Compliment or cheap trick?

October 17, 2004

POLITICAL CALCULATIONS behind the post-debate flap over Democratic references to Vice President Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter are not hard to decipher. What's intriguing is how they play off this particular moment in American society's transition to broad acceptance of gay relationships.

That both John Kerry and John Edwards made a point during their respective debates of referring to Mary Cheney's sexual orientation seemed at a minimum calculated to highlight the hypocrisy of Bush administration support for a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Further, the Democratic ticketmates may have hoped to discourage voter turnout among religious conservatives uncomfortable with the Cheneys' open embrace of their daughter's lifestyle.

For the vice president and his family to react so harshly, calling Mr. Kerry's comments "a cheap and tawdry political trick" by a man Mr. Cheney said "will say and do anything in order to get elected," suggests at least some of their umbrage was intended to divert attention away from an overall debate performance that broke the Republicans' momentum and may have turned the race.

All in all, it's quite a furor over comments that would never have been made four years ago, and probably wouldn't raise an eyebrow four years from now.

They resonate at the moment, though, because the nation seems to be in an ambivalent middle range, captured in an old Seinfeld episode during which the comedian tries to correct a reporter's misimpression that he's gay, but repeatedly feels compelled to assert: "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

A constitutional amendment banning gay marriage has no chance of passing, lacking support even among Republicans. Communities across the country are making their own decisions on the issue, often at least in favor of civil unions or domestic partner benefits. Gay humor is a stable of primetime situation comedies.

Mary Cheney's role in her father's campaign -- and his public discomfort with the proposed constitutional amendment -- offer added testimony to how quickly openly gay Americans are assimilating.

And yet, Mr. Kerry's reference Wednesday night to Ms. Cheney as a "lesbian," whose thoughts on the topic he presumed to know, was jarring, and as Liz Cheney said, "offensive."

Even as adults, the offspring of candidates are not considered fair game.

Mr. Kerry explained later he was "trying to say something positive about the way strong families deal with this issue." If so, he was remarkably clumsy in an otherwise highly polished performance.

What's heartening, though, is that this may very well be the last presidential campaign where the subject is even an issue.

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