Candor and gay marriage

During the primaries, I thought that the Republicans’ gay-baiting would force the Democrats to take a principled stand on gay marriage. I was wrong. I reckoned without Dick Cheney.

In last night’s debate, Cheney appeared most humane and most honest when he stood by his gay daughter and conceded that he would have preferred it if Bush had not embraced a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Edwards, on this one issue, seemed to be merely politicking. Edwards’s reassurance to the audience that the proposed amendment would be “unnecessary” to gay marriage opponents is meaningless. If the amendment would make no difference, why do gay groups so bitterly oppose it? In fact, it might make a difference. Without such an amendment, a judge in North Carolina (or elsewhere) could decide that the full faith and credit clause of the constitution requires his state to recognize a Massachusetts gay marriage. After all, what precedents would a judge cite if he chose not to recognize it? Century-old refusals to recognize mixed-race marriages from out of state? And Edwards was less than forthcoming when he suggested that domestic partnerships would do the job of protecting gay couples as well as marriage would.

The Democratic candidates should be thankful that Cheney’s principles have given them coverage on this issue. But I don’t want to be misunderstood: Cheney may have enough moral stamina to voice a reservation, but he is nonetheless the vice presidential candidate of a party that is deliberately gay-baiting in order to galvanize the voters in its base. There are an astonishing number of ballot measures and pieces of legislation this year that would outlaw gay marriage. Many are in swing states, which is no accident. According to the Human Rights Campaign, gay marriage has been outlawed this year in Louisiana and Missouri, and the question is pending in another dozen or so states. The Democrats may have chosen to be strategic and soft-pedal this issue, but the Republicans are exploiting fear, ignorance, and bigotry for partisan advantage.

Hope vs. fear

They both have unusual mouths. Cheney seems to be simultaneously sneering and biting the side off a piece of fruit. Edwards seems to be struggling with the remnants of a childhood speech impediment, which is sympathetic, but you wonder whether the appeal to sympathy might be a trial lawyer’s ploy.

It wasn’t a rout. Cheney is a more substantial personality than Bush. It isn’t in his repertoire, for example, to complain about hard work. Like Bush, however, he has accustomed himself to an environment where his assertions are not challenged. Thus his refrain: “It’s hard to know where to start.” It has been a long time since he has had to argue about facts, and it is unfamiliar.

Cheney did not cling as desperately as Bush did to the charge of Kerry’s inconsistency. But he did repeat it, and it did seem simpleminded. I wonder if the Cheney-Bush campaign has mistaken the terrain of battle here. A reductive one-liner is a good weapon if only a snippet of your speech will make it into the cable news spin cycle. But in an hour and a half of debate, a reductive one-liner is easily put into context and punctured. To repeat it in debate, after it has been punctured, is to reveal a low estimation of your audience.

In writing this entry, I am aware that I am contributing to the miasma-conversation about who won or didn’t win. I have heard many people say in the last few days that they were convinced by Kerry on Thursday but were unsure who the polls and pundits would say had won. They seemed hesitant to trust Kerry’s victory. I think that’s part of why Edwards’s closing statement was so moving:

Here’s the truth:_I have grown up in the bright light of America. But that light is flickering today._Now, I know that the vice president and the president don’t see it, but you do.

My heart was in my throat when he said that. It was startling—the direct address, the appeal to citizens to trust their own perceptions, and the acknowledgment that those perceptions have been denied and disowned and are now hard to trust.

The key words in Cheney’s closing statement: “threat,” “terror,” “conflict,” “deadly.” Like Bush, he stressed the magic fatefulness of 9/11. That is, he spun further mystifications around the idea that since history has decided, the people no longer can.

The choice between the two seemed stark: hope or fear.

The uh-ohs

There isn’t much need for it now, because it’s easy to do a write-around like “the current decade.” But calling it the oughts hasn’t really caught on, and in 2010 we’ll need a name for what we’ve finished. It occurred to me a few days ago that the name might be the uh-ohs.


