Media have a funny way of rewriting the history of presidential debates. After the first debate in 2000, all five network polls that night showed most viewers agreeing that Vice President Al Gore had beaten George W. Bush (Daily Howler, 8/19/04). But as the debate worked its way through the media echo chamber, the outcome quickly morphed into the story of Gore’s exasperated sighs and unlikeability, and an event that initially seemed like a victory for Gore had suddenly become a serious liability.
Fast-forward to 2004. On October 13, after the third and final presidential debate, all the immediate polls showed Democratic candidate John Kerry to be the victor (CNN, ABC, CBS, 10/13/04)—as they had for debates one and two. But once again, there was a catch. During the debate, moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS had asked the candidates, “Do you believe homosexuality is a choice?” Kerry’s response began with this:
His invocation of Cheney’s 35-year-old daughter, Mary, in combination with the L-word sparked an immediate tongue-lashing from her mother, Lynne Cheney, who raged after the debate (CNN, 10/14/04): “I am speaking as a mom and a pretty indignant mom. This is not a good man. What a cheap and tawdry political trick.”
Though he didn’t express any qualms in his public statement that night, Dick Cheney launched an offensive the next day, calling himself a “pretty angry father” and rolling out a new Republican talking point: “You saw a man who will say and do anything to get elected” (CNN, 10/14/04). And Mary’s sister, Liz, told CNN’s Paula Zahn that Kerry’s remarks were “unprecedented” and “out of bounds” (CNN, 10/14/04).
With that, the debate story for the next week, instead of focusing on Kerry’s 3-0 sweep or on any of the myriad domestic policy issues discussed in the debate, quickly became a curious sideshow on Kerry’s allusion to Mary Cheney. The airwaves filled with Republicans parroting the Cheneys’ professed umbrage, while dueling columnists and op-ed writers held forth on whether Kerry’s remarks were appropriate.
It wasn’t long before Cheney’s talking point emerged from the mouth of Fox News anchor Brit Hume (Fox News Sunday, 10/17/04): “I think the comment about Mary Cheney in the final debate probably had some resonance with voters because it fit with something they may have sensed about him, which is he’s a guy who kind of can’t resist a political opportunity wherever it may lie and whatever direction it may take him.”
“One of those exaggerations”
Quickly overshadowed and forgotten, too, was Bush’s remarkable gaffe in the debate. When confronted by Kerry with a statement he had made months ago playing down concerns about Osama bin Laden, Bush said, “I just don’t think I ever said I’m not worried about Osama bin Laden,” calling it “one of those exaggerations.” Video footage run on some post-debate fact-checks quickly proved Kerry right (e.g., CNN, 10/13/04).
One might think that Bush’s gaffe about the man at the top of his terrorism list would merit more attention, given the centrality of the “war on terror” to both candidates’ campaigns. But a Nexis search of the week following the debate (10/13-19/04) found Kerry’s remark about Mary Cheney reprinted and replayed at least 263 times across the mainstream media, while Bush’s Osama falsehood turned up only 112 times.
Only a few weeks later, a Newsweek post-election analysis of the debates (11/15/04) made no mention of Bush’s gaffe, or of the three network polls showing Bush losing the third debate; instead, it described a GOP pollster’s 15-person focus group that gave Bush an 11-4 win that night, saying that the participants had a “huge negative reaction” to Kerry’s mention of Mary Cheney. Once again, debate history emerged from the media machine with a whole new look.
Many voices in the mainstream media defended Kerry’s comment and questioned the legitimacy of the furor over it, but that didn’t help put the brakes on the coverage. CNN’s Anderson Cooper (10/15/04) picked the “media frenzy” over Mary Cheney as the “Overkill” of the week, “because yesterday the name of Dick Cheney’s daughter was uttered 295 times on local, cable and network television. And all but forgotten, it seems, were the other issues addressed in the final debate—education, health care, jobs and tax cuts.” But Cooper’s self-awareness didn’t translate into any effort to remedy the situation: His show kicked off that very night with correspondent Candy Crowley quizzing Kerry about—you guessed it—his reference to Mary Cheney.
