Kerry's misstep

October 20, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - With the presidential debates over, most polls have indicated the viewers' opinion that Sen. John Kerry was the clear winner, with President Bush, after an erratic start in the first debate, somewhat repairing the damage in the last one.

But a comment Mr. Kerry made about Mary Cheney, the vice president's daughter, in the closing minutes of the third debate has left a lingering question as to why he made it and what may be the political ramifications.

Moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS had asked both candidates whether they considered homosexuality to be a matter of choice. Mr. Bush replied that he didn't know, a response that was not in keeping with the gospel of his party's extreme right wing, which customarily casts gays as willful sinners.

Mr. Kerry didn't dodge the issue, commenting instead that the lifestyle is not a matter of choice by saying, "I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was, she's being who she was born as." He essentially commended the parents for their continuing love and support for her.

But the reference to Mary Cheney brought forth heated expressions of outrage from both of her parents along with echoes from Republican leaders and rather clumsy comments in Mr. Kerry's defense from his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, and his wife, Elizabeth.

The vice president called Mr. Kerry "a man who will say and do anything in order to get elected," and his wife, Lynne, called Mr. Kerry's remark "a cheap and tawdry political trick" that revealed him to be "not a good man." Mr. Edwards said she had "overreacted to this and treated it as if it's shameful to have this discussion." His wife chipped in that the reaction of Lynne Cheney "indicates a certain degree of shame with respect to her daughter's sexual preferences."

The Bush-Cheney campaign's communications director, Nicole Devenish, immediately jumped on Mr. Kerry's use of Mary Cheney's lifestyle choice as an election-breaker, suggesting that the Kerry-Edwards campaign would "pay a heavy price for" it.

That remains to be seen, as a mini-controversy swirls as to what was Mr. Kerry's purpose or motive in naming the vice president's daughter in his assertion that homosexuality isn't a choice. He has said that "I was trying to say something positive about the way strong families deal with this issue."

But a Washington Post poll of 1,555 registered voters found that two-thirds considered the mention of Mary Cheney to be inappropriate, and Web bloggers are having a field day with the issue.

Some Republicans suggest that Mr. Kerry had a dark political objective in mind, perhaps to undermine the GOP ticket's support among evangelical Christians and other conservatives. True or not, in purely political terms, the reference to Mary Cheney was just plain dumb. Mr. Kerry easily could have made the same point without naming anybody.

The history of presidential and vice presidential debates is replete with comments that later have been viewed as negatively affecting a close election's outcome, whether they have or not. Bob Dole's 1976 characterization of both world wars as "Democratic wars," Gerald Ford's insistence the same year that Eastern Europe wasn't under Soviet domination and Jimmy Carter's 1980 remark that he had discussed nuclear proliferation with his young daughter Amy all were cited, with no strong evidence that they had a negative effect.

Mr. Kerry's reference to Mary Cheney was small stuff compared with the issues of the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism and the economy and jobs at home. But it may have given undecided voters pause about committing to Mr. Kerry, using the incident as a measure of his political judgment.

In the closing days of another extremely tight election, any diversion of public focus from the critical issues cannot be helpful to Mr. Kerry. After a nearly foolproof navigation through the shoals of three pressure-packed TV dates, Mr. Kerry must surely wish he hadn't said that particular something about Mary Cheney.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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