Tearing Big Holes in the GOP's 'Big Tent'

CLARENCE PAGE

September 08, 1992|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Few cases illustrate the collapse of the Republican Party's big tent more strikingly or poignantly than that of Marvin Liebman.

Mr. Liebman has been an important organizer of conservative and Republican causes for more than 40 years, founding such banes of the left as the notorious Young Americans for Freedom, so some '60s veterans may find poetic justice in his current plight.

Although Mr. Liebman maintains staunch conservative Republican beliefs, he feels so betrayed by the George Bush-Dan Quayle ticket that he plans to vote for (Gasp! Horrors!) Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Just this once, he hopes.

His reasons can be summed up in these simple words: He's gay. Does that bother you? It doesn't bother me. But Marv Liebman's homosexuality deeply bothers the right-wing religious fundamentalists and cultural warriors who have captured the soul of this year's Republican convention and presidential campaign.

The unkindest cuts came from erstwhile presidential candidates Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson. As far as the two Pats are concerned, homosexual rights belong way over on the other side of the line they have drawn in the sands of religious and cultural warfare.

If this is war, as Mr. Buchanan declared, Mr. Liebman knows he's not on the side of the two Pats. Although liberal activists sometimes ridicule him as a gay equivalent of an Uncle Tom, Mr. Liebman sees conservatism as a complement to gay and lesbian rights, not a contradiction. Conservatism's best impulses are freedom, justice, enterprise, personal liberty and respect for individuals.

Besides, he points out, it is better for homosexuals and other minorities to be represented in both major parties than to have their interests ghettoized in one.

Good point. If gay Republicans have done anything, they have put to rest the notion that homosexuals can be dismissed as just another Democratic ''special interest'' group.

But the two Pats, regardless of what they may profess, are far from outraged by intrusion of government into the private lives of people who happen to be homosexuals. On the contrary, they express delight that gays and lesbians are discriminated against in jobs and housing. They sound downright thrilled that the Supreme Court has ruled that homosexual lovemaking, even in the privacy of their own homes, can legally be broken up by police.

In fact, the two Pats would be horrified at the idea that things should be any other way for those people.

At 69, Mr. Liebman jokes he's too old to worry much about lovemaking of any sort, but he's outraged that the nobler purposes of his party and movement have been so thoroughly perverted.

As Mr. Liebman describes in his newly published autobiography, ''Coming Out Conservative,'' he came out of the closet in June 1990, a month before his 67th birthday, in an open letter that his friend William F. Buckley Jr. published in the National Review. It was an exhilarating experience, he says. Until then, he had ''felt like a Jew in Germany in the 1930s who had chosen to remain silent, hoping to be able to stay invisible as he watched the beginning of the Holocaust.''

He's not alone. Delegates from the 6,000-member gay Republican Log Cabin Clubs met in Houston just before the Republican Convention and their 26 chapters (in 14 states) voted unanimously not to endorse the Bush-Quayle ticket, because they think Mr. Bush has abandoned them.

If it comes as a surprise to you that Mr. Bush ever supported them at all, consider this: George Bush was the first president ever to invite gay leaders to the White House. He signed the ''hate crimes'' statistics bill that included homosexuals as a protected group, and the Americans With Disabilities Act, which banned discrimination against people with AIDS.

And he supported such measures in spite of right-wing opposition, and first lady Barbara Bush scored more points by writing a letter in support of the family support group Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. The late GOP Chairman Lee Atwater, in accordance with his view that the party is a ''big tent'' with room for a wide diversity of groups, went to bat to have the Log Cabin Clubs recognized and included in other party activities.

But Mr. Atwater is dead and, in his absence, the big tent has become pitched far enough to the right to collapse on top of almost every Republican who prefers the libertarian brand of conservatism to its rabidly authoritarian counterparts.

Blame the fall of communism, the collapse of the economy, the challenges posed by Mr. Buchanan and Ross Perot, and Mr. Bush's lack of strong, firmly held beliefs. There's an ideological vacuum at the top of the party where George Bush sits, and the party's hard-right faction has rushed in to fill it. The Bush campaign, desperate for victory and the far right's army of fund-raising volunteers, welcomes it.

But the party casts groups out of its coalition at its own peril. The Grand Old Party did not win five of the last six presidential elections with right-wing zealots alone, and the Bush-Quayle deficit in the polls this summer can largely be attributed to its practicing an odd politics of subtraction, instead of addition.

Angry gay Republicans are a tip of a larger iceberg of discontent in the party. The factions of ''Reagan Democrats'' and other swing voters Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan pulled together have come unglued under George Bush.

What a difference a sluggish economy makes. Subtle appeals to white resentment over black civil rights gains had big payoffs to Mr. Nixon's and Mr. Reagan's campaigns. But, try as it might, the Bush-Quayle campaign is going to have a tough time making scapegoats out of homosexuals for the nation's current ills, no matter how hard the two Pats try.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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