“Not a gay issue”?
What exactly did Republicans and their media sympathizers find offensive about Kerry’s answer? The primary explanation presented was about privacy. As New York Times columnist David Brooks argued on NBC’s Chris Matthews Show (10/17/04): “This is not a gay issue and it’s not a religious right issue, it’s a privacy issue. I think a lot of people saw it exactly that way.”
Was it really not a gay issue? Others who made the privacy argument seemed to differ. Slate’s Mickey Kaus declared (NPR, 10/14/04): “Unlike the case with blacks, a lot of gays are in the closet and we don’t particularly like people who go around gratuitously saying that people are gay. I think some voters are right to get the creeps from what Kerry said. I certainly did.” Apparently to Kaus, because some gay people are in the closet, mentioning an out person’s sexuality—even in an affirming way and in the context of a gay-related question—is distasteful.
But many went even further, implying that John Kerry had dragged Mary Cheney out of the closet; on Fox News’ post-debate show (10/13/04), Fox analyst Mort Kondracke called Kerry’s mention of Mary Cheney a “totally underhanded outing.” Kondracke argued that “the press ought to pay a lot of attention to this because John Edwards [also] brought it up, and it was utterly gratuitous the way he brought it up, and it was brought out of the weeds.”
As Media Matters for America pointed out (10/15/04), the idea that Mary was “outed” was repeated throughout the right, by the Wall Street Journal (10/15/04), the Rush Limbaugh Show (10/14/04), Newsmax.com (10/14/04) and anti-gay religious right leader Dr. James Dobson (Fox, 10/14/04).
In fact, Mary Cheney’s sexuality is clearly not something she tried to shield from the eyes of the public. She’s worked as a liaison to the gay community for Coors Beer; in 2002 and 2003 she served on the board of the Republican Unity Coalition, a gay organization founded in 2000 to support George W. Bush. (When she joined that group, she issued a statement announcing she would work to “make sexual orientation a non-issue for the Republican Party”—Washington Post, 4/23/02). Dick Cheney himself had spoken openly about Mary’s sexuality, most recently at a campaign stop in Iowa (AP, 10/15/04).
Curiously, just a week earlier, the media hardly batted an eyelash over the issue of privacy when candidate John Edwards referred to Mary’s sexuality in the vice presidential debate. Chris Matthews (MSNBC, 10/6/04) did call Edwards’ remark “ruthless,” while Tucker Carlson thought it “bad form” (CNN.com, 10/5/04), but for the most part pundits didn’t find his comments worth mentioning. Vice President Cheney had actually thanked Edwards for his positive references to the Cheney family during the debate, and no one in the GOP made Mary Cheney’s right to privacy a topic of media discussion afterwards.
Nor did the media get too worked up over Republican senatorial candidate Alan Keyes, who said in an interview (Sirius OutQ, 8/31/04) that, as a lesbian, Mary Cheney was a “selfish hedonist.” Though in contrast to Edwards and Kerry, Keyes was actually condemning Mary, the Cheneys directed none of their familial anger at him, nor did they seek out the media spotlight to challenge him. In fact, when CNN’s Bill Hemmer (9/1/04) asked Mary’s sister Liz about Keyes’ remark, she responded: “I guess I’m surprised, frankly, that you would even repeat the quote. And I’m not going to dignify it with a comment.”
Lesbians=winos and sluts?
But while Keyes’ true insult drew little notice, pundits seemed eager to find insult in Kerry’s apparently positive remarks (Media Matters, 10/18/04, 10/20/04). CNN Crossfire co-host Tucker Carlson drew a parallel to adultery (10/14/04): “So does this mean that the children of candidates, Republican candidates, are fair game? If there’s another candidate whose child is, I don’t know, involved in an adulterous affair, you’re going to talk about it on television?”
