Frank Rich recalls the 1962 film “Advise and Consent” directed by Otto Preminger that was based on the novel by Allen Drury. It was the first film to bring up the storyline of closeted right wingers in Washington, and notes the parallel to recent news stories.
It’s a virulent animosity toward gay people that really unites the leaders of the anti-“activist” judiciary crusade, not any intellectually coherent legal theory (they’re for judicial activism when it might benefit them in Florida). Their campaign menaces the country on a grander scale than Drury and Preminger ever could have imagined: it uses gay people as cannon fodder on the way to its greater goal of taking down a branch of government that is crucial to the constitutional checks and balances that “Advise and Consent” so powerfully extols.
What adds a peculiar dynamic to this anti-gay juggernaut is the continued emergence of gay people within its ranks. Allen Drury would have been incredulous if gay-baiters hounding his Utah senator had turned out to be gay themselves, but this has been a consistent pattern throughout the 30-year war. Terry Dolan, a closeted gay man, ran the National Conservative Political Action Committee, which as far back as 1980 was putting out fund-raising letters that said, “Our nation’s moral fiber is being weakened by the growing homosexual movement and the fanatical E.R.A. pushers (many of whom publicly brag they are lesbians).” (Dolan recanted and endorsed gay rights before he died of AIDS in 1986.) The latest boldface name to marry his same-sex partner in Massachusetts is Arthur Finkelstein, the political operative behind the electoral success of Jesse Helms, a senator so homophobic he voted in the minority of the 97-to-3 reauthorization of the Ryan White act for AIDS funding and treatment in 1995.
But surely the most arresting recent case is James E. West, the powerful Republican mayor of Spokane, Wash., whose double life has just been exposed by the local paper, The Spokesman-Review. Mr. West’s long, successful political career has been distinguished by his attempts to ban gay men and lesbians from schools and day care centers, to fire gay state employees, to deny City Hall benefits to domestic partners and to stifle AIDS-prevention education. The Spokesman-Review caught him trolling gay Web sites for young men and trying to lure them with gifts and favors. (He has denied accusations of abusing boys when he was a Boy Scout leader some 25 years ago.) Not unlike the Roy Cohn of “Angels in America” – who describes himself as “a heterosexual man” who has sex “with guys” – Mr. West has said he had “relations with adult men” but doesn’t “characterize” himself as gay. This is more than hypocrisy – it’s pathology.
Allen Drury might not have known what to make of Mr. West or of another odd tic in the 30-year war, the recurrent emergence of gay-baiting ideologues with openly gay children (Phyllis Schlafly, Randall Terry, Alan Keyes). According to Mr. Johnson’s fresh scholarship in “The Lavender Scare,” a likely inspiration for the gay plot line in Drury’s “Advise and Consent” was the real-life story of a Wyoming Democrat, Lester Hunt, who shot himself in his Senate office in 1954 after the Republican Campaign Committee threatened to make an issue of his gay son’s arrest in Lafayette Park on “morals charges.” Those were the dark ages, but it isn’t entirely progress that we now have a wider war on gay people, thinly disguised as a debate over the filibuster, cloaked in religion, and counting among its shock troops politicians as utterly bereft of moral bearings as James West.
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over the question as to whether or not the Spokesman-Review violated journalistic ethics when it hired a computer expert to pose as a high school boy to chat with James West on Gay.com. Frankly, I don’t have a problem with it. The exposure of a hypocrite who had already done a great deal of damage to the gay community was a public service, not a moral quandry, and neither the Spokesman-Review — nor Mr. West — broke any laws in the process. (By the way, where were the defenders of privacy on the right when Linda Tripp made her taped conversations with Monica Lewinsky public?) I don’t believe in outing someone just for the sake of outing. A person’s sexual orientation is and should be irrelevant. But when a closeted homosexual makes a political career based on hypocrisy and inflicts his own pathological agenda on the public, I have no problem whatsovever with blasting him out of the closet and subjecting him to the scorn he so richly deserves; not because he is homosexual — hell, he should be proud of that — but because he has achieved success and prominence by being a new kind of sexual predator: one who preys on his own kind to achieve his own selfish political ambitions.