Mike Huckabee's gay and lesbian thing

When cornered about a 1992 questionnaire on the AIDS epidemic, the kinder, gentler evangelical leader stands by his old anti-gay rhetoric.

Published December 10, 2007 5:41PM (EST)

The first thing you tend to hear about former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is that he is a new kind of evangelical political leader -- he's not mad, he lacks the fire and brimstone of damnation, and he tends to speak more about alleviating suffering than identifying sin. Furthermore, he is able to pull off this new attitude without abandoning the core values of his conservative faith. He remains adamantly against abortion, he favors teaching creationism alongside evolution, and he supports a federal amendment to ban gay marriage.

How does he pull this off? Mostly with sympathetic, inclusive rhetoric. At the Values Voter debate in September, for example, Huckabee took time in an answer about gay marriage to express his tolerance for gay people. "I want us to be very careful that we don't come across as having some animosity or hatred toward people, even [those] whose lifestyles are inexplicable to us," he said.

But there are now sufficient reasons to question whether Huckabee meets his own benchmarks of tolerance when it comes to gay and lesbian issues. Over the weekend, the Associated Press disclosed a questionnaire Huckabee had filled out as part of a failed 1992 campaign for the U.S. Senate. Here's what he had to say then about the subjects of gay rights and the AIDS epidemic:

If the federal government is truly serious about doing something with the AIDS virus, we need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague ... It is difficult to understand the public policy towards AIDS. It is the first time in the history of civilization in which the carriers of a genuine plague have not been isolated from the general population, and in which this deadly disease for which there is no cure is being treated as a civil rights issue instead of the true health crisis it represents.

He also said that AIDS was getting too much federal funding, compared with other diseases that affect more people.

In light of the extraordinary funds already being given for AIDS research, it does not seem that additional federal spending can be justified. An alternative would be to request that multimillionaire celebrities, such as Elizabeth Taylor (,) Madonna and others who are pushing for more AIDS funding be encouraged to give out of their own personal treasuries increased amounts for AIDS research.

Finally, he weighed in on homosexuality itself.

I feel homosexuality is an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle, and we now know it can pose a dangerous public health risk.

These are not the words of a politician concerned about showing "animosity or hatred" toward gay people. In fact, Huckabee appears to be deep in the trenches of social warfare, identifying AIDS with a sinful, Hollywood-based, politically correct social movement that is endangering society both spiritually and medically. He was also wrong on the facts. At the time he filled out this questionnaire, it was well known that AIDS was not spread with the sort of casual contact that would have justified a quarantine. In 1986, the U.S. surgeon general had released his "Report on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome," which stated this fact clearly. "AIDS is not spread by common everyday contact," the report reads. "We would know by now if AIDS were passed by casual, non-sexual contact."

In Huckabee's defense, he was not the only one who did not know the facts about AIDS in 1992. And his comments might also be explainable if Huckabee had since realized, and apologized for, his mistakes. But that is not what he has done. Over the weekend, Huckabee released a statement defending his ignorance at the time. Perhaps the most important part of the statement, as Marc Ambinder points out, is that it contains no repudiation of his anti-gay statements. Instead, he focuses on the confusion that remained in 1992 about the threat of AIDS, a confusion harbored mainly by those who had failed to educate themselves about the science. "At the time, there was widespread concern over modes of transmission and the possibility of epidemic," Huckabee says in the statement. "In the absence of conclusive data, my focus was on efforts to limit the exposure of the virus."

Set aside the fact that this is a distortion of history. The statement squarely calls into question Huckabee's kinder, gentler rhetoric. On Fox News Sunday, he explained his AIDS comments this way: "I'm going to simply say that that was exactly what I said. I don't run from it, don't recant from it. Would I say it a little differently today? Sure, in light of 15 years of additional knowledge and understanding, I would."

Back in September, I wrote a "Gay voters guide to the GOP," a fun look at how each of the presidential candidates views gay issues. I placed Huckabee as the most gay-friendly of the marriage hard-liners, in part because of the tone of his rhetoric. In light of this weekend's statement, however, it is clear that Huckabee does not deserve that place. Sympathetic rhetoric only goes so far. Candidates must be judged on how they perform when they are backed into a political corner.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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