My article about Bill Condon’s biopic of sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey appears in the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times on Sunday, 3 October 2005.

UPDATE, 4 November 2004: In my article about the movie Kinsey, I wrote that Fritz von Balluseck (Friedrich von Balluseck), a pedophile and former Nazi with whom Kinsey corresponded, was “tried for murder.” This is probably not true. German newspaper articles from 1956 and 1957 indicate that von Balluseck was for a time a suspect in the murder of a girl named Liselotte Hass and that several months later he was convicted of sexual abuse of a number of children, but I have not found any evidence that he was ever tried for murder. I am working with the Times on a correction, but it is taking much longer to prove that I was wrong than it did to make the error in the first place (it’s the famous difficulty of proving a negative), and so I’m posting this provisional correction in hopes that journalists working on pieces on Kinsey in time for the movie’s release by Fox Searchlight next week will land here through Google and avoid repeating my mistake.

FURTHER UPDATE, 17 November 2004: The Berlin Landesarchiv has the legal records of von Balluseck, and they confirmed this morning that von Balluseck was not charged with or tried for the murder of Liselotte Hass. I’ve alerted the Times, and a correction will be forthcoming.

Hard work, if you can get it

I don’t think anyone expected Kerry to do anything less than trounce Bush on the issues. The surprise is that he destroyed him televisually.

I watched with a room full of liberals reluctant to get their hopes up. But what was on screen looked to me decisive. When Bush’s voice cracked as he said the word “anyway,” his lips quivering and his head twisted at an angle that should only be possible in puppets, it seemed to me that he lost the election. If a clip of those two or three seconds were to be replayed by the broadcast media one eighth as many times as they played the clip of Howard Dean’s scream, I think November 2 would be a landslide.

Kerry stood erect. Bush was hunched forward over the podium, clutching it. Kerry looked straight at Lehrer as he answered him. Bush rolled his eyes and jerked his head about. Kerry’s voice was deep, clear, and confident. Bush’s not only cracked, but in timbre it was whining and pleading. He sounded not like an adult but like a child. “It’s hard work,” he repeated several times. He did not say it as someone proud of work and ready to do more of it. He spoke as if it were an imposition, and he thought he deserved more recognition. “You forgot Poland,” was not delivered in a tone of voice even remotely presidential.

When Bush criticized Kerry, Kerry smiled and took notes. He was not only writing down words but underlining some of them. He was collected enough, in other words, not only to be thinking ahead but to be choosing where to place his emphasis. When Kerry criticized Bush, by contrast, Bush craned his head at a strange angle and pursed his lips, like a disapproving hall monitor. He sighed loudly. He blinked heavily, as if he didn’t want to see what was before him. In the last exchange, just before the closing speeches—clunky from both men—it looked to me as if Bush were about to cry.

Kerry’s comments were tightly organized, and he finished his thoughts just before the red light began to blink. On several of his turns, by contrast, Bush stopped talking while the light was still yellow, and often he seemed to be stalling until then. (Thanks to the colored lights, he didn’t have to look at his watch to reassure himself that soon it would be over.) Bush was at a loss to bring up anything except Kerry’s supposed inconsistency, which he harped on. He seemed to be waiting for a laugh track that never came—like a child in a playground who continues to retell a joke because he hasn’t realized that the other children no longer think it clever. Somehow I don’t think his impromptu about keeping his daughters on a leash will play well with single women voters.

I did not expect Bush to be so flustered or Kerry so composed. It seemed to me that Bush had no idea that he was going to be challenged—that Kerry would ask why he let Osama bin Laden escape, why he started a war on false pretences, why he let North Korea go nuclear, why 95% of container shipments into the U.S. are not screened, or why Russia’s loose nukes remain unsecured. His failure to prepare for these questions is startling. It is hard work, being the president. Maybe he’d like to go home.