Friday, October 15, 2004

Ugh. The South rises again.
The front page of the Tennessean today has a big headline: "Remark on Cheney's daughter draws fire"(the story is strangely missing from the website). Out of all the things Bush said that were outrageous: the lie that he "never said" he was unconcerned about Osama, the chuckle and sarcastic remark about 45 million Americans without health insurance ("I hope it's not the Administration's fault"), the media is now in full frenzy over Kerry invoking the Vice President's daughter in an attempt to humanize a discussion on homosexuality. She was probably the first gay person to pop into his head. And there's a reason for that: Dick Cheney himself has talked openly on the campaign trail about having a gay daughter, and it was an open issue in the VP debate, and Cheney seemed to have no problem with it.

So, their outrage is bizarre. But there is a very real visceral reaction against Kerry on this point. I've heard it from many people and felt a pang of grimace myself when he said it. Liberals (non-Southern at least) are missing the point of why this is costing Kerry so heavily. And it is. My fellow liberals are guffawing at how Republicans sound silly now defending the honor of gay people. But that's not what they are doing. The people who are offended are so on the parents' behalf. They think having a gay daughter is akin to having a child with a facial deformity, or a drug problem. So people here are angry and--to be sure--changing their vote because they think Kerry was impolite in his own ambition. Down here, that's the kiss of death.

But didn't Edwards get away with mentioning it? Yes, but remember he couched his reference in effusive praise for the Vice President and his wife and the way they've handled the issue. You could almost feel Edwards and the audience feeling sorry for the Cheneys. And the Vice President got to thank Edwards for his expression of sorrow. That's why it flew perfectly well here. Kerry, on the other hand, just stated it matter-of-factly. For the Southern sensibility, he might as well have said "even the Vice President has a horribly disfigured daughter. have you seen her?" Is that the totally wrong-headed way to hear both Edwards and Kerry's remark? Absolutely. But, many people who don't consider themselves anti-gay still frame homosexuality subconsciously as a difference of quality, that it's a "condition." So they can hear the remark as impolite, without feeling the anti-gay sentiment at the heart of that reaction. I even cringed myself--not sure if it was my own sense that he wasn't being polite, or just a recognition that it would become a political issue.

Is this really a stupid non-issue? Yes. It's bewildering that some undecideds could think this is an important revelation of Kerry's character in a way that all of Bush's lies, and irresponsible decisions, and demonstrated incompetence are not. But let's face the facts about these strange voters: by definition, someone who is still undecided thinks about very different things than you and I do. That's why if I was advising Kerry, I'd tell him to apologize. Get out on Saturday and offer an apology directly to the Cheneys for upsetting them, to get into the Sunday shows, and let's get this story over with. Remind everyone that it had been a campaign issue already so he thought it was a good way to humanize the issue within the conversation that the VP and Senator Edwards had already started, but he never intended to offend them.

The Cheneys "outrage" is what's truly offensive. They are the ones that in my opinion have slandered their daughter by treating her mention as an embarassment. But we've got to suck this one up. The truth is that Edwards knows how to talk around sensitive subjects to people in the South, and Kerry does not. He should probably be glad for that--the Southern brand of polity is a horrible curse. But today, it's hurting us.

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