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The O'Reilly Factor for Lesbians
by Frank Rich
"And guys, if you exploit a girl, it will come back to get you. That's called 'karma.' "
- Bill O'Reilly, "The O'Reilly Factor for Kids"
IN the annals of election year 2004, Oct. 13 will be remembered as the day it rained lesbians in red America. That was when we learned that Andrea Mackris, an associate producer on "The O'Reilly Factor," had filed her sexual harassment law suit, charging that her boss had an obsessive interest in vibrators, phone sex and, most persistently, erotic scenarios involving pairs of women. That night brought the final presidential debate, in which John Kerry's description of Mary Cheney as a lesbian so riled the Bush-Cheney campaign, not to mention the easily aghast Washington press corps, you'd have thought the vice president's daughter was accused of enlisting in a threesome with Bill O'Reilly.
What's followed ever since is an orgy of schadenfreude and hypocrisy almost entertaining enough to take your mind off Iraq (as the Bush-Cheney campaign hopes it will). It's the kind of three-ring circus that makes me love this country. Only in America could Mr. O'Reilly appear on "Live With Regis and Kelly" to plug his new moralistic children's advice book (sample dictum: "Healthy sex is a combination of sensible behavior and sincere affection") just as old and young alike were going online to search thesmokinggun.com for the lewd monologues attributed to him in Ms. Mackris's 22-page complaint. Everyone is now so busy matching Mr. O'Reilly's alleged after-hours oratory - none of which he or his lawyer immediately denied - with his past condemnations of Janet Jackson, Ludacris, wet T-shirt contests, Joycelyn Elders and the televised Madonna-Britney smooch that the findings could fill another Starr report. My own favorite example, hands down, is Mr. O'Reilly's reverie about hooking up with "hot" Italian women during a visit to the Vatican while his pregnant wife was marooned at home in Plandome, Long Island.
The bad news for Fox is not only that its most bankable cable star could end up in the third-tier broadcasting oblivion of William Bennett but also that Fox News, handed the kind of story it lives for, could not (or, more precisely, would not) turn it into a mediathon, complete with legal analysis from Greta, Gloria Allred and Jeanine Pirro. So the network made do instead with the parallel soap opera of Mary Cheney. The Focus on the Family politico James Dobson quickly set the tone on "Hannity & Colmes" by accusing Mr. Kerry of "outing" the vice president's daughter - a charge duly echoed by others on the right, led, inevitably, by The Wall Street Journal editorial page.
To try to prop up its fictional headline "Outing Mary Cheney," The Journal argued that "Mr. and Mrs. Cheney have not kept their daughter's lesbianism a secret but neither have they shouted it to the sky." Huh? Though Dick Cheney doesn't shout anything, he described his daughter as gay on camera at an Iowa campaign appearance this summer. But whatever Mr. and Mrs. Cheney may have to say about it, The Journal never entertained the thought that Mary Cheney herself has a voice in this matter. She has been openly gay for years. Before the 2000 campaign, she held a job that literally announced her homosexuality: gay and lesbian liaison for Coors, a public marketing assignment that even required her to travel the country with the winner of the 1999 International Mr. Leather competition. She later joined the Republican Unity Coalition, a gay-rights advocacy group formed as an alternative to the similarly inclined Log Cabin Republicans.
From all the outcry over Mr. Kerry's invocation of Ms. Cheney, with the attendant rhetoric about the evil of exploiting a candidate's "child" in a campaign, you might never guess that the child in question is not Chelsea Clinton at age 12 but a 35-year-old woman (two years older than Andrea Mackris). Or that she lives openly with her partner, Heather Poe, whom she brought onstage after the vice presidential debate. Or that she is the paid director of vice presidential operations for the Bush campaign, and that her mother is the author of a notorious potboiler ("Sisters," 1981) that drools over the prospect of lesbian coupling with O'Reilly-like glee. (For choice excerpts from Mrs. Cheney's fiction, go to whitehouse.org/administration/sisters.as
So you have to wonder what motivated the Bush-Cheney brigade to go ballistic over Mr. Kerry's "outing" of Mary Cheney after it had ignored not just John Edwards's previous "outing" but also the earlier "outings" by Bush campaign allies like the Concerned Women for America and the Republican senatorial candidate Alan Keyes. Unlike the Democrats, who spoke respectfully of gay sexual orientation, these right-wing activists trashed the vice president's daughter for sowing anti-family values. But as Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, even when Mr. Keyes attacked Mary Cheney in August for practicing "selfish hedonism," the same Mrs. Cheney, who, "speaking as a mom," called Mr. Kerry "not a good man," spoke not at all.
