A bigot at best

April 27, 2003|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - You will be relieved to learn that Rick Santorum is an all-right guy.

I got this from Arlen Specter who is, like Mr. Santorum, a Republican senator from Pennsylvania. Specter has been defending his colleague, who's under fire for comments about gays that he made during a recent wire-service interview.

In the course of just a few moments, the senator managed to compare homosexuality to bigamy, polygamy, incest, adultery and bestiality. For good measure, he also cited it as a threat to the American family.

Still, my favorite part was when he said he had no problem with homosexuality, just with homosexual acts. Which is not unlike saying, "It's OK to be vegetarian, just don't eat plants." As if one is obligated, for the comfort of others, to separate one's identity from the behavior that defines it.

No such obligation exists. It's condescending, patronizing, ignorant and arrogant to imply that it does.

But Senator Santorum, as already noted, does have his defenders. "I have known Rick Santorum for the better part of two decades," Mr. Specter said in a statement, "and I can say with certainty he is not a bigot."

Mr. Specter, you will recall, also vouched for Trent Lott's broadmindedness last year when that senator was attempting to extricate his toes from his tonsils after making racially insensitive remarks. Mr. Specter's assurances are as convincing now as they were then.

Which is to say, not at all.

The question that got Mr. Santorum in trouble was about a case now being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. It seems that in 1998, police entered the Houston-area home of a man named John G. Lawrence. They were responding to a weapons-disturbance call that turned out to be bogus. But while there, they found Mr. Lawrence having sex with another man and arrested them both. This was possible because Texas is among that dwindling number of states with laws criminalizing gay sex.

It seems obvious to me that something is wrong when authorities can enter a private home and arrest consenting adults for having sex that is not government approved. You'd think it would seem doubly obvious to Mr. Santorum, whose party's mantra is that government should be less intrusive, that it should get off our backs and out of our way.

I guess that applies only to heterosexuals.

With all due respect to Senator Specter, it is only in the most charitable interpretation of his remarks that Mr. Santorum is a mere bigot. A harsher reading suggests that he is something arguably worse: a crass opportunist, pandering to the fears and hatreds of his core constituency. He scores points in their eyes at a cost he apparently deems minimal. Meaning the ire of an objectified and marginalized minority whose votes he had little chance of winning and whose antipathy carries no political price.

In other words, I suspect there was nothing accidental about this.

To the contrary, there is in it an echo of the GOP's infamous "Southern strategy," in which candidates used coded language to signal to the white South their antipathy toward African-American civil liberties. One is reminded of 1980, when Ronald Reagan invoked "states' rights" in the very place where three civil rights workers had been murdered 16 years before for the crime of registering black people to vote.

Same strategy, different minority.

Then as now, a savvy political operator chooses to scapegoat and attack a group of people, not for what they think but for what they are. Then as now, it is the knowing cynicism of the act that gives it moral repugnance.

The one difference between then and now is that then, we expected nothing better. But now, according to the party's chieftains, we should.

They're the ones who keep telling us the GOP has reinvented itself, become a party of outreach and inclusion.

Apparently, not everyone received the memo.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at lpitts@herald.com or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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