?"

FreddomSurge: "Mom's gotta go sometime."

demnomo: "I agree with Stewart -- the show is a boring sham. I watched a couple of programs a while ago, thought the talking head hosts were lame, and I have not watched the contrived garbage that they spew since. Of course, I read about what someone said on the show now and then on this forum. That's about it."

omniscient: "One Crossfire is worth a thousand Daily Shows. I'm glad Carlson brought up what a suck-up job Stewart did with the Kerry interview."

navycorpsman: "Stewart's show is funny when politics is not the subject. Shows like Crossfire, Hannity and Colmes, et al, all suck and offer nothing but bile and useless spin..."

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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2004 Elections Gay Marriage John F. Kerry D-mass. Jon Stewart