Fox & Friends co-host E.D. Hill (10/15/04) compared Kerry’s remark to telling “an alcoholic’s family . . . ‘That kid of yours sure is a wino, but you know, you’re really dealing with it well and I’m sure that he has no choice about being a wino.’” And Fox & Friends guest Kellyanne Conway compared it to saying, “Your daughter is a slut” (10/16/04).
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough used co-analyst Ron Reagan as a point of comparison (10/14/04): “If somebody has a problem with your father’s position while he was president of the United States, I would be very angry if they turned around and attacked you because of a decision you made, whether it was drugs or ballet or whatever it was.” When Reagan pointed out that Kerry was not attacking Mary Cheney, Scarborough quickly switched tacks and claimed Kerry “was trying to embarrass the president and was trying to embarrass the Cheney family.”
When Pat Buchanan filled in for Scarborough on MSNBC the next day (10/15/04), he ably picked up Scarborough’s line: “It’s about the character of a man who would bring up the vice president’s daughter’s sexuality in a presidential debate in a humiliating fashion.”
Dallas Morning News columnist Ruben Navarrette (10/20/04) had a similar take: “I think Kerry was just being a jerk and trying to tweak the other side. Years ago, to cut someone down to size, the zinger was: ‘Your mother wears combat boots.’ Today, it is: ‘You have a gay daughter.’ Or, in this case, your running mate has a gay daughter.”
A question of respect
Underlying all of these media critiques is the basic assumption that being a lesbian is something shameful or problematic, and that to simply mention someone’s lesbianism is to insult or embarrass their family members. As gay writer Dave Cullen wrote (Salon, 10/15/04): “Let’s get one thing straight. It is not an insult to call a proudly public lesbian a lesbian. It’s an insult to gasp when someone calls her a lesbian. That’s how all the gays I have spoken to in the past 24 hours perceived the press response. You’re embarrassed for us. And it’s infuriating.”
Cullen’s characterization of the press corps’ response, according to Newsweek’s Howard Fineman (MSNBC, 10/14/04), was quite literal: “People gasped in the newsroom when it happened. They thought it was a—my sense is that people in the newsroom thought it was a below the belt shot.”
But the media gasps drowned out the reaction from actual gay people, whose voices were largely sidelined while the predominantly straight punditry took its cues from the GOP on what was offensive with respect to discussions of gayness. Even Mary’s own reaction was conspicuously absent. When Paula Zahn asked Liz (Paula Zahn Now, 10/14/04) if her sister took offense at Kerry’s words, Liz evaded the question, saying, “It was a very offensive thing for him to do, yes.” When Zahn pressed further, asking if Liz had talked to Mary about it, she again dodged: “It was very offensive. I think I’ll just leave it there. I think people can make their own judgment about what he said.”
The judgment from gay organizations was nearly unanimous; prominent non-partisan groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force supported Kerry’s remark as an acceptable way to put a face on gay issues, while even the Log Cabin Republicans (LogCabin.org, 10/14/04) issued only a mild rebuke of Kerry (he “could have made his point about gay and lesbian Americans without mentioning the vice president’s daughter”). All three took care to point out that the party crying foul over gay political exploitation was the same party that had very clearly used gays and lesbians as a political wedge in its campaigns.
Indeed, while Cheney and his allies spoke up to protect his daughter from John Kerry’s affirmation that “she’s being who she was born as,” they failed to jump to her defense when Bush endorsed the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would alter the Constitution in order to ensure that she can’t marry her life partner. And therein lies the real heart of the issue: Why should the media take seriously right-wing umbrage at John Kerry’s supposedly “cheap and tawdry political trick” when it comes from the party whose platform opposes even civil unions for gay couples?
Bill O’Reilly inadvertently hit the nail on the head when he said to Liz Cheney (Fox, 10/20/04), “When you’re talking about people’s private lives, you’ve got to be very careful to be respectful. I think that’s what it’s all about, is it not, Ms. Cheney, isn’t it about respect?” Cheney avoided any mention of respect in her answer. Perhaps if the media had posed that question to gays and lesbians instead of GOP spinners, the media rewriting of Bush/Kerry debate history would have come out quite a bit differently.