To understand what strange game is playing out here, you must go back to the equally close 2000 election. In the campaign postmortems, Karl Rove famously attributed his candidate's shortfall in the popular vote to four million "fundamentalists and evangelicals" in the Republican base who didn't turn up on Election Day. A common theory among Bush operatives had it that these no-shows had been alienated by the pre-election revelation of Mr. Bush's arrest for drunk driving years earlier.
The current Bush-Cheney campaign clearly believes that for these voters, Mary Cheney's sexuality could be a last-minute turnoff equivalent to Mr. Bush's D.U.I. history. When Rich Lowry of National Review said on Fox that "millions and millions of people" were not aware that Mary Cheney was gay until Mr. Kerry brought it up, it was clear just which four million he was talking about. Mr. Kerry, his critics all speculate, was deliberately seeking to depress voter turnout among Mr. Rove's M.I.A. religious conservatives by broadcasting Mary Cheney's sexuality to them for the first time.
To buy this theory you have to believe that by this late date a large group of potential voters obsessed with homosexuality didn't yet know that Ms. Cheney is gay. I find that preposterous, but only Mr. Kerry knows if he thought so and if his intentions were so smarmily Machiavellian. Even if they were, there's no ambiguity about what the Bush campaign is up to. Mr. Rove can out-Machiavelli Mr. Kerry anytime. Though the president pays "compassionate conservative" lip service to "tolerance" of homosexuality to appease suburban swing voters, his campaign has pushed a gratuitous constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, one opposed by Mary Cheney's own father, to stir up as much fear and ugly rage as it can.
When Mrs. Cheney hyperbolically implies that even using the word lesbian in 2004 is a slur out of the McCarthy era - "a cheap and tawdry political trick," she said - she is playing a similar game. She is positioning lesbian as a term comparable to child molester. But as Dave Cullen writes in Salon: "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." Mrs. Cheney and her surrogates are in effect doing exactly what Elizabeth Edwards had the guts to say they were doing: they are sending the message to Mr. Rove's four million that they are ashamed of Mary Cheney. They are disowning her under the guise of "defending" her. They are exploiting her for the sake of political expediency even as they level that charge at Democrats.
The deployment of homosexuality as a nasty campaign weapon has long been second nature to Mr. Rove. In the must-read article "Karl Rove in a Corner" in the November issue of The Atlantic, the journalist Joshua Green exhaustively researches the tightest campaigns of Mr. Rove's career and exhumes the pattern. As Mr. Green reminds us, George W. Bush's 1994 gubernatorial race against Ann Richards "featured a rumor" that Governor Richards was a lesbian. Gay whispers have also swirled around Rove adversaries like a rival Republican campaign consultant in the 1980's and a 1994 Alabama judicial candidate who was branded a "homosexual pedophile."
None of these rumors were, in fact, true, but Mary Cheney is unambiguously and unapologetically gay. For a campaign that wants to pander to the fringe, that makes her presence in the Bush-Cheney family a problem - just how big a problem can be seen by its disingenuously hysterical reaction to Mr. Kerry's use of the L word. But Mary Cheney isn't the only problem for Mr. Rove as he plays this game. The Republican establishment is rife with gay people - just ask anyone in proximity to its convention in New York - and the campaign doesn't want the four million to know about them, either. But in this election season, actual outing has begun to creep onto the Internet, where the names of closeted Republican congressmen and aides who support anti-gay policies are a Google search away. Some named so far - one of whom dropped out of his re-election campaign in August - hail from districts where some of those four million live.
Sooner or later this untenable level of hypocrisy is going to lead to a civil war within the Republican party. But this hypocrisy is not just about homosexuality - it's about all sexuality, as befits a party that calls for the elimination of Roe v. Wade and the suppression of candid sex education that might prevent teenage pregnancy and AIDS alike. Should Bill O'Reilly-Andrea Mackris tapes exist, as many believe they do, we will learn graphically where the right's most popular cultural defender of G-rated values stands not only on lesbianism but also on extramarital sex, sexual tourism in Asia and masturbation -which all figure in the complainant's detailed description of her alleged conversations with her boss. But anyone who fears that Mr. O'Reilly has completely abandoned his political faith need not worry. According to Ms. Mackris's account, the one time this would-be Lothario succeeded in luring her to his hotel room alone it was not by offering to show her his etchings, or even Spectravision, but a televised news conference by President